Along with layout (which I’ve covered here), lighting is one of the trickiest aspects of interior design – and one I frequently get asked for help with. In fact when I ran an Instagram poll asking which topics people would like to see covered here, lighting was the top choice by a huge margin! Get it right and you’ll have a cosy, welcoming and practical space that’s a joy to spend time in; get it wrong and you risk a room that’s either too dark to use, or so bright and glaring that it resembles an airport departure lounge rather than a home!
So, how do you go about designing a lighting scheme that works for you and the space you have? Here are my top tips…
Analyse the space, its function and the natural light
I know I say this every time I give design advice, but it really is worth living in a space for a while before making any firm decisions – particularly when it comes to lighting, which often requires new wiring and can be tricky to move once installed. Along the way, ask yourself the following:
- Where does the natural light fall and how does it change throughout the day?
- Which areas of the space are particularly bright or gloomy at different times?
- What will the space be used for and when?
- What architectural features or pieces of furniture do I want to showcase?
One you have this information, you can get to work adding lighting that responds to your particular needs and the space in question. The wait might seem frustrating, but it’s better than trying to second-guess things and you’ll end up with a much more effective scheme in the long run.
It might seem counter-intuitive to have a floor lamp next to the bay window in our living room, as it’s the brightest spot. But I know from experience that this corner gets used far more in the late afternoon and evening, when there’s little or no natural light reaching this north-facing space.
Layer your lighting
The most functional, inviting and aesthetically pleasing lighting schemes have layers of different light playing different roles within the space. There are three main types, which you’ll want to incorporate to varying degrees depending on the space and its uses:
- Ambient lighting (also referred to as general or background lighting), which gives overall illumination in the space
- Task lighting, which provides targeted light for activities such as reading or cooking
- Accent or mood lighting, which is used to highlight certain objects or features and enhance the general ambiance – think of it as the ‘finishing touch’ of a lighting scheme
So, a living room might have a large overhead pendant to provide ambient lighting, a couple of wall or floor lamps to act as task lighting, and an uplighting table lamp to illuminate a favourite artwork. A kitchen, meanwhile, might have downlighters or a trio of pendants for ambient lighting, under-unit and cooker-hood lights as task lighting above sinks and hobs, and perhaps an LED strip to highlight a shelving display.
Whatever combination you opt for, make sure you vary things up with a mix of overhead lighting and lamps dotted at various heights – keeping everything at the same level will only make the space feel flat and one-dimensional, as well as creating dark areas that aren’t enjoyable to use. Also check you’re not positioning task lighting directly behind you so that your own shadow ends up in the area where you need illumination, or putting a glaring bare bulb at eye level.
This bedroom has a large pendant for ambient light, wall lamps for task lighting, and a table lamp to highlight the beautiful period window. Importantly, they all sit at different heights, adding interest and versatility to the scheme. Find a full tour of this home here.
Be careful with spotlights and downlighters
Ceiling-mounted spotlights and downlighters seem to be the default option in many new-build and developer-renovated homes, but I’d recommend approaching them with caution. They can work well in kitchens and bathrooms, where you sometimes need very bright overhead light, but in other settings they can be harsh and unwelcoming – more suitable for a canteen or supermarket than a home! I almost always prefer pendants as a source of ambient light, but if you already have spots or downlighters in place and can’t change them for whatever reason, then make sure you incorporate lots of cosier table, floor and wall lamps that you can switch on instead.
This kitchen-diner has directional spotlights but they’re paired with wall lamps and a pendant, providing cosier light when needed. See more of this home here.
Go bold with pendants
Speaking of pendants, they provide a wonderful opportunity to make a statement with your choice of design. I love seeing them suspended over dining tables, kitchen islands, beds and sitting areas, and they can create beautiful focal points even when switched off. It’s always worth opting for the largest size you can and hanging them as low as you can get away with, as this will add impact and prevent them from getting lost in the space.
The oversized paper pendant in this living room provides a stunning focal point whether it’s switched on or off. See a full tour of this contemporary Swedish house, designed by Norm Architects and Karimoku Case Study, here.
Make things as versatile as possible
Try to make your lighting as flexible as you can, enabling you alter it according to your needs, the mood you want to create and the time of day. So, look for lamps that can be adjusted to direct the light where you need it, and put as much as you can on dimmer switches so you can change from bright illumination to a softer, more relaxed glow in an instant. You don’t even need to rewire – IKEA has a range of dimmable bulbs that screw straight into existing lamps or pendants and are operated via remote control or a mobile app.
IKEA’s range of smart lighting, with dimmer kits starting at just £25.
Play around with temperature
The light emitted by bulbs varies hugely in temperature, from cold, almost blue-tinged light to much warmer yellows and ambers. It’s measured in kelvins, with ratings of above 5000k (roughly equivalent to natural daylight) getting progressively cooler and those beneath getting progressively warmer, but you might just see things labelled as ‘warm white’ or similar. It can have a big effect on mood, so play around to find out what works best for you and the space – for example I’ve used a cooler daylight bulb in our bathroom, which has no natural light of its own, but warmer light in the living room and bedrooms, where I want to create a much cosier feel.
A bright daylight bulb was a deliberate choice in our window-less bathroom. In other rooms we’ve opted for warmer light to keep things cosy.
They may make you think of childhood camping trips, but don’t discount portable, rechargeable lamps. There are some fantastic designs to choose from nowadays (you can see my pick of the best here), and they’re very handy to have around the home. They create a neat, cable-free look and work brilliantly in corners without wiring. They can also make a softer alternative to overhead lights in socket-less spaces such as bathrooms – ideal for relaxing soaks in the tub – and many can be used outside, too.
Portable lamps, like Menu’s ‘Carrie’ design shown here, work brilliantly when you want to add additional lighting in areas with plug sockets or wiring.
Don’t leave lighting until last
Finally – and perhaps most importantly – don’t let lighting become an afterthought! It’s so often the last thing to be decided, but anything that has such a major impact on the way a space looks and feels should be a consideration from the start. Ensuring lighting is an integral part of the design process, and not ignored until everything else has been chosen, will give you a much better outcome – and it will probably save you money in the process.
Having learnt from past experience, lighting was a key consideration throughout our recent bedroom redesign, with both aesthetics and function informing our choices.
Top image and image three by Anders Bergstedt for Alvhem; images two, seven and nine by Abi Dare; image three via Bjurfors; image five by Jonas Bjerre-Poulsen of Norm Architects; image six by IKEA; image eight by Menu.
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