Without a suitable lighting scheme, your interior design is literally left in the dark. Lighting illuminates your collections, creates shadows to reveal rich textures, and shines a spotlight on your favorite art piece. In this installment of our Interior Design Glossary, I share what I know (and don’t know) about lighting design — covering my lighting design preferences and types of lighting to consider for your home.
What is Lighting Design?
Lighting design is the process of evaluating the lighting needs of a space, creating a lighting layout, and selecting fixtures by a lighting designer to align with the functional and aesthetic goals of the room. It’s a process that seems simple on the surface. However, it takes years to master this tricky art.
Lighting Design — Knowing What You Don’t Know
Few specialties in the interior design industry are as exciting, ever-changing, and challenging as interior lighting. The speed of innovations in the lighting industry is like watching science fiction become a reality before your eyes. As such, the art form is constantly evolving. I’ve learned the importance of knowing what you don’t know the hard way. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: DIY is a lie. Do not attempt.
Eight years ago, I worked on a project alongside a highly skilled architect and an exceptional builder. But, even as three experienced design professionals, we didn’t know all the ins and outs it took to get this lighting scheme just right. So we brought in a lighting specialist, and I never looked back. Lighting designers have an in-depth knowledge of the technical and emotional ways lighting can affect a space, and you need them by your side to navigate the world of lighting design. Lighting specialists know all there is to know about
- Color Temperatures
- Color Rendering Index
- Integrated LEDs
- Dimmable vs. Non-Dimmable Lights
- Track Requirements
- Ceiling Drop Requirements
- Housing Types
- And More
Now, I am not a lighting specialist. So, I won’t attempt to explain lighting details outside my scope. However, I will be sharing what I do know and the lighting elements I have strong opinions on.
3 Types of Lighting and When to Use Them
Lighting systems are complex. However, three types of lighting form the base of any design.
Ambient lighting sets the tone for the space and provides the necessary illumination to move about comfortably without tripping in the dark. Ambient lighting often refers to overhead fixtures but can encompass lamps and any other element that provides general light to the room.
Accent lighting builds on the room’s ambient lighting to accentuate architectural or interior features and create a focal point. Accent lighting can illuminate a piece of art or reveal an interesting texture on an exposed brick wall. Generally, accent lighting should be at least three times as bright as the ambient light to create a strong effect.
Task lighting accommodates the task at hand. Task lighting will vary depending on what you’re looking to accomplish. It could be as simple as a desk lamp or linear LEDs mounted under kitchen cabinets. Workspace lighting can range anywhere from 300 to over 1000 lumens, depending on your needs. Typically, 450 lumens is ideal for tasks like reading.
10 Types of Light Fixtures to Consider in a Lighting Design Scheme
Ten main types of light fixtures are available to carry out your lighting design and hit your functional and aesthetic goals.
1. Recessed lighting
I’ll be honest. Recessed lighting is my least favorite option (more on why later). These lights are mounted inside the ceiling to create a flat light beam with minimal visual interruptions.
2. Flush-mounted lighting
Flush-mounted lights are fixed flush to the ceiling and shine light downward. This style is often associated with the builder-grade “boob” light. However, there are many more style options out there.
3. Semi-flush mounted lighting
Semi-flush mounted lights hang with a bit of space between the fixture and ceiling, allowing for uplighting, which can highlight the ceiling, bounce more light around the room, and even create the illusion of more space.
4. Track lighting
Track lighting consists of monorail tracks with attached lights that can be adjusted into various positions, making these good options for accent lights or gallery walls.
Pendants are lone light fixtures suspended from the ceiling by a chain, cord, or metal rod. These lights are often grouped together over tables, counters, or other workspaces.
Chandeliers are larger and grander suspended light fixtures, often used in dining rooms or living spaces.
Sconces are mounted to the wall, typically to accent mirrors and art or provide illumination along hallways or staircases.
8. Vanity lights
Vanity lights are mounted to the wall above or alongside vanity mirrors, typically in bathrooms or dressing rooms.
9. Linear LEDs
Linear LEDs are flexible light strips that can be installed under cabinets for task lighting or along baseboards or crown molding for modern accent lighting.
10. Floor and table lamps
Floor and table lamps provide additional task or mood lighting, creating cozy spaces to curl up with a good book.
Illuminating (and Accentuating) the Home
Lighting is more than illuminating the home. It’s about accentuating the architecture and interior design scheme.
Lighting for New Builds
Many of our Austin interior design clients building new homes want to incorporate their lighting into a Smart Home plan, with almost invisible fixtures that can be controlled and adjusted with a click or voice command. Here, the designer needs to know client preferences early, the capabilities of available tech, and how they can be integrated into the build. It’s a lot to know!
Lighting for Period Renovations
While sleek options fit a new build, we approach lighting differently in period renovations. Here you need to consider the home’s existing lighting systems and architecture. Instead of going invisible, we find switches and fixtures with a historical feel and contemporary functionality. There are many options out there for period switches, sockets, and fixtures that deliver just as much character as they do function.
Lightbulb Moments: My Lighting Design Advice
Now, on to some of my strongest lighting opinions. Trust me — these are lightbulb moments!
Focus on Function First
You need to consider the layout and function of the room before you can plan lighting. Where will you read? Where will your desk go? What time of day will you use the room, and how will the natural light hit the space? Do you have art to highlight? Plan a functional layout first. Then you can more thoughtfully decide if you need a task light near your reading chair or sconces to illuminate the sideboard.
Like Moths to a Flame
People are like moths to a flame. Wherever there’s light, we’ll follow — it’s primal. Well-lit rooms change how people live and move about a space. A wing chair in the corner becomes a welcomed escape when accompanied by a floor lamp, turning a dark corner into a beacon of comfort and a cozy space to spend time in.
Can It on Can Lights
It’s time to can it on can lights. Recessed lights are the lazy way to light your space. When you don’t want to put too much thought into lighting, it’s easy to throw a grid of cans on the ceiling and call it a day. However, this approach isn’t thoughtful, and you’ll miss out on function and beauty.
Shine a Spotlight on the Gallery Wall
Transform a wasteland of sheetrock into a striking gallery wall of well-lit art by strategically dropping the ceiling and adding a row of directional gimbal fixtures to illuminate the wall. Suddenly, the wall commands purpose and expands your space.
Sconces for the Powder Room
Powder rooms are small but mighty. When properly designed, a simple water closet can become a beautiful respite from noisy dinner parties for guests to gather themselves in the mirror. Adding sconces on either side of the mirror takes what can be a dark room and creates moody, yet functional lighting to reapply lipstick and powder your nose.
Regulate the Temperature
Temperature control is not just for the thermostat. (Although that is an important job here in Texas.) Lighting color temperatures fall on a scale from warm yellow light to cool daylight. Please make sure your light bulbs are all at the same temperature. Nothing is more jarring than flipping the switch to see a vanity light with one oddball distracting you from the rest. Personally, I prefer a warmer light — somewhere around 2700 Kelvin.
Get the Green Light
A world of lighting options and beauty is out there waiting for you to discover. You just need to flip the switch and shine some light on the possibilities. (And hopefully, you’re flipping the switch to a beautiful chandelier, not a boring grid of can lights.) Lighting is one of the most important elements to consider when designing your space. When you, like me, realize that you’re not the end-all-be-all lighting expert, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional.
They’ll gladly shed some light on the topic and your room.
Amity Worrel is an award-winning interior designer based in Austin, Texas. She has worked on high-end interior design projects for celebrities and tastemakers in NYC, LA, and the Bahamas. In 2008, Amity decided to bring her passion for diverse design back to her hometown of Austin. Her spaces pull from timeless design concepts ranging from coastal contemporary to cozy cottage to Austin eclectic. Emotional connections, functional flow, and a touch of humor remain central to every interior design scheme. Her work has been published in national and local publications, including The Wall Street Journal, House Beautiful, HGTV Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens, and Austin Home. In her free time, she loves perusing estate sales and diving into design history. Learn more about Amity.