Interior designers know that lighting can make or break a room. A well lit room looks finished and feels inviting, whereas a poorly lit room can look and feel gloomy and incomplete. But home decorators sometimes overlook the fine points of lighting a room to its full potential. Just as natural light changes throughout the day and depending on the season, your lighting scheme should be dynamic, with layered lighting that can be adjusted to create dimension, highlight various zones, facilitate a range of activities, and create different moods.
Here is a brief guide that will help you figure out how to incorporate lighting to improve your home’s functionality and make your decor shine.
Every Room Needs Three Types of Light
Different rooms have different lighting needs, but ideally every room should have three different types of lighting. The main categories of lighting include general lighting that will illuminate the room at large; task lighting for reading, preparing meals, or desk work; and decorative accent lighting that creates ambiance. Choosing the right mix of light fixtures—such as overhead lights, chandeliers or pendant lights, table lamps, desk lamps, wall sconces, floor lamps, decorative accent lighting and even candles—will ensure that every room in your house looks and feels its best while making daily tasks and pastimes from reading to cooking to shaving to relaxing more enjoyable.
Build On Existing Light Sources
Your home or apartment may have existing built-in lighting such as overhead lights in the bedroom, recessed ceiling lights in the living room, under-cabinet kitchen countertop lighting in the kitchen, or wall sconces hardwired onto the wall above the sink vanity in the bathroom. But built-in lighting should never be the sole source of lighting in a room. While homeowners can always replace unsightly fixtures or wire a room during renovations, renters can work around existing fixtures like a dated overhead ceiling light by adding floor lamps, decorative accent lighting, or plug-in wall sconces that will divert the eye and enhance the overall light quality of the room.
While interior designers include lighting in every stage of their decorating plan, DIY decorators may find it easier to add lighting as a final step that pulls the room together after the rest of the furniture and decor has been chosen. That doesn’t mean that lighting should be treated like an afterthought, however. Be sure to include enough room in your renovation budget to give every room in your house or corner of your studio apartment the lighting it deserves, knowing that there are options at every price point that will get the job done in style.
Form and Function
Light fixtures are functional decor objects in their own right that can add personality, charm, texture, or a sculptural element to enhance your room design even when the light is switched off. This might mean something as simple as an industrial bare Edison bulb pendant suspended by a knotted cord, a pair of vintage sconces, an antique chandelier, or a contemporary designer floor lamp. Keep in mind that there is a light fixture for every purpose, taste, mood, decor style, and budget.
Warm or Cool
Warm, soft light will create a cozy atmosphere in areas such as the living room or bedroom. Use warm-toned LED bulbs, and choose light fixtures made from materials that will create a warm glow, such as lamps with fabric or woven shades, or sconces made from wood veneer or brass-, gold-, or copper-toned metals.
Cool, bright light works well in kitchens and bathrooms, but consider adding dimmer switches as well as secondary lighting in warmer tones so that you can change the mood at bath time or for middle-of-the-night bathroom trips.
Room by Room
While general lighting principles apply to every room in the house, different spaces also have unique considerations. Here are a few important things to keep in mind when lighting specific rooms in the house.
Living or Family Room
Lighting and family rooms in newer homes and apartments might feature central ceiling lights or built-in can lighting. But unless the room is vast and deep, a living room does not need overhead lighting to be well lit. Just be sure that you add enough lighting to illuminate the space as a whole, and that each area in the room has its own lighting. This might mean, for example, a large arc floor lamp suspended over the main seating area, sculptural wall sconces behind the couch, a table lamp on the occasional table between two armchairs, a reading lamp next to the chaise, a decorative accent light on the credenza, and a raft of LED pillar candles on the fireplace mantel. For inspiration, check out these living room lighting ideas.
The kitchen is the hub of the house, a room that requires special attention to general and task lighting for everything from meal prep to cooking, homework sessions, cleaning, and other tasks. In a kitchen, general lighting may take the form of recessed can lights across the ceiling, pendant lights anchoring the island, and under-cabinet LED lighting illuminating countertops. Task lighting is a priority in this room, both for safety during meal prep and cooking and for cleanliness. Be sure that your stovetop and countertops are well lit and that your dining area has light that is bright enough so that you can see what you are eating but soft enough so you feel relaxed while doing so.
Kitchens are utilitarian spaces but you can add a big dose of warmth and personality by choosing a pendant shade made from a natural material or a sculptural pendant light that will look like a giant piece of jewelry hanging over a kitchen island or breakfast nook. And you can add charm to a small kitchen with a table lamp on the kitchen counter or in a dark corner that will make the space look more homey and feel more enjoyable to use.
There’s a reason that some restaurants light candles or add little table lamps on dining tables, creating a pleasant ambiance and a relaxing setting to enjoy a meal and conversation. Many dining rooms feature a chandelier or hanging pendant light over the dining table as a source of general lighting and a decorative accent that defines the space. Just be sure to hang it at the perfect height, which may be lower than you think to create the right look and feel when lit. Whenever possible, put your dining room light fixture on a dimmer so that you can easily make adjustments as the evening progresses.
Bathrooms of all sizes often require multiple light fixture types in order to be well lit so that we can safely bathe, shower, shave, or apply skincare or makeup with precision, and keep them sparkling clean. But bathrooms are also multfunctional spaces that should be relaxing as well and have different lighting needs depending on the task and the hour of day. Be sure that your bathroom is well lit, but don't hesitate to add decorate lighting that will help make it feel like the oasis that it should be. This could mean a decorative wall sconce that doubles as a night light or an LED string garland light that is there simply to make the room feel special, and as thoughtfully decorated as the rest of the house.
Laundry / Mud Room
Many laundry rooms and mud rooms are located near the back door or in a part of the home with limited natural light. It’s important that your laundry room is well lit so that you can inspect your laundry and keep things clean. You also want to be sure that lights can be turned on as soon as you enter a mud room from the outside so that you don’t have to fumble around in the dark. Prioritize bright, clean general lighting in these spaces but don't be afraid to make it decorative to give these utilitarian spaces a lift.
Home Office / Library
In a home office library, task lighting is of the utmost importance, both in terms of having a desk light that illuminates your desktop for reading, reviewing paperwork, or other tasks, and reading task lights if you have an armchair, window seat, or seating area. Also be sure not to neglect the use of ambient light in the form of wall sconces or decorative lighting that can help light all four corners of the room and keep the room feeling warm and inviting to encourage a feeling of well being and enhance productivity.
Controlling natural light from the windows in the bedroom using window treatments such as shades, shutters, and curtains is crucial to ensure privacy and a good night’s sleep. It’s also important to get the bedroom lighting right so that you can create a relaxing ambiance at night that will help you wind down before bed. Your bedroom lighting should include general lighting for tasks such as getting dressed in the morning, bedside lamps for nighttime reading, and accent lighting for ambiance. If you choose to install an overhead light in the bedroom, make it a sculptural pendant light that will create a focal point when turned off and produce soft diffused light when turned on (and add a dimmer switch for good measure).
Hallways, stairwells, entryways, and other pass through spaces need good lighting, too. The hallways in your home may have one or more skylights, overhead lights, or wall sconces, depending on the length and layout. While it’s easy to neglect a pass through like a hallway, it’s actually a fun place to get creative with lighting.
Hanging a series of pendant lights will add a sense of rhythm and ensure that the light is spread evenly. Or skip the overhead lighting and install a group of wall sconces at eye level to add interest and warmth. You can also hang mirrors in a hallway that will bounce light around and create perspectives that will add dimension to what can feel like a dead space when left bare.
Open Plan Space
If you live in an industrial loft, a home with an open plan renovation, or a studio apartment, you already understand the importance of creating different zones in the context of a single space. Be sure that each of those zones has its own lighting source. This will ensure that each zone is functional at any time of the day, and will allow you to turn on the light in one area while it’s in use, and to turn off the light in another at different types of day which will almost feel like closing an invisible door. This can be especially important when you are working from home and don’t have a dedicated office, where illuminating or switching off the desk light can help signal the beginning or end of the workday that might otherwise never end.
While a large room or open plan loft will need multiple light sources in order for it to be sufficiently lit, smaller spaces also benefit from multiple light sources. Just be sure not to overwhelm a small space with too much light by choosing low intensity bulbs or using dimmer switches.
Basement or Windowless Room
Lighting a windowless room presents unique challenges. In addition to following the general principles of lighting a room, you may wish to include special fixtures such as faux windows or tray lights and follow other specific tips for lighting a basement to help you compensate for the lack of natural light.