How to Pick a Bedside Lamp

The right lamp adds more than light -- it also adds style.

Traditional bedroom with bedside lamp.
The right lamp adds more than light to your room. Jo-Ann Richards/Getty Images

Bedside lamps have two basic jobs: providing enough light for comfortable reading, dressing and other bedroom activities; and looking great while doing so. But choosing a lamp can be confusing. How many do you need? How big should the lampshade be, and how tall the lamp? What style should you choose? Luckily, there are basic decorating rules that answer all of those questions, and make choosing the right lamp a snap.

How Many Lamps Do You Need?

As a general rule, you need one bedside lamp if you’re the only one sleeping in the bed, and two if you have a partner. But if your bedroom is very large or your mattress is a king, two bedside lamps give better balance, regardless of whether you’re the only one using the room or not.

Even if you have two bedside lamps, don’t count on them for the only source of illumination in the room. If you don’t have a ceiling fixture, you’ll need at least one other lamp, preferably a floor lamp, across the room from your bed.

How Wide Should Your Lamp Be?

One of the most common bedroom decorating mistakes is choosing the wrong size bedside lamp. Most often, it’s a lamp that is too small for the nightstand.  Getting the scale right is a balancing act -- the wider your mattress, the wider the nightstand; and the wider the nightstand, the wider the lamp atop it. For a rough rule of thumb, your nightstand should measure between one-third and two-thirds the width of your mattress, and the bedside lamp should be roughly one-third the width of the nightstand, when measured at the lamp’s widest point (usually the base of the shade).

How Tall Should Your Lamp Be?

Choosing the right height lamp is especially important if you are a bedtime reader. You don’t want the light to be shining over your head, nor do you want it right in your eyes. Assuming that your nightstand is the same height as your mattress (or within a couple of inches), look for a lamp the same height as your nightstand plus an extra two or three inches.

So if your nightstand is 24 inches high, a lamp that is around 27 inches tall will look best.

The placement of the lamp switch is also an issue. You don’t want to have to get out of bed just to turn your lamp on or off, or risk hurting your back – or falling out of bed entirely – just to reach the switch. The ideal height for the lamp’s switch is around the same length as your arm – anywhere between 21 and 28 inches for most people. Of course, most convenient of all is a bedside lamp with the on/off switch right on the cord.

How to Choose the Lampshade

The right size lampshade balances the lamp. Generally, the height of the lampshade should be approximately two-thirds the height of the lamp’s body, measuring from the bottom of the lamp to the base of the light bulb. The width of the lampshade should be approximately twice the width of the widest part of the lamp. If you have a very thin lamp, choose a lampshade that is no wider than the height of the shade. For the best bedtime reading, the base of the lampshade should be roughly level with your eyes while sitting up in bed.

  • Height: 2/3 the height  of the lamp
  • Width: Twice the width of the lamp

White or off-white lampshades let the most light through, but colored lampshades are a great way to add an accent to your décor.

As for the shape, drum shades are the current trend, but you can't go wrong by matching the shape of the lampshade to the shape of the lamp.

What about Style?

As long as your bedside lamps are in keeping with the rest of your bedroom’s décor, the color and style are up to you.  Spice up a contemporary bedroom with a sleek glass or chrome lamp; or pick a traditional ginger jar lamp for a country bedroom. Have some fun with a lamp shaped or decorated in a motif typical for your decorating style: anchor or seashell in a coastal-style room, palm tree in a tropical room, wine or grapes in a Tuscan-themed room. Think of your bedside lamp as a powerful accent in your bedroom, and choose accordingly.