Design Master Class: How to Get Lit Lighting

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Lisa Diederich)

Without lighting, our homes would pretty much be out of commission once the sun sets. So not only is lighting practical from a standpoint of needing to see and do things at home, but a strong lighting game can also take your house’s design from average to exceptional. That’s because people tend to notice the things that literally brighten up a space. Each fixture in your home then is an opportunity to make a decorative statement, so seize it. Follow these professional designers’ rules of illumination, and no one will be able to throw shade at your space.

Layer up your lighting scheme

According to Donna Mondi of Donna Mondi Interior Design, it’s always a good idea to layer light sources so you have options depending on the setting you’re trying to create or what you intend to use a room for—work, relaxation, entertainment or some combination of all three. “The best overall lighting plans incorporate functional lighting like recessed cans, a decorative ceiling fixture, wall sconces or table lamps and floor lamps for dark corners,” says Donna.

Technically, lights in a home or apartment fall under three categories: ambient, task and accent.

Ambient lighting refers to fixtures that illuminate a whole space, making it possible for you to see and move around safely. Task lighting is a much more direct, bright source of light in a concentrated spot for performing detailed work such as reading or chopping vegetables. Accent lighting is used to turn something—a piece of art, an architectural feature—into a focal point. Check out this kitchen by Christine Markatos Design, which has a hit of all three. You have pendants for task lighting over the island, the ceiling flush mount for ambient and then a recessed can over the sink as an accent that draws attention to the pretty window. It may also add a little task lighting for dishwashing as well, to be fair.

If you want full functionality and total aesthetic control of a space, you can’t really rely on just one form of lighting. Ideally, you’d have some form of all three. That said, lamps really are your best bet for adding brightness (at many levels) if you can’t retrofit a space to add more lighting.

(Image credit: Lana Kenney)

Say goodbye to builder grade fixtures

“Lighting is like the jewelry of a room,” says Christine Markatos Lowe of Christine Markatos Design. So why should you settle for the plain overhead “boob light” flushmounts and uninspired vanity lights your home came with?

Even if you live in a rental, it’s possible to swap out your generic lights for something special (like this great, affordable DIY from East Coast Creative) if you feel like the investment would be worth it. A lot of designers allocate a large chunk of a budget for lighting, but these days, it’s possible to find striking lights at big box stores and online.

(Image credit: Lauren Kolyn)

Play with scale for visual interest

Sometimes bigger is better when it comes to lighting fixtures, at least when you’re trying to make a decorative statement. “A large, dramatic fixture with a pared down interior really makes an impact, especially in an entry,” says Birgit Klein of Birgit Klein Interiors. You can also go this route in a dining room, bedroom, breakfast nook or even over a tub in a master bath, if you’re fancy like that.

Best to decide on the main fixture first—say the chandelier—which Birgit says really sets the stage. Then move on to wall and table lamps. Keep in mind that all of your lights shouldn’t be huge. If you go big with an overhead fixture or even a set of pendants above a kitchen island, everything else needs to be smaller in scale as not to compete.

Use dimmers to create ambiance

Donna has her clients put as many fixtures on dimmer switches as possible, so they have an endless option of lighting scenes. On movie night, for example, you can lower the lights to just bright enough to see your popcorn and drinks. Or when you’re trying to get work done, you can put fixtures on full blast.

Dimmers aren’t just for in-wall application. A bedside table lamp is a great place to add a dimmer, so you can turn off lights from bed. A hallway or bathroom isn’t a bad idea either, especially if you have a tendency to wake up during the night. Point is: dimmers are a relatively cheap way to instantly take control of the mood and look of your space, so you should go for it.

(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)

Be strategic about fixtures’ finishes and materials

We’ve already established the importance of size and shape when it comes to lighting, but finish and material can be just as important.

Don’t be afraid of a little bling. It’s not always gratuitous. In fact, when Christine is dealing with a darker space, she looks for unique, unusual pieces and vintage finds in reflective materials—chrome, brass or even crystal—to enhance brightness. If a piece can add extra shine or throw a pretty pattern around the room when illuminated, all the better.

There’s also something to be said for variety. Birgit likes to mix fixtures, so all lighting isn’t totally uniform. This could mean mixing finish or form. For example, she’ll pair a great organic, sculptural porcelain chandelier with streamlined zinc exposed bulb sconces, which are two totally different things but both modern. Matchy-matchy fixtures are nice for wall sconces that flank a bathroom mirror or bed, or even pendants in a kitchen. But you wouldn’t want your table and floor lamp to be exactly the same color as your chandelier and so on.

(Image credit: Natalie Jeffcott)

Placement is key

Overhead lighting changes are often the most dramatic. Once you start making them (and always consult an electrician if you’re unsure about anything with wiring), you have to keep a few numbers in minds when it comes to hanging fixtures.

Ideally, you want at least 7 feet between the bottom of a light and the floor. For ceilings over 8 feet, add three inches of hanging height per foot. For anything hanging above a table, you’ll need about 30 to 34 inches of clearance so no one whacks his or her head when standing up from a meal. Be careful with lights above bathtubs, too, since you’ll have to get in and out without any obstruction.