Using Lighting to Define Space

Using Lighting to Define Space

Eleanor Büsing
Mar 29, 2013

Many renters (and equally, non-renters) face the all-too-common problem of having to cram a whole lot of living into, well, not a whole lot of space. We have dual and sometimes multi-purpose rooms: living, eating, working, and maybe even sleeping within one open-plan space. And since our homes are becoming more and more open-plan, most of us are likely to have to deal with this issue at some point, even if  we're not currently living in lofts or studios. 

There are lots of ways to define or "zone" areas within a space, including physically dividing the space with furniture or room dividers, using area rugs, using color, or simply paying close attention to flow and grouping furniture accordingly. One of the useful (and most often ignored) ways to define space is through lighting – the fixtures you choose, and how you place them. Here are a few tips:

The most obvious way to define spaces with lighting is with the use of pendants or other ceiling lights; a hanging fixture over a dining table or in the middle of a seating area draws the eye and says "something happens here."

If you're lucky enough to have a large area with several ceiling points, consider the types of fixture you want to use. I'd recommend going for ones which are similar in scale, color, or material, but not all of those things. You're trying to define different areas, after all. 

Generally speaking, the larger the area and the more lighting points it has, the more you can play with different styles of fixture. In a tight space with only two zones, it's best to keep them somewhat similar.

  • Image 1: This ultra-modern apartment by Fertility Design, via Ultralinx, uses similar Tom Dixon pendants over the kitchen island and the dining table, though they're different shapes. (There is also some fantastic recessed ceiling lighting defining the living area, an idea perhaps impractical for most renters!)
  • Image 2: In this open-plan living/dining space from Interior Design magazine, the two chandeliers used are similar in style, but not material.In an open-plan living/dining room with only one ceiling point, try (if at all possible) to position the dining table in that part of the room. A pendant over a dining table is practical, looks classic, and there are many other options for sitting areas. 
Arcing Floor lamps
If you have more than one space to zone but only one ceiling point (and wiring for another isn't an option), the arcing floor lamp is your new best friend. When big and tall enough, it does the exact same thing as a ceiling light, defining the area from above. However, it also has the added bonus of having a post which, depending on where you place it, can act as a subtle physical space divider as well. 
  • Image 3: This oversized floor lamp is as dramatic as a chandelier over the dining area (and the pleated shade perfectly mirrors the table base, further tying the two items together as one zone). Via Lonny.
  • Image 4: In this small living area from Canadian House & Home, the Arco Lamp pulls together the space from above, and the base offers a definite but unobtrusive division between the seating area and whatever is on the other side of the room. 

Wall Sconces
Wall-mounted lighting is often overlooked in favor of other types, but it can work well to define a small area, especially in a small space where some zones are going to inevitably be positioned against a wall. Sconces work equally well on either side of a bed, or over a small dining table for two. 

  • Image 5: The pink sconces on either side of this bed establish it as an important element in the room. Originally from Lonny, found via The Walkup.
  • Image 6: This dining/work space, from Design*Sponge, has a great hanging wall light DIY going on, which perfectly delineates the space. 

Lighting Wattage / Value
In a kitchen or at a workspace, safety is paramount and lighting should be as bright as you need it to be. Medium-wattage lighting (with the ability to dim, ideally) works best at a dining table; you want to create ambience but also to see your food, and lots of people work at their dining table when not eating off it. Lights in a sitting area can be lower wattage, with the exception of a good reading lamp, which everyone should have.

Physical Lighting Levels
This one is a bit tricky, especially if you want to stick to it militantly, but it's a great, subtle way to play with lighting and space. Think high-level lighting (ceiling lights, overhanging floor lamps or wall sconces) for kitchens and dining areas, mid-level lighting (regular floor lamps, desk lamps) for work spaces, and lower-level  fixtures (side table lamps, lower sconces and even uplighters on the floor) in seating/conversation areas. There will always be exceptions, but it's fun to play around with. 

There you have it– a few ideas on how to use lighting to designate different areas in your open-plan home. Have you used lighting in this way before? Have any other tips to share with our readers? 

(Images: as linked above)

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