How to light a room like a decorator

Experts share their strategies for achieving the best mood and functionality.

Experts share their strategies for achieving the best mood and functionality

a kitchen painted white with counters at the back of the kitchen and on the right side of the photo, an island in the middle, white marble countertops, white pendant lights hanging over the island, and wooden bar chairs sit at the island.
(Source: Hibou Design & Co.)

Lighting can make or break the atmosphere of a room, and getting it right is easier said than done. The fixtures, lamps and light bulbs you use — and where you place them — can dramatically impact both the personality and functionality of your home. 

To help you optimize the lighting in your space, we asked three Canadian experts for their strategies and what to consider. 

Assess the space 

Ideally, each room in your home should have layered lighting — multiple lighting types at different heights to use depending on what you're doing at different times of day. "It's never a good idea to have one source of lighting," said Eugenia Triandos, principal interior designer and co-owner at Hibou Design & Co. in Montreal. "Every room should have somewhat of a combination." 

In a living room, for example, rather than just downlights on the ceilings, you'd ideally want to have a combination of downlights, sconces, pendants, lamps and floor lamps. "It gives me flexibility, but it also creates warmth and depth by illuminating different levels, different heights and different areas of the room," Triandos said. 

The existing availability and placement of outlets and electrical boxes is important to consider, especially if you're renting. "There's a huge difference between lighting a freestanding home and lighting, let's say, an apartment or a condo," said David Ryan, a partner at Anony, a lighting and product design studio in Toronto, "because you have different challenges that you have to kind of compete with, like junction box locations if you want a pendant." 

Ryan, who lives in an apartment, uses mostly floor lamps at home because he can easily position them in the locations he prefers to create ambiance. "I shot most of the light directly upwards, which then reflects off the ceiling and I actually get a greater volume of light in the space, rather than just having a straight down light." Ryan says that white ceilings can be a great reflector for light. 

Consider your preferences

If you're starting from scratch with a new build or renovation, that's a great opportunity to really think about what light placement and functionality will enhance your lifestyle, says Reena Sotropa, principal designer at Reena Sotropa In House Design Group in Calgary. For example, in the evenings Sotropa's personal preference is to  avoid overhead lights in favour of "twinkly, soft, indirect" lighting. 

You'll also want to determine the desired look and feel of each space. In certain rooms with very little natural light, like a windowless bathroom or low-lit basement space, you could choose to embrace that quality rather than try to hide it, Sotropa suggests. "Instead of trying to add a million lights and do them super, super brightly, sometimes a good strategy is to almost do the opposite and play with the light and shadow a little bit and create [a dramatic effect] with that instead," she said. "Maybe you choose a wall tile, for instance, that has a texture to it … and then you strategically choose wall sconces that are going to wash that texture, and it's like the most magical, beautiful look." Of course, the same types of usage and design questions can be considered even if you're just thinking of buying a new floor lamp or dining room pendant, Sotropa says. 

Determine placement for fixtures

Once you know the type of light fixture(s) you want, the next step is to figure out where to place them.  

With fixed lighting, sometimes the shape and size of your fixture is what will determine its placement. "There's definitely certain fixtures that you can wait to pick because you know exactly where they're gonna go [during building or construction], there's no flexibility there," says Sotropa. "But things like island pendants or wall sconces — those you really need to pick very, very early in the process." To determine the height and placement for a wall sconce, for example, you need to consider whether it's a style that will swoop up, swoop down, or come straight out, says Sotropa.

Another important consideration is furniture placement, especially if you have a pendant or decorative chandelier that's meant to hang centred over a dining room table or a kitchen island. "[Sometimes] you have to plan all the furniture out," says Sotropa. "I've had contractors make me tables out of plywood and sawhorses and we make sure everybody is really happy with placement."

With pendants, there are certain rules of thumb that Triandos recommends. "Most of the time, the big mistake that we see is that they're hung too high," she said. While there are exceptions ("a really oversized fixture and you have very, very high ceilings"), the bottom of a fixture that's in a dining room should be hung about 60 inches from the floor, or 30 inches from the tabletop, says Triandos. Pendants hanging over a kitchen counter or island can be hung 30 to 36 inches above the countertop, "so that when you're standing, it's not right at your eyes but just a little bit above the eye," she said.

Finally, if you want to invest in a statement or designer fixture, Ryan recommends focusing on high-impact zones to start, to get the most bang for your budget. He suggests that pendant lights — especially hung in clusters, which can be customized to fit your space better than a single drop pendant — will stand out most in a foyer or over a dining room table, kitchen island or staircase. 

Find the right bulbs

Having the right light bulbs in place is key, say the experts. "Light bulbs have become quite sophisticated and numerous in options," Sotropa said. That broad range might mean you'll need to try out multiple options to see what best suits your space and design. "You take an educated guess at what sort of warmth or coolness and wattage — the lamp itself will tell you the wattage — but it's a bit of trial and error," Sotropa said. "You put a light in and ... you're gonna know if it feels too bright or too cool, or it's not bright enough."

"If we're installing new recessed light fixtures, we like to stick to 2,700K, … [which] gives you a really good, warm light that's great for residential interiors," said Triandos. "[S]ometimes people wonder, like, why their space doesn't feel good, doesn't feel inviting, and most of the time it might be their lightbulb." A 3,500-4,000K bulb — the colour temperature you might see in a retail setting — can create a more blue light and make your space feel colder, for example.

Ryan says the two main commercial lighting trends making their way to the consumer level in terms of affordability and residential use are warm dim technology and tunable white lighting. Warm dim "basically brings [a] halogen-style dimming effect back to LEDs," and can make a space look cozier and more romantic, says Ryan. Tunable white lights allow you to select the brightness and temperature — from a warm, standard soft white at 3,000K to a more energetic, daylight-like white at 6,500K. 

Adjust as required

Even once you have your lights in place, you might still want to make small tweaks. To start, look at your pot lights. "Most people just have lights that kind of shoot down and you can't move them," said Ryan. "But if you do have the ability to move them, it's a perfect chance to actually think about how you're going to use the space, and how you want the lighting to work." For example, you could direct the ones in your kitchen at your cupboards instead of straight down, or entryway lights into a hallway closet. "Just repositioning or directing your lights properly is a perfect way that most people can improve the lighting in their home," said Ryan. 

Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.


Truc Nguyen is a Toronto-based writer, editor and stylist. Follow her at @trucnguyen.

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