Creative lighting solutions can transform your home in many ways

Here’s a little secret about light: it’s one of the most difficult elements to get right without any training. Color, pattern, line and texture — all of these are elements that you can, at the very least, observe and experiment with in your space. Light is a little different because it’s highly technical, closely related to function and dependent on quickly developing technologies – not to mention its impact on the health of your eyes. Despite the high stakes, there’s a lot that you can gain from understanding the basics of light as an element of interior design.

The Basics: Big Three

Ambient light is the general illumination of a space, indirect and soft. Sunlight, overhead lighting and wall lighting are all primary forms of ambient light, but it also includes light reflecting off surfaces, such as a mirror or the metallic finished panel in the Steve Leung office shown above. Accent lighting is where we add drama and emphasis, highlighting an architectural or other design feature: in this case, the beautifully styled built-in bookshelves. Task lighting is what it sounds like — a desk lamp to adequately illuminate what you’re writing, pendants over a kitchen island to ensure you can see what you’re cutting, bedside lamps for late-night reading. A great lighting plan layers all three of these lighting types for both visual effect and function. You don’t necessarily want to have the same lighting scheme for an intimate dinner party and the cleanup that happens afterwards; in fact, you may not even want the same lighting for an intimate dinner party and a casual family meal.

In addition to layering these major categories of lighting, a beautiful space will also mix locations and angles. Light coming from a single direction, especially when that angle is overhead, produces harsh and unflattering shadows. Have you ever cringed at your own reflection under the harsh lights of a public restroom? Vain creatures that we are, most of us will feel better in a space where we (and our guests) look better. A living space feels more inviting when light is soft and indirect, cast from lower angles.

Times They Are A-Changin’

A greater global focus on sustainability means that lighting technology is constantly developing. Unfortunately this also produces some complications for the consumer. For decades, incandescent light was the standard for residential design. It produces beautiful, soft light with a warm tone and reasonably good color rendering. The downside? These bulbs are so inefficient that governments around the world have halted production unless major advances are made in their efficiency. To put things very simply, your options are these: Halogen lamps produce beautiful light, warm and good at rendering the differences between colors. Unfortunately, they aren’t much more efficient than incandescent. Compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs, are cheap and quite efficient, but the light they produce isn’t as nice and they don’t render red and orange color tones as well as other sources. LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, are a third option. Although they’re extremely energy efficient and built to last (8-10 times the life of a CFL), the technology is relatively new, still developing and expensive. In addition to the basic types, you’ll need to know a few numbers.

When purchasing LEDs or CFLs, you’ll have the option of choosing the color temperature of your lamps. A range of 2700-3000 is usually specified for residential applications and this produces a warm yellow-white light similar in color to incandescent or halogen. Do be sure to use a consistent color temperature within a single space, as a mixture of yellow and white bulbs is distracting to the eyes. The second number is the Color Rendering Index (CRI), which is measured on a scale up to 100 and reflects the ability of a light source to show the differences among colors. It isn’t a perfect scale, but the higher the better for your purchasing power—try to buy lamps with no less than a rating of 80 CRI.

The best option is always to get a professional involved at the beginning of any project, but you can also make improvements to your space as it is. Start by evaluating the different functions and activities that take place in each room of your house. Is the existing lighting adequately serving the task at hand and does it create the right mood? Portable lighting, such as table and floor lamps, can be a quick addition and a spotlight on a piece of art is also easy to do. Adding dimmers, where possible, is an inexpensive change that gives a lot more flexibility.

As an interior and furniture designer for Austin Home Interiors, McNeill Shiner is always looking for new ways to mix styles and influences to create spaces that are uplifting, comfortable and very personal.