Making a pretty home — why (great) lighting matters so much!

By Caitlin Kelly

Now that The New York Times has, this week, killed (!) its weekly Home section, I’m here to the rescue!

Kidding.

But as someone passionate about interior design and who studied at thew New York School of Interior Design, I love all things design-related and will miss that section a great deal.

Here’s the first in a series of three posts, all of which I will post in the next week, on how to solve some of the most common design problems.

 

One of my favorite vintage NYC bars, Fanelli's, on Prince Street
One of my favorite vintage NYC bars, Fanelli’s, on Prince Street. Love those period chandeliers

Especially for those of us in the (brrrrr) Northern Hemisphere and those anywhere near the 50th parallel, sunlight is a treasured resource — only now are the days beginning to lengthen.

Nights are long, cold and dark — and every scrap of light matters.

A hallway sconce at the Nelligan Hotel in Montreal. Love it!
A hallway sconce at the Nelligan Hotel in Montreal. Love it!

I once visited Stockholm in November and will never forget what incredible attention to light was paid there, everywhere, from the post office to the votive candles glowing on restaurant tables at mid-day; (it was dark by 3pm or so.)

No matter how much time, money or attention you pay to your home (or not!), the quantity and quality of the lighting there can make a huge difference to your mood, ability to concentrate, your family’s happiness and, most importantly, their safety.

Many people are badly injured, even killed, by falling in their own homes and being able to clearly see where you’re stepping — or chopping onions! — is really important.

The left is before; the right is after. I designed the kitchen myself
The left is before; the right is after. I designed our kitchen myself; the wall lamps are are from Restoration Hardware

A few tips on how to best illuminate your home:

The most welcoming rooms have four different light sources. Our living-room, which is 12 feet by 24 feet, has five: a desk lamp (task light); a small accent light; a floor lamp, a lamp on a bookshelf and a reading lamp.ย  There’s no overhead light, nor do I ever want one there.

There are many ways to use light. Task lighting is used, as it suggests, for doing specific things using that light — cooking, bathing, working, reading. A chandelier over a dining table creates a focal point for the room, casts a warm pool of light, and saves floor space in a small area. Many people use under-counter lighting in their kitchen beneath their kitchen cabinets. We chose open shelves instead, so the lighting in our kitchen is three wall-mounted lamps from Restoration Hardware and three pot lights in the ceiling, all of them on dimmers.

 

Accent spot light and candlelight in a corner of our livingroom
Accent spot light and candlelight in a corner of our living room

What mood do you hope to create? A nasty overhead light far above your head does little to flatter anyone or any interior. Useful for a hallway, sure, or a bathroom, but not very attractive in a bedroom, living room or dining room. Pools of light delineate your space.

Dimmers! We have our bathroom, kitchen and dining room lights on dimmers and it makes a huge difference to the atmosphere we can create as a result.

Choose your lighting with a careful eye, not only the style of each lighting source but the bulb: LED, incandescent, filament, halogen…each has a very different quality of light and energy usage.

This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it's versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.
This Tizio lamp is one of my favorite possessions. The light it casts is clean, bright and has two intensities. Because the base is so small, it’s versatile. The lamp can also be flipped upwards to cast reflected light instead.

Lamps can make or break the beauty ofย  a room. Whether you prefer formality and elegance, modern simplicity or a sparkling crystal chandelier, it’s out there!

Consider quality, size, color and condition of your lampshades. They can be square, rectangular, round, conical, in card, silk, cotton, burlap. The most elegant, formal rooms often have tightly pleated colored silk lampshades, glowing like jewels when lit. Plated sharp-edged card shades are hell to clean.

Don’t forget how many amazing options are available on-line. Two of my favorite resources are Circa Lighting and Renovation, with hundreds of choices.

— Make sure your lamps are close/tall/bright enough to actually do the job you need them to; three-way bulbs are a nice choice.

— Remember that every lamp you choose adds color and texture to the room. I love this metal articulated task lamp from Wisteria ($219), this one (in purple, turquoise, cream and silver) from PB Teen for $79, and this table lamp, with a clear glass base from West Elm, which we have and love, $89. It doesn’t look like much, but its value, to me, lies in its ability to cast enough light without adding any design drama because of its simplicity. I discovered the PB teen lamp in — of all places — a gorgeous inn we stayed in in Prince Edward County, Ontario. They were the bedside lamps and so perfect I picked one up to see who the manufacturer was. (Ideas are everywhere!)

Include the timeless beauty of candles as well, whether a row of flickering votives lining a windowsill or tall tapers. I keep a scented candle by my bedside and often start and end my days with a few minutes of its gentle light and spicy, relaxing smell. We also eat dinner in a room filled with lit (unscented) candles, votives and tapers, (in addition to a chandelier on a dimmer, with reflective bulbs [silver bottoms] that keep the glare out of our eyes.)

— The shadows cast by electric or candle-lit lanterns made of pierced metal are mysterious, exotic and add a distinctive note; look for great sources from Morocco or Mexico.

Here’s a helpful and detailed guide to lighting your home.

12 thoughts on “Making a pretty home — why (great) lighting matters so much!

  1. I admire your creativity in the kitchen here immensely–but am still trying to recover from another major metro daily cutting yet another section . . . ouch.

  2. SO true. One of the first things we did in our house was replace lighting fixtures and wattage. Whew! Still have a few to go.
    Dimmers are a dream. You should see how pretty everyone looks in our guest bath ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. i agree. lighting can change the feel of a space in such a profound way. many times, this is an aspect of a room that is overlooked when decorating a room. I’ve learned this lesson through trail and error.

  4. Thanks for the tips. You are so right. Lighting is critical for both practical and aesthetic reasons. I love looking for just the perfect lighting for my home. The problem that I find is that there are WAY TOO many options. I get overwhelmed quickly. Plus the ones I end up liking are SO expensive! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Oh, that! ๐Ÿ™‚ So true…

      I recently scored a $50 table lamp (sickly pink and green) but exactly the shape, size and style I needed; a can of matte finish cream spray paint and a new shade and finial. Done!

      The challenge is choosing a style you love that is classic but not boring. The Tizio is a DREAM lamp; spendy but amazing. It is the perfect task lamp and you will never tire of it…also comes in white and a small size and has a base so it can be used as a floor lamp.

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