By Marni Jameson
You can’t touch it, or smell it, or taste it, or hear it, and you can see right through it. Yet this one design component is the most important element in any room.
It’s the magic and the mystery, the secret in the sauce. It can make you feel awake or relaxed, industrious or romantic, older or younger. And yet it is the most underappreciated and underused tool in the design box.
Aww, light. You need to work it.
“Lighting is the last thing many home decorators consider, and it makes the biggest difference,” said Michael Murphy, interior designer and lighting expert for Lamps Plus, a Los Angeles-based lighting retail chain.
Over the past several weeks many of you followed along as I gave my happy yellow house a lighting makeover and rediscovered the power of light. Murphy helped light my way, and I wrote columns about choosing new light fixtures, accenting artwork with spotlights, and coming out of the dark ages of incandescent bulbs into the enlightened era of LEDs.
My lighting makeover included a couple other key moves. For instance, I removed two ghastly long fluorescent light fixtures, one from my walk-in closet, the other from my laundry room, and donated them to the nearest police station to use in their interrogation center. I replaced the closet monstrosity with an elegant, chandelier that sports an orange silk drum shade. The laundry room now has two recessed LED canned lights.
Murphy approved. “People skimp in areas like the closet and laundry room, where good lighting is critical.” You know what he means if you have ever left the house wearing one navy sock and one black one.
I also gained control of my moods. And no, I’m not talking about taking hormone replacement therapy. I put almost every switch in the house on a dimmer. I’m not sure why this isn’t the standard. Not having a dimmer switch on your lights is like not having volume control on your radio.
Beyond what I’ve shared in previous columns, here are six more residential lighting secrets I learned along the way, that I think you will find illuminating, too:
- Secret # 1 – Light in Layers. In addition to natural light, every room should have three kinds of light, said Murphy, ambient, task and accent. Many homeowners throw a couple lights on the ceiling and call it enough. It’s not. Ambient light is your all-around light, and often comes from recessed cans or ceiling fixtures. Task lighting is dedicated to a space where you work or read; think of desk lamps, or lamps by reading areas, or under cabinet lighting over kitchen counters. Accent lighting highlights artwork, accessories, or architectural features like the fireplace. The magic happens in the layering. “When these three layers work together with natural light, you have the perfect scenario.”
- Secret # 2 — Go big or don’t go. Choosing fixtures that are too small is the most common mistake homeowners make, said Murphy. “Most customers need to scale up.” For instance, when picking fixtures to go beside the front door, or to flank the garage, fixtures should be one third the height of the door. If the door is nine-feet tall, the fixture should be three feet. When choosing a chandelier, use this formula: add the length and width of the room in feet, then convert to inches. That’s how big you want your fixture. So a 12×14-foot dining room should have a 26-inch wide chandelier. Ideally, this fixture is also about 12 inches narrower than the width of the table, and allows at least four feet of clearance from walls.
- Secret #3 – Get the height right. Another common mistake is hanging a fixture too high, which can look like flood-water pants. Over dining tables or kitchen islands, chandeliers or pendant lights can hang lower than fixtures over traffic areas, like entryways or living rooms. Over a dining room table, the bottom of a chandelier should hang 30-34 inches from the table. In a living room or entry, chandeliers should have at least 7.5 feet of clearance. When in doubt, drop the fixture an inch.
- Secret #4 — Match your temperatures. Lights come in different colors, ranging from warm to cool. These are called color temperatures. Yours all need to match. I know. Go pour a drink. Most light bulbs now post their color temperature on the packaging. If your temperatures don’t match, say you have a warm incandescent light on your ceiling, and a cool CFL bulb in your lamp,
something will feel off in the space, you just might not know what. Most people, including me, like warmer light in their homes. Some like pure white, others like a cool spectrum. Whatever your fancy, pick a temperature, and stick with it. Incandescent lights typically have a color temperature of around 2700k (or Kelvins). All the lights in my house are now 2700k LED.
- Secret #5 – Practice shade consistency. Similarly, your lampshades should match. Most shades are white or cream because those colors let the most light through. In the same room, the lampshades should be all white or all cream, but not both. The exception is if you have a dramatic colored shade, say black or leopard print, that acts like an accessory.
- Secret #6 — Dim it. Installing dimmer switches on your lights not only lets you control a room’s mood, it also helps you control costs. Dimming your lights – even your energy efficient LEDS — saves energy. Dimming a light by 50 percent, saves nearly 50 on energy. Plus, dimming makes lights run cooler, which extends their life. Try it. You’ll never go back.
Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016).