Lighting is the unsung hero of home design: Use it well and you’ll show off your space to its best advantage; get it wrong (or ignore it entirely) and even the most eye-catching flourishes will be lost in the gloom. Still, the subtle difference-makers — the ideal drop for a pendant lamp, say, or which bulb is best — aren’t always obvious. To help you master this incomparably important element, we consulted a few of our favorite lighting designers, who kindly contributed their tried-and-true tips of the trade.
Get out your measuring tape, notepad, and a generous length of cardboard (!), because what they have to share is simply, well, brilliant.
Midcentury-Inspired Chandeliers by Dutton Brown
If you’ve ever spotted a cool piece of furniture or a clever accent piece at a flea market and thought, I could make that, Thomas Brown and Zach Dutton’s story reads like a best-case-scenario case study. Inspired by a spiny lamp they happened upon — and hoped to replicate themselves — back in 2013, Brown, an engineer, and Dutton, a product designer, set about experimenting. Twenty-four hours after they finished the piece, an early version of their Urchin Chandelier, it sold on Etsy. Buoyed by that success, they left their jobs to set up shop, first in Dutton’s mother’s basement and now in a manufacturing space/showroom in Minneapolis. Read on for Thomas and Zach’s expert lighting tips.
A little time with a tape measure goes a long way.
Choosing the incorrect size of fixture is one of the most common mistakes people make. People find something in a style they like that suits their space well, only to discover that what looked perfect online is in fact too small or too large for their space. Taking the time to pull out a tape measure can save a lot of frustration down the road.
Don’t forget to factor in the furniture.
When you’re taking measurements for the space you want to light, be sure to include the ceiling height and the size of any furniture or structures near where the fixtures may be placed or hung. Then research conventions for the fixture in question (using, say, a chandelier sizing guide) to decide on a range of sizes your space can accommodate.
When it comes to chandelier placement, it’s all relative.
Large chandeliers should be hung higher, while smaller chandeliers can be hung lower. If the fixture isn’t going over a bed or a table, the hanging height for most rooms should be at least 7’ above the floor. To hang a chandelier over a bed, have the tallest person who sleeps there kneel on top of the mattress; the chandelier should be at least 6” above that person’s head. Over a dining room table or kitchen island, a fixture should hang 30-34” above the surface (based on 8′ ceilings; add another 4” to that distance for each additional foot of ceiling height). It’s also important to consider a chandelier’s diameter: When positioned over the table, it should be no larger than 1/2 to 2/3 of the table’s width to keep it out of head space.
Look out for lumens.
People often think bulb wattage indicates the amount of light produced, when it actually refers to the amount of power used. Because bulbs are becoming increasingly energy efficient, knowing the wattage is only important for the power bill! The relevant number to look for is the number of lumens; that tells you how much light is actually produced. For example, a 60W incandescent bulb produces about 800 lumens of light, which can also be produced by a 13-15 watt CFL bulb or a 6-8 watt LED bulb. Just read the bulb’s packaging to be sure it produces enough lumens for your space.
Minimalist-Meets-Industrial Accent Lighting by Daikonic
Austin Daikon was 23 when a health crisis necessitated open-heart surgery — an experience that convinced the aspiring designer to quit his job in corporate sales and pursue a new kind of career. His lighting pieces — minimalist, industrial, and strong — transcend traditional boundaries, and his sensibility translates equally well to sconces, pendants, chandeliers, and even table lamps. Depending on how they’re used, his pieces can assume roles as focal points or supporting players. “I love the intersection of sculpture and light,” says Daikon, whose studio is in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. “There’s a wonderful push-pull at play that can be really exciting. I would encourage folks to explore the expressive potentials of light — function is super important, but energy and expression are, too.” Read on for Austin’s expert lighting tips.
Consider your sources.
Even lighting is glorious, but dramatic lighting is the ticket at times. The optimal number of light sources in a space depends on the room and how that space needs to function, both aesthetically and conceptually.
But take a whole-home approach.
Consistency is really important. Every room is a unique space with a unique function, but how a design aesthetic and the light/space relationship travel from room to room is important, too. This relationship might be eclectic or streamlined, but it has to make sense as space unfolds.
When in doubt, dummy it up.
If you aren’t sure where to position a fixture, don’t rely on your imagination alone; instead, experiment. Make a simple paper or cardboard replica and place it where the fixture will go — actually hang it from the ceiling or mount it on the wall. For most people, it’s the pure visualizing that’s tough.
Singular Light Sculptures by Brittany Gould
Washington, DC-born Brittany Gould trained as a printmaker at the Metropolitan State University of Denver before pulling up stakes and decamping to Berlin three years ago. Now, she produces a diverse body of work, ranging from textural cut-paper art to commercial lighting pieces to super-dramatic “lightwork” sculptures. “It’s fun to see all the ways to experience light, and how it affects our mood and senses,” she says. Her unique, asymmetric designs — like the gold-mirrored sculpture that’s one part geode, one part disco — might just induce a mood you’ve never felt before. Read on for Brittany’s expert lighting tips.
Choose your positions.
In a smaller room, start with three sources (and types) of light: one that’s ceiling-mounted, be it a pendant or chandelier; a floor lamp or other light that reflects off a main wall; and one accent light to highlight either a place of interest or a place of practice, such as a writing desk. That brings the eyes around the room and makes it feel bright enough to live in naturally, but also gives enough focus to be cozy.
Determine your ideal temperature.
It’s very easy and not so expensive to experiment with all sorts of temperatures of bulbs. I prefer warmer temperatures in light bulbs — the cooler ones make me feel like I’m in a research facility.
Make the most of floor lamps.
Floor lamps are great when they’re close to a bright wall and can get a nice reflection off it — that can give one light so much more power. The one exception is for pendant-style floor lamps, which naturally hang downward — position those next to anywhere you’d sit and read or work.