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Lighten Up!

Some bright ideas for transforming a living space: One writer learns some lessons from past mistakes.

By April AustinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 1998



BOSTON

Lighting design was born when the first cave dweller shone a torch on his wall, creating enough illumination to move around, dine on mastodon, and make cave drawings without tripping over his children.

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Since then, mankind has developed ever more extravagant means of delivering light, from beeswax candles and whale-oil lamps to halogen quartz and metal halide. But the sheer number of lighting devices tends to obscure the real design issue: using light to improve the look and feel of living spaces.

The house that my husband, Richard, and I bought seven years ago had its share of unattractive lighting fixtures and poorly lit rooms. After several years of putting up with the status quo, we finally embarked on a plan to replace the most egregious fixtures with ones more to our taste.

I wish we'd known then what I know now. My only previous acquaintance with lighting design was a stint hanging lights for a college theater production, during which I managed to catch my finger in the C-clamp of a massive spotlight.

Nevertheless, my husband and I gamely made the rounds of lighting showrooms, certain that we could get the lighting right.

Our first mistake, and the most common among homeowners, was failing to make a plan for each room. Nothing fancy or time-consuming, just a few measurements and jottings to remind us how the rooms would be used. For example, identifying where people would be reading or cooking or doing other tasks that required extra light. Answering such questions as, does this room need a different character for entertaining than it does for everyday use? What should the room feel like - warm and cosy or bright and open?

"First, work with the natural light," advises Sally Levine, an architect and director of the interior design program at the Boston Architectural Center, "know what direction the room faces, and how light comes into the space."

"Take time to experiment," Ms. Levine continues, adding that she often takes clients to a lighting showroom's tech center, to see how fabric and wallcovering swatches look under various lights. "People feel that it's time extremely well spent."

If only someone had told us. Instead, my husband and I trotted off to New York to shop the Bowery lighting district (Bowery Street between Delancey and Grand Streets). Once there, we were seduced by the fabulous fixtures crammed floor to ceiling in every store. That was mistake No. 2.

"Lighting design is more about the light itself, not the design of fixtures," says Glenn Heinmiller of Lam Partners Inc., a lighting design company in Cambridge, Mass. "It's getting your design objectives straight: creating an elegant space, one that's safe to move around in, and lighting that is energy-efficient."

Josh Feinstein of the Lighting Design Group, a division of Standard Electric, based in Waltham, Mass., advises against walking into a showroom cold - which was exactly what we did in New York. "In a good retail setting," he says, "you should be able to describe your project to the manager over the phone, and let that person steer you toward a consultant or knowledgeable salesperson." Some consultants require a fee up front, others work on retainer for bigger projects, but the upshot is: An hour or so of professional advice can be yours for as little as $100 to $250.

Without someone to guide us, my husband and I drifted from store to store, attempting to pry information out of harried salespeople on their way to more-promising customers. If we had to ask a price, it was too expensive. And here we admitted mistake No. 3: We hadn't budgeted enough money for the quality lighting we craved.

Feinstein's advice? "Know what the scale of your project is, and what your expectations are going in."

We did, however, return with two real finds: a handsome, modern, halogen pendant to go over the dining table, and a simple disk, also halogen, to replace the fake-crystal mini-chandelier in the master bath.

Mistake No. 4 occurred by not following an important rule: Know your house wiring, or hire someone who does. We hadn't thought about hiring an electrician until five hours into the do-it-yourself installation of the new dining-room fixture.

After we eventually got the yards of extra cable coiled (or rather jammed) into the tiny cavity in the ceiling, we confronted a new problem.