Lighten Up!

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

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.

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.

Richard and I couldn't agree on how high to position our light above the table top. Here, too, we could have saved ourselves some marital friction by knowing a few simple tips: The diameter of a chandelier should not be larger than the perimeter of the table minus 12 inches, or people will bump their heads when getting up. Also, the fixture should not be placed so that light glares off the table top or comes from directly overhead (see diagram, upper left), creating ghastly shadows on faces and making diners look like relatives of the Addams family.

The remedy could be a pair of sconces to provide indirect lighting on the wall. This would boost the amount of ambient lighting in the dining room and reduce the intensity of shadows and glare.

While our replacement project in the master bath went more smoothly, we did not totally improve the bathroom's lighting. The next mistake was mounting the vanity light above the mirror, creating those pesky shadows again. One solution, I've learned since, is to mount two strips of lights vertically on either side of the mirror (see diagram, right.)

"Light affects the quality of a space," Ms. Levine says. "It affects us on both emotional and physical comfort levels." In fact, research has shown that humans react to light in predictable ways. Bright lighting - like that in a fast-food restaurant - tends to move people along faster, while low light - in a fine restaurant, for example - tends to slow them down. Light is also supposed to help the body regulate its internal clock.

"Lighting is human perception, more than engineering," Mr. Heinmiller says. But the engineering can help shape that perception. Take dimmers, for example. Feinstein likens them to the volume control on a stereo, when you change the volume of sound or the light level, you change the mood. And dimmers come in all price ranges.

Important innovations in lighting design have come in the area of dimmer controls, which now can be operated by computer, and "smart houses" (see story, right).

Theatrical lighting designer Greg MacPherson, based in New York, says he relies heavily on the flexibility he can achieve with computer-controlled lighting. For example, in one upscale residential setting, he was able to control 16 individual dimmers on a panel that measured 4-in.-by-4 in. by using a computer chip.

"One of the lovely things about lighting," Levine says, "is its flexibility. While other elements of a room remain static - the furnishings and color of the walls for example - light can be dimmed to set a different scene."

As for correcting the lighting mistakes in our house, they'll have to wait until Richard and I do a complete renovation. Our household motto is: Once it's up, it stays.


Accent lighting - directional lighting that highlights certain areas and objects, such as paintings and collectibles.

Ambient lighting - serves as a source of general illumination so people can see surroundings and move safely.

Color rendering - how colors look to the human eye under different sources of light. Daylight offers the best color rendering, picking up the widest range of colors in the spectrum. Quartz halogen comes the closest to daylight. By contrast, typical incandescent light has "spikes" in the reds and oranges, which causes the greens and yellows to "gray out." The newer compact-fluorescent lights are said to have better color rending, making for better skin tones. Measured by Color Rendering Index (CRI).

Color temperature - a light source is said to make a color appear "warmer" (with reds and yellows) or "cooler" (blues and greens). Color temperature is measured in Kelvin (K), with the higher numbers indicating a cooler color temperature, and lower numbers indicating a warmer one. As a benchmark, 6,500K denotes noonday sun; 1,700K, candlelight.

Energy - the power consumed over a period of time. Electrical energy is measured in kilowatt hours (KWH).

Fluorescent lamp - a tubular electric lamp filled with mercury vapor and having a coating of fluorescent material on its inner surface.

Halogen - a type of incandescent lamp filled with a halogen gas. Provides a whiter, brighter light than other sources.

Layering - term used by designers to describe room lighting that consists of multiple elements, including ambient, task, and accent lighting.

Task lighting - Lighting directed to a specific surface to provide illumination.

Wall wash lighting - a lighting system, usually recessed, that provides an even distribution of light over a vertical surface.

Sources: "Lightolier's Lightstyles: Designing With Light," 1996 and "Sylvania's Guide to Lighting,"1997.

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