Lighting a home might not be quite as simple as you’d think—but it doesn’t have to be overly complicated, either. Comfort, utility, and beauty can be obtained by using layered lighting: Ambient light to provide general illumination and repose, task lighting for utilitarian jobs and accent lighting to adorn any room. Layering your lighting just means going beyond the basic overhead general lighting and purposefully arranging different types of lighting to form a cohesive and functional light-scape. Here’s how!
Your first and probably most important layer will be ambient lighting. This is the foundation, the general illumination that stops you from stubbing your toe against the cat’s water dish and tripping over shoes. Flipping on the lights and being able to see what is around you is usually accomplished with overhead lights: think recessed lighting, flush or semi-flush mount fixtures or maybe a ceiling fan with a light.
Things to consider about ambient lighting:
Lower lumens are fine. Your ambient lighting can be less intense than your task lighting—and though not a hard-and-fast rule, multiplying the room’s width and length by 20 can give you a framework of how many lumens you may need for general lighting.
Square footage does matter. When you pick recessed lights for ambient illumination, about one light for every 4 square feet of ceiling is a decent starting point.
Your needs might vary. A wide variety of situations such as failing vision or architectural complications might mean your space needs more lumens to be properly lit.
Ambient light works well enough to get the basics of a space and perform some activities, but it may not be bright or focused enough for more specific undertakings, which brings us to…
More specialized than ambient lights, the second layer is task lighting and is usable in any room in a home. Typically, you might picture task lighting as kitchen undercabinet lighting (which is fantastic if you really want to see what you’re doing with a sharp knife) or in your home office as a bright desk lamp for working, reading and writing. Task lighting is also in your bathroom as the all-important vanity light—who wants to put on makeup or shave in the dark? In your bedroom, a bedside reading lamp is in this category (and very well might save your marriage if your partner can’t sleep with your overhead bedroom chandelier shining like the sun so you can read your book).
Lighting can be layered in the bathroom with task lighting—usually with vanity lights—and an ambient, overhead fixture.
While task lighting has a generally work-oriented purpose, the most distinct mood and personality can be achieved with…
Things to keep in mind about task lighting:
Focus on brightness. Task lighting is not supposed to light up an entire room, but it still needs more lumens than ambient lighting to focus light on your task area. Measure the square footage of your task area and multiply it by 50 to find your very minimum lumen level for sufficient task lighting.
Adjustability is important. Choose fixtures with built-in dimming (or you can hook it up to a dimmer switch) and choose fixtures with movable arms, shades, and portability to customize your work areas to suit your needs.
Get the Kelvins right. For detailed projects and comfortable reading, color temperature is an important factor. The cool, bright daylight tones of 4000 Kelvin are perfect for sewing and painting model airplanes, but your eyes will appreciate you more with a warm 2700 – 3000 Kelvin reading lamp that resembles the output of more traditional incandescent bulbs.
Picture this as the jewelry your room needs for its prettiest presentation. Accent lights don’t necessarily have to be functional (but they can be) and come in a wide variety of options. Up-lighting a shelf or cabinet gives collectibles and china a museum-like presentation, and a sparkling chandelier over a soaking tub or in the boudoir adds drama without needing to give off too much light. Some accent lights highlight architectural features such as steps or tray ceilings, and others are standout showpieces that function as a design centerpiece.
Accent lighting can serve a mostly decorative function, or it can be used to create subtle or dramatic lighting effects, like highlighting artwork or architectural elements.
Combining all these layers of lighting in any room leaves you with plenty of options for customization. Moody accent lighting can be left on in your living room (such as a wash of color on a feature wall) while the general lighting is dimmed or turned off for watching movies or curling up with a good read—just don’t forget your task light. In fact, adding a dimmer switch to any or even all layers can expand your opportunities to make any room you choose feel like home.
Be sure to install each type of lighting with its own switch, so that you can control each layer separately.
Things to keep in mind about accent lighting:
Form can beat function. Decorative pendants, floor and table lamps that give off suboptimal light for reading or other activity can still enhance your overall light-scape by subtly brightening dark corners. And the trendy Edison bulbs are beautiful in many fixtures, even if they lack much light output.
Highlight what you love. Picture lights and overhead spotlights can accent artwork and architecture; there’s no need to use accent lighting as an end in itself.
Go wild! Accent lighting is a free-for-all in terms of how you can apply it. There’s no right or wrong way to decorate your space to your tastes, so be bold and experiment.