The Lighting Designer

Good lighting can have both practical and dramatic effects. To do it right, you'll need to develop a lighting plan.

When was the last time you looked at the light bulb rack at your favorite housewares store? There are incandescent bulbs, of course, those glass spheres with necks and threaded metal bases. And fluorescent bulbs, mercury-filled tubes of white glass. And tiny halogen bulbs that give off a disproportionately large amount of light. And there are dozens of sizes and shapes of each.

Even if you’re conversant with the bulbs, how about lighting systems? Your house requires some genera lighting, the basic illumination you require for making your way around the house after dark. In some areas you need task lighting, which illuminates countertops, benches, desks, or reading areas. Perhaps you will also want accent lighting, which supplements the other lighting, adding emphasis to your favorite painting.

When it comes to fixtures, the lighting game begins to get really complicated. You may need ceiling fixtures, which can be surface mounted or recessed. Pendant fixtures are another option: they can be lantern-shaped, bell-shaped, or a chandelier. Cove or cornice lighting at ceiling level can offer indirect light. How about track lighting? It can be used as general light, to spotlight, or to gently wash a large area. Wall lighting can be dressed up as sconces, surface mounted, or as tracks. Portable area lighting—floor lamps, table lamps, desk lamps—offers as many options as there are shades, stand configurations, and positions in a given room. Projector fixtures can illuminate a specific area of wall. In the kitchen, there are under-counter lights. And there are shelf lights, spotlights, down lighters, mini lights, up lighters, narrow beams, diffusers, low- voltage lights, reflectors, and much else. There are literally thousands of fixtures on the market ranging in price from a few dollars to many thousands.

Good lighting can have both practical and dramatic effects. You may want, for example, a living room that is cozy and comfortable when you are home alone yet, when entertaining guests, you want deep pools of light in your conversation area or a dramatic spotlight that draws attention to an elegant architectural detail.

Are all these possibilities beginning to blur before your eyes? The range of choices is one reason why people consult design professionals called lighting designers or lighting consultants.

Your architect or designer may be able to help you develop a lighting plan. Perhaps your contractor can, too. However, there are also professionals who, for a fee, will develop a lighting plan tailor-made to your home. Many lighting shops also have qualified people who for no added charge above the cost of the fixtures you purchase, will review your floor plans and create a plan for you.

Whoever does the work, it’s important that the lighting not be an afterthought. Mounting switches and fixtures in walls and ceilings is relatively inexpensive early in the construction process, much more expensive later. Cove, cornice, and other lighting that requires special installation should be identified early to avoid wasted time and change orders. Lighting should be part of the original conception, not relegated to the status of finishing touch.

Lighting can help define spaces, emphasize textures, add drama, or simply make it easier for you to see where you’re going and what you’re doing. For a small added investment, a thoughtful lighting plan can make the difference between a truly successful interior renovation and a merely satisfactory one.