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Suddenly it seems good lighting has become as aspirational as a Panton chair. Architect: Paul Raff Studio (Ben Rahn/A-Frame Inc.)
Suddenly it seems good lighting has become as aspirational as a Panton chair. Architect: Paul Raff Studio (Ben Rahn/A-Frame Inc.)

The best way to show off your house: Use great lighting Add to ...

As with many of life’s moments, I arrived late to the lighting party. Decorating, for me, has largely been a floor-up affair and anything higher than the mantel had gotten short shrift. Presented with a suddenly dark December, I’ve typically responded with a hike out to IKEA or a directive to my better, taller half: “Replace the pot lights.”

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Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But growing older and blinder has gradually awoken me to the value of abundant quality lighting. Suddenly it seems good lighting has become as aspirational as a Panton chair.

It used to be that the middle ground between your $13,000 Ingo Maurer “J.B. Schmetterling” chandelier and those ubiquitous Chinese paper lanterns people put up on moving day then forget about for a decade was as grim as a fluorescent-lit airport arrivals hall. “I just don’t think a good light fixture is easy to come up with,” says Iona Greenham, who manages the showroom at Klaus in Toronto. “I suspect it’s quite costly to go through the dullness of getting it approved.”

But thanks to some patient souls, now the biggest players occupy that middle ground: manufacturers such as Muuto, which turns out lighting by Finland’s Harri Koskinen and Sweden’s Mattias Stahlbom, priced in the low hundreds; designers such as Tom Dixon, who single-handedly brought back copper and brass with his $500 pendants; and England’s Original BTC, which has seen sales of its bone-china lamps almost double in three years. Just as you know a bull market when your cabbie is talking stocks, my cleaner knows her Poul Henningsen “Artichoke” from her George Nelson “Saucer.”

London designer Lee Broom launched a niche furniture range six years ago but switched tack last year after his Crystal Bulb ($195) notched up 10,000 sales. In September, Broom opened Electra House, an East London showroom where the basement is a veritable conveyor belt of Crystal Bulbs. In Canada they’re sold exclusively at Klaus. “Lee’s cut crystal incorporates all these current trends – repurposing, refinement, craftsmanship, the brass base,” says Greenham, “and he’s referencing something from the past that sparkles.”

“The sun is the most important thing in architecture,” says Bjarne Pedersen, a consultant at Architectural Lighting Design in Toronto. “We’re trying to mimic that with artificial lighting. Good lighting really adds to a space. It’s as important as furnishings and finishes.”

There are countless ways of getting it right without having to remortgage. A single iconic fixture by Dixon or Nelson should do the trick, Pedersen says, recommending Edmonton-based specialists Lightform. Or you could source a “14” or “28” pendant from Bocci, which designs contemporary classic lighting from its Vancouver glass-blowing studio. Supplement it with ambient lighting from Canadians such as Castor Design and Commute, an industrial antique lamp from Queen West Antiques in Toronto or a “designer-inspired” fixture.

Pedersen talks me into the ostensibly prohibitive concept of recessed lighting. “It’s easier now with LED tape lights, to build a valance to contain the light source.” If you’re already knee-deep into planning a reno, says Pedersen, your lighting should come in at around 10 per cent of construction costs.

In the Klaus showroom, Greenham has designed “custom canopies” with clusters of the bulb fixtures at staggered lengths. “Having odd numbers of pendants is aesthetically very energetic,” she says. “People walk in and they’re enchanted.”

Nothing speaks more to the current lighting vogue than the status of the bare bulb. Plumen, which launched in 2010 with the twisted-fluorescent 001 CFL low-energy bulb, grew 300 per cent in its first year, while its prototype was inducted into the permanent collection at MoMA. You can buy the 001 for $30 (U.S.) at the MoMA Store. The “Edison” or “filament” bulb sold for $100 when it re-emerged several years ago with the now-ubiquitous Brooklyn aesthetic. The price has come down to nearly a tenth of that – at stores such as Restoration Hardware and Schoolhouse Electrical Supply Co. – as its popularity has soared, despite its reputation as an energy-guzzler. “They add an extra layer of warm amber sparkle to a space,” Pedersenn says. “And some last for up to five years as a secondary light source. I wouldn’t worry about energy efficiency – they tend to be low-wattage and you can control the energy consumption by putting it on a dimmer.”

Light up your life

  • Check the colour rendering index (CRI). “Make sure whatever light you’re using has a high CRI,” Bjarne Pedersen said. “The closer to 100 per cent, the more like daylight you’re getting. You don’t want your house to look like the set of a sci-fi movie.”
  • Watch for glare, especially if you’re going for the bare-bulb look. “If you put a bright light against a dark background,” says Pedersen, “you’ll get too much contrast and the glare will be even more pronounced.”
  • Support your main fixture with a cast of secondary lights on dimmers. “You don’t need a light on every surface, but what you do in a room should inform what lighting you have,” Iona Greenham said. “If you have artwork, invest in lighting it properly, especially if it’s behind glass.
  • You can’t go wrong with a classic. “It’s going to set the vibe and punctuate your room,” says Greenham, who recommends Artek’s A110 pendant by Alvar Aalto ($300-$400) or its 330S pendant by Mike Meiré (about $550).

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