Modern living makes it easy to fixate on trivial details while your life slips out of focus. Campaign ads, commutes, rushed lunches, the background thrum of technology. And you can't see the forest, only trees.
Your home too is full of details, each acquired, cleaned, and arranged with intention. The spatial element of interior design provides a physical context for these items to interact. But context isn't enough to give them life. For that we need light.
Light dictates the atmosphere of your home, and your sense of its cohesion. In high-end builds, architects and designers engage experts to create an illumination plan for every room. But that's impractical for most homeowners. It's better that they observe six sound principles.
Don't wildly perforate the ceiling.
Few things are worse than a crisp white ceiling with an erratic constellation of recessed lights. It's the Swiss cheese look, and it means one thing: The contractor goofed and let the mechanical guys get to work before the electrician.
Recessed lights occupy housings that fit between the ceiling joists – the same limited space that contains ducts and sprinkler pipes. If the electrician is the last in, immovable objects inevitably get put in his way. And every time you sit down in the room below, you'll see the results.
Light is the most important, so let the electrician go first. He'll place the recessed lights in a simple grid, with fixtures three to five feet apart (depending on spread and purpose). Make sure he avoids black baffles or interiors, whose contrast will pockmark the ceiling. White or clear alzac are better – they'll crisp and inconspicuous.
Never bisect a wall with a sconce.
My team sometimes decorates homes we had no part in renovating. As I do the early walk-around, taking notes, it always stings to spy a sconce in the middle of a run of wall. It's no sillier than laying a place setting dead-centre of a table. The sconce achieves no gain in light coverage or ambiance while disabling the display of a large painting or series of prints.
If you insist on sconces, put two on a long wall – one at each end, with ample room between. I prefer to keep the wall clear, however. Adjustable recessed lighting in the ceiling adjacent will illuminate the space while cross-lighting and featuring your artwork.
Don't play fixtures against each.
It's often the kitchen where you'll want a number of suspended lighting fixtures – two pendants above the island, say, and one over the dining table. Next comes the crucial decision: Who's the star? And who's singing backup?
One home we're now working on has two stars. The kitchen gives onto the family and dining rooms, and over the large ebony island hang two antique crystal chandeliers. With those imposing dual focal points, the room's other lights must take a knee. Above the dining table is a good example: a long, rectangular linen shade, well proportioned but visually quiet. Its tasks are deference and gentle ambiance, and it acquits them both.
Delete "cabinet valance" from your lexicon.
All kitchens need under-cabinet lighting – you have to be able to see the food you're preparing. But pay heed: a special circle of hell awaits those who install valances above counters. Although the decorative boxes are intended to conceal cheap fluorescents, they're almost always uglier than the raw fixtures. Valances are the speediest way to kill the elegance of a new kitchen.
Instead, spend one measure more on decent puck lights. Thin and pleasantly puckish, they come in a variety of finishes. Install them on the bottom of the upper cabinets. Or go a step further – desirable but more expensive – and buy pucks that recess into the cabinets.
Disown the bath bars.
Oh, you metal bars with the three frosted glass cones, sitting unrepentant above the bathroom vanity. You're welcome here no longer. My grudge isn't that the fixtures are cheap – many are expensive – it's that they add another busy, organic form to a room already jammed with such detail (tub, tub filler, toilet, sink, and faucets).
A bathroom should feel quiet, and bath bars talk at the top of their voice about nothing interesting. A good alternative is to mount simple sconces at each end of the mirror. A better one is to backlight the mirror itself. In reducing visual clamour, you invite sophistication.
Forget not the table lamp.
People get emotionally invested in their chandeliers and architectural lighting, and rightly so; they are the prima donnas of a lighting scheme; they sell the tickets. But smaller players like table and standing lamps play a crucially important role. Faces are what humans understand first and best. And in areas where people sit and socialize, the lamps light the faces.
As anyone who's studied herself in a Winners fitting room knows, an overhead light illuminates the forehead, casting shadows over the eyes and fostering a feeling of unease. At home, cast some light from the lower places. A failsafe formula for the living room: two table lamps of the same height opposite a standing lamp. In a rough triangle they flood the space with warmth and intimacy.