Designer Tricks that Will Let You See Your Home in a Whole New Light

A supermodel at work -  

Courtesy Theodore's Contemporary Furniture

 A slightly abbreviated version of this piece appeared in the Washington Post Real Estate section

Judith Capen hopped up from the candlelit table and popped on the overhead light. Suddenly, ghoulish shadows appeared beneath her twinkly eyes and wrinkles sprayed cheeks that a second ago seemed cherubic.

"You never want to look into a light source," she said. "Every time you glance up it's the Dracula effect, your eyes look like black holes."

 It's enough to make one scream. One does.

Blame it on the wine.
The author digs a  $10 Ikea spot

It's amazing what lighting can do. Besides making you look more attractive, and dare we say sexier, good lighting can be energizing, focusing, relaxing, or simply illuminating -- accenting the room's best features, minimizing the unsavory, and making your home a more enjoyable living and entertaining space when evening falls.  

With the plethora of lighting gadgets and gizmos available everywhere from Ikea to Amazon to Home Depot and Restoration Hardware, just about any effect is possible, inexpensively and often by dinnertime.

Capen, an award winning architect with Architrave Architects, made her point about overheads. That harsh light, handy as it is for Scrabble, killed the mood and threatened to put an end to a convivial over-dinner conversation

"How do you know an architect designed a space? By the number of wall switches." That's an architect joke, she said.

If Capen was designing a kitchen from scratch, for example, she'd stop the cabinets eight inches from the ceiling, "and have a tube on top so you have enough light to stagger through without tripping over the cat." That would have one switch. Another would operate a brighter fixture for the counter, "so you could see what you're doing with sharp knives." Two more would operate an overhead light and a ceiling fan.   

Instead of walking around the room and turning on lights, or fidgeting with a dimmer, "I'd rather walk to the wall, flip some switches, and be done with it," she said. "I can mix and match and get distinctly different things versus one fixture that goes from light to less bright."
Light at play in the Capen Weinstein home

But most of us are not going to rip out the ceilings and walls and install an elaborate and expensive new system. Instead, we sit with a feeling of vague dissatisfaction, contemplating a room as clinically bright as McDonald's, or fidgeting with a lamp shade to get enough light to read. 

And Capen is quick to concede that you don't have to. There are plenty of cheap sources of light that are plenty effective.  "Like fluorescents," she said. "Put them on top of cabinets where you don't see the fixture." This is not just a kitchen trick, consider fluorescents on top of an armoire, or a tall bookcase, anywhere the source is unseen.  Puck lights, little round battery powered LED discs that require no wiring, are also handy for inside cabinets, under shelves, and dark corners. "It's not about an expensive fixture, but what you can do with it to shape a space."

It is possible to have it all, an ambiance that invites pleasure, relaxation, stimulation and charm -- and even disguise a few of a home's more unsavory issues by redirecting the eye to something more pleasing.

"What you want to do is layer the light, said San Francisco lighting designer Randall Whitehead. "People try to do everything with one fixture, but you want different types of light to successfully illuminate the room. The best rooms use various sources of illumination to create a subtle design."

The language of light is pretty straightforward. Whitehead, who is also a columnist and author of seven books on residential lighting, said there are four lighting terms everyone should know: task, ambient, decorative, and accent.

Task lighting can brightly illuminate your desk, your closet, your kitchen counter, or your bathroom mirror so you don’t slice your throat shaving.

Decorative lighting includes chandeliers, hanging fixtures in the foyer, and table lamps. “Architectural jewelry,” he calls these. “They are the supermodels of light; they just need to look pretty.”

Accent or directed lighting highlights objects in a room. “Museums traditionally use a directed light on each piece of art and statuary,” he said. “It’s spotty, but dramatic.” However, when overused in a residential setting, “accent lighting can imply that what you own is more important than the people in the room.”

●That’s where ambient lighting comes in. We might call it the umami of illumination that bounces light around, blending all of the effects together and making the eye do a happy dance. This type of indirect illumination is the least understood and implemented but potentially the most bewitching element in any lighting scheme. “Add it and you become the star of your own home — as important as the objects in the space,” Whitehead said.

Just be cautious with the light you select, LEDs are becoming more attractive in design and quality of illumination,  "But a lot of what's out there is too cool a light, a color not neat on skin tones. People look ghostly," he said. "Look for warmer bulbs, particularly those called dimmed incandescent."

Protrero Hill living room by lighting designer Randall Whitehead
To put it all together, "Start with the people and then add art and architecture," said Whitehead. The living room of an apartment Whitehead designed in San Francisco's Protrero Hill, demonstrates the interplay.

"The first thing you see is the beautiful, subtle leaf pattern projected on the ceiling," he said.  Shooting light upward from an LED fixture fit with a dramatic stencil pattern makes the space feel larger and a rather bland, low ceiling more interesting. 

An  unearthly lantern that resembles a stainless steel pod dangles off to the side of the room. This is the architectural jewelry, "it's not really providing illumination, just an illusion."

Recessed lights highlight the coffee table, the fireplace, and artwork. "Recessed fixtures should not be directed over seating, it's harsh. An uncomfortable light to be under. "

Fading into the far left corner of the room is a black shaded lamp "that throws light up for ambiance, and down for reading on the sofa. It functions like a torchaire," providing light without calling attention to itself.

The lights mounted outside and above the sliding glass doors to the terrace, visually expand the space so the room feels as large as it does during the day. Without them, you create a black mirror effect; you can't see out and are closing off the room."

The result is a room shaped by layers of light, easily adjusting to the needs of the homeowners, whether chilling in front of the fire or entertaining a room full of guests. 

Too often, however, our homes look their best only when they're put on the market for sale.  Now why didn't I think of that earlier, one wonders.

"Lighting is an easy, cheap, and simple way of updating the look of virtually any room in your house," said realtor Ryall Smith of Coldwell Banker, who shared a few quick and inexpensive tricks he uses when staging homes.
The kitchen set for cooking
"Dark corners suck the energy out of a room," said Smith. "Take a look at your living room and dining room and put in up lights, you can get them at Home Depot."

Little lamps can make for big transformations. "Most kitchens, for example, have only overhead lighting," he said. "Buy two small lamps and put them in corners, or maybe one in the dark triangle behind the sink, or on a stretch of granite counter. You won't need the overheads and it creates and homey, warm feeling."

Like moths, humans gravitate toward the brightest light. If you don't want your guests to congregate in the kitchen during a party, turn on those little lamps and turn off the overhead.

"We put lamps in rooms where you wouldn't think of putting in lighting," said Smith. "Plug in an attractive lamp in the bathroom and it becomes part of the living space."
The kitchen set to keep out the moths
With home technology, smart phones, and new applications it's easier than ever to create a mood. You can program your lighting to change throughout the day, "Now we have LED bulbs that will change color at the touch of a switch," he said. "You can have bright white for task lighting, maybe red for entertaining." 

Lighting designer Nancy Schertler has lit up Arena Stage, and just about every other theater around town, since 1976, unsurprisingly waxed ecstatic. "You're painting with light," she said. "It's magical.

"In a natural world you have the sun, on the stage you figure out the angle the intensity of he light, creating a picture for every moment in the play and helping focus the audience's attention."

In the home you can do the same, highlight a sculpture, the texture of a wall, and enhance yourself. "Keep the lights low on the table. You won't see the meal, or be able to read, but you'll look good," she said.

Can they make you look more youthful, too? "I was once told the ingénue is too old, can you make her look younger?" Shertler said with a laugh, "If I knew that..."

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Washington Post Real Estate section

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