The Value of Lighting in Interior Design

Lighting is a functional element of our homes and commercial buildings, but it is also an element that adds mood and a certain charm and ambiance to interiors. It can also affect the health of occupants and is an element that many people take for granted.

In reality, lighting is a much more technical topic than many people realize. Not only does a lighting plan involve different types of lighting, but it is also an incredibly important tool in interior design.

A combination of lighting types in a sleek, modern bathroom. Picture: Shutterstock

Additionally, lighting is covered by a myriad of energy codes and standards that demand attention to ensure that lighting design is effective and the results are energy efficient.

Fundamental Elements of Lighting

While there are two basic types of lighting, natural and artificial, the latter has different functions and effects. The direct effect of artificial lighting will have an impact on both the mood of the room and the way you are able to use certain spaces.

There are three categories of artificial lighting that designers consider, and typically used in conjunction with one another:

1. General lighting literally illuminates or lights up different areas so that we can see. It also creates that important ambiance that sets the mood in a room. General or ambient lighting is used in conjunction with natural sunlight and should provide just enough light without creating an unpleasantly bright glare.

Most general lighting is delivered from ceiling lights that may be recessed or from pendants. While it provides general illumination, ambient lighting is also an important design element in interiors. It can also be used to get rid of dark areas of rooms, in corners for example.

2. Task lighting is exactly what it sounds like. It is lighting that enables us to carry out certain tasks or functions. In the home, task lighting is vital in kitchens for food preparation and cooking and is often installed under cabinets so it shines directly down onto the surface below.

It is also important in bathrooms and bedrooms where we use mirrors for applying makeup or hairstyling, and where lamps are often used not only for lighting but as decorative features too.

Task lighting is essential in studies and other work areas where we have to be able to focus visually on what we are doing. The same applies to bedrooms or living rooms if those using them are going to be reading books, sewing, or doing anything else that requires illumination to be able to see.

But while task lighting focuses on certain points, it is also important that it doesn’t create glare or shadows. People using it must also be able to work without straining their eyes.

3. Accent lighting is decorative and designed to light up architectural details or artwork, drawing attention to them and in this way making a statement. It can also be used inside glass-fronted cabinets to highlight beautiful objects inside. This is an element that can be particularly powerful in an interior design scheme.

Lighting Sources & Controls

When considering lighting sources, lighting designers look at the brightness and the color of light. They also need to be cognizant of the need for energy efficient lighting and therefore be acutely aware of the amount of electricity it uses.

Color temperature is a powerful concept that interior designers can use. In general terms, daylight is quite cool, projecting an almost blue tinge, while warm white (artificial) light is generally orange or yellow. Bright white light varies from white to a very pale yellow. Designers consider the color rendering index (CRI) that refers to the ability of a bulb to show the full range of color. The CRI is rated from zero to 100, with 100 being closest to natural sunlight, which is best for task lighting.

So, for instance, in the bathroom, a CRI of 90 to 100 is recommended for doing makeup as it shows up the subtle colors of the skin, hair, and makeup. Dimmers (see below) will help to create a restful mood in the bathroom.

Yellow light above and below kitchen units in a well-designed galley kitchen. Picture: Shutterstock

Most people are familiar with the term watts, which is a measurement of the amount of electricity a bulb uses. In times past, if we bought a 100-watt incandescent bulb we knew it would be considerably brighter than a 60-watt incandescent bulb. But newer bulbs are much more energy-efficient, and it takes considerably fewer watts to create more light.

At the same time, lumens are the established measurement of the light that shines out of a bulb, whether it is an old fashioned incandescent bulb, an energy-saving compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), or a light-emitting diode (LED). So, for instance, a 13-watt CFL will produce about 750 to 850 lumens of light, which is the same amount of light that a 9-watt LED or a 60-watt incandescent bulb will produce.

An easy, virtually foolproof method of calculating the illumination is known, quite simply as the lumen method. But it relies on mathematics, and so many lighting and interior designers prefer to use free DIALux software that enables them to achieve professional lighting designs that show exactly what specific light fittings and fixtures will look like inside homes and other interior spaces.

The software makes lighting calculations surprisingly simple and enables designers to convert flat on-screen plans and drawings into 3-D models that literally paint a picture for clients. Furthermore, instead of having to manually calculate the lighting for each room, the calculations can be done for the entire building and/or very large spaces.

Controls have remained the same for decades, and the most common is a simple toggle switch. But interior designers have more choice nowadays since they come in a variety of styles and shapes.

Dimmers are also very popular today because they not only enable the occupants to adjust the light levels in rooms but also help to save energy. Using dimmers enables users to control their lighting, sometimes opting to have it on full and at other times dimming the lights for effect and to create a comfortable ambiance. It is, though, important to be sure that the bulbs used are dimmable. For instance, some screw-in LED bulbs are not dimmable, but this will be noted on the packaging.

The other factor to check is what the load requirements for dimmers are because this has a direct effect on the energy used. Other technical issues that can result include poor performance and bulbs flickering either because the load is too high or too low. Additionally, it is important to be sure that the dimming system chosen will work with the light source used.

Interior Design Tricks

An electrician can install a lighting system that has been designed by an electrical engineer or a lighting designer. But there are other factors that an interior designer will take into account.

Three ceiling-hung pendant lights in a bedroom have a similar design style even though their shapes are completely different. Picture: Shutterstock

For instance, lights hung over glossy-finish countertops will reflect the light. The way they are positioned – and the number of luminaires used – will also make an impact visually. The height between the countertop and the light source is also important. While it will depend on the volume of light as well as the style of the fixture used, a good rule of thumb is that it should be between 30 and 36 inches, or 76 centimeters and 1 meter.

The American Lighting Association recommends that fixtures be mounted at least 28 inches or 70 centimeters apart and about 60 inches or 1.5 meters from the floor (when there isn’t a countertop).

The number of luminaires used will also make a difference. Two or three fittings often create a more striking effect than one pendant fitting over a table or kitchen counter. The interior designer will decide whether these should be the same or perhaps the same color but with a different shape of shade. They may also be hung at different levels, as in the photograph above.

Similarly, an interesting effect can be created by using recessed lights in between pendants. Done correctly, this can be the perfect foil for task lighting. But care must be taken if used for task lighting in bathrooms as recessed lights tend to cause unflattering shadows on the face.

Of course, there are always new lighting trends, and an interior designer will have a finger on these. But as a customer, don’t be tempted to accept an idea just because it is trendy. You, after all, are the one who is going to have to live with the lighting, not your designer.

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