Don’t Make This Decorating Mistake: Lighting Edition

As an interior designer, I choose each and every item I place in my clients’ homes with equal care. But in fact, there are some things that go into any room’s design that make a greater impact on the space’s overall appearance, mood, and functionality.

Lighting is definitely in that category – which also means there’s a lot at stake when selecting fixtures for your home. Choose the wrong lighting and it could make the entire room look ‘off’ – both because it washes everything in a particular quality of light (warm, cold, dim, bright) and because the lighting is one of the first things people tend to notice in a room.

If you’ve ever tried to pick a light fixture for your home, you know how overwhelming and confusing it can be. How big is too big? How bright is bright enough? Traditional and ornate or streamlined and modern? How far should it hang above a table or sofa? Are ‘can lights’ a big no-no?

It’s enough to drive you mad (not to mention that if you’re not working with a designer, you’re limited to the choices available from retailers).

But as long as you watch out for a few major lighting mistakes, you’ll be able to choose lighting that creates the perfect look, mood, and functionality in every space.

Decorating Mistake #1: Setting the wrong mood with your lighting

We all know how much ambiance dim lighting can add to meals at your dining room table… but that same low light in your kitchen would make it nearly impossible to prepare those meals! And how relaxing would it really be for you to lounge on your sofa watching a movie if a harsh, cold, ultra bright light was beaming from the fixture overhead?! Clearly, setting the right mood with your lighting is vital for ensuring your home is as pleasant and functional as possible.

Before you start shopping for fixtures, make decisions about the brightness and quality of light you want and need in your space. That way, you’ll be able to narrow your search to fixtures that offer the right kind of lighting (i.e. a bathroom fixture that’s bright enough for shaving and applying makeup in a master bath vs. one that’s softer, dimmer, and therefore more appropriate for a powder room).

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Decorating Mistake #2: Using a too-small or too-large fixture

While it’s certainly possible for a giant light fixture to dominate a room and make it appear top-heavy, generally speaking, most people err on the side of choosing fixtures that are too small.

Be it the higher cost of larger fixtures or the fear of making too bold a statement, choosing something smaller than what the room actually needs will create more problems for you in the end. A too-small fixture will make everything in the room look off-kilter (picture a large kitchen table with just a small pendant light or a great room with several seating areas topped by a tiny flushmount fixture). And of course, a fixture that isn’t big enough will corners dark and dreary.

Always aim to choose a fixture that’s in keeping with the scale of other furnishings in the room (see my tips about correct use of scale here) and that is large enough for the space as a whole. The extra cost will be well worth it for a larger fixture that looks right and sufficiently lights up the room.

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Decorating Mistake #3: Not ‘layering’ your lighting

Even with a fixture that gives off plenty of light to make a room functional, you’ll want to ‘layer’ your lighting by adding light from several different sources and placements. This creates a complex light quality that gives depth and richness to the room, as well as options for controlling light levels.

To accomplish this, you’ll first want to put all fixtures (ceiling fixtures, recessed lights, sconces, etc.) on dimmers. This is a simple way to control how dark or bright the room is at a macro level.

Next, add light sources at eye level. In a powder room or bath, this could be in the form of sconces that flank the mirror. In a living room, a pair of lamps on a sofa table or end tables does the trick, while in the kitchen and office, you’ll want task lighting like under-counter lights.

You can add more light to a room with a ceiling fixture by using ‘can’ (recessed) lights. However, be careful where you place them. When I plot can lights in a clients’ home I work carefully with the space, spreading them out to provide the best illumination throughout the space (but I always line them up in a row). I also take the furniture layout into account, as it can have an impact on where more light is needed. Make sure you have a clear plan ready for your electrician.

Art lights are also a wonderful added layer when placed above bookshelves or artwork.

 

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Decorating Mistake #4: Not using your lighting as style statements

Of course, lighting isn’t only about creating the right mood in your rooms and ensuring it supports the functionality of each space. Those things could be accomplished with plain, utilitarian fixtures… but instead, be sure to use the lighting in your home as a way to reflect the style statement you’re trying to make, as well.

I love the excitement a room’s design gains when light fixtures are used that deliberately contrast with the space’s overall style. Topping a room filled with sleek, modern elements with an antique crystal chandelier, or adding a dramatic, modern fixture to a room with an understated colors and lines creates an unexpected tension that’s totally delightful!

There’s no need to be afraid of going big and bold with your lighting choices. As long as you watch out for these mistakes, your home will be beautifully and appropriately well-lit no matter what fixtures you choose!

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(But if you live in the Milwaukee area and you’d prefer to get our professional help with your home’s lighting plan, as well as access to trade-only lighting resources by using our Decorator On Call hourly rate service, just drop us a note using our contact form to inquire about details and availability.)

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