The dark is a great place to start when seeking enlightenment on lighting, according to at least one lighting expert.
“Without the dark to play against, light would serve no purpose,” David Martin tells me. Martin is an architect and product designer for Hubbardton Forge, a Vermont lighting manufacturer. “Light depends on its opposite,” he went on. “We need light against dark to show us where to focus.”
He said people often spend a lot of money and effort to create a beautiful room, only to “drop the ball” with lighting, which “can either show it all off to the best effect – or ruin it.”
“Where do we go wrong?” I asked.
“We forget the importance of darkness,” he said. “We need darkness to create drama and contrast, to evoke texture, and to cast shadows in the right places.”
The best lighting is layered – and more isn’t always better.
“Depends on the circumstances,” he said. “The right amount makes any experience more pleasurable, and that changes whether you’re reading, entertaining or sleeping.”
As I mull the virtues of darkness, Martin shares these lighting principles and tips:
Create places in spaces: Anyone can fill a room with boring light. The drama happens when you layer light and don’t make it uniform. Having lights that highlight some areas and cause others to recede lets you create places in spaces, Martin said. A nicely appointed coffee table, for instance, can go from static to dramatic by hitting it with a pool of light.
Employ high and low lights: Certain activities, like cooking and homework, need more light than others, like entertaining and sleeping. Thus, dimmers are useful everywhere. Adjustable lighting can take a dining room from homework station to romantic dinner.
To see or not to see: Some light fixtures are meant to be seen. They’re sculptural elements and look beautiful even when not illuminated. As important, however, are less visible fixtures that don’t call attention to themselves, Martin said. Recessed can lights, art spots, under-cabinet lights, or soffit lighting that washes a wall can be invisibly gorgeous.
Tips for rooms
Dining rooms: Light them like a theater, Martin suggested. The table is center stage, but the surrounding room should have secondary stages to give guests other interesting places to feast their eyes. Lights over a buffet, spots highlighting art, cove lighting or recessed cans on dimmers introduce other layers of light for the dark to play against. “All can combine to make a flexible lighting scheme.”
Living rooms: Often a home’s largest room, living rooms benefit most from lighting that creates spaces in places. Break up uniform light with a decorative fixture in the center of the room. Install a chandelier or a pendant light if the room has high ceilings. Add table lamps to light spaces for conversation or reading, and then install spots or track lighting to highlight the hearth.
Kitchens: Sink and stove areas benefit from having not only direct lighting from above, but also light from the sides. “You can eliminate shadows by including at least two sources of light,” Martin said.
Bathrooms: Sconces placed on either side of the vanity mirror give the best lighting for applying make-up and shaving. If you can’t fit side sconces, and have only a single light over the vanity, add more light sources to balance shadows – and erase eye bags!
Bedrooms: Instead of bedside table lamps, Martin prefers wall-mounted fixtures with swing arms on either side of the bed. They can move to shine light where you want it, while freeing up room on nightstands.