Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Go to the dark side when designing lighting

From page C3 | September 28, 2012 |

I am in the dark about a lot of subjects, and light is one of them. But the dark is a great place to start when seeking enlightenment on lighting, says 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.

For some reason, the more he talks about dark and light, the more I feel like I’m in church, or maybe should be.

“Light depends on its opposite,” he says.

“Like good needs evil,” I say. “Like Harry Potter needs Voldemort.”

“We need light against dark to show us where to focus.”

“That’s why God ordered up light by the third verse of the Bible!” I blurt. “That ‘In the beginning,’ part and that ‘Let there be light,’ part. Otherwise what would be the point of all that creation?”


Surely, this unsuspecting designer, who’s never talked to me before, is wondering what kind of loony he has on the phone.

“Right,” he continues cautiously. “People often spend a lot of money and effort to create a beautiful room then drop the ball with lighting, which can either show it all off to the best effect — or ruin it.”

“Where do we go wrong?”

“We forget the importance of darkness,” he says. “We need darkness to create drama and contrast, to evoke texture, and to cast shadows in the right places.”

“You mean, there are good shadows and bad shadows?”

“The best lighting is layered,” he says.

“And more isn’t better.”

“Depends on the circumstances. The right amount makes any experience more pleasurable, and that changes whether you’re reading, entertaining or sleeping.”

“Or looking in the mirror after a 10-hour work day,” I add, “when, frankly, I’d prefer minimal illumination.”

“People only think about light when they need more or want less,” he says.

“That is true about so many things we take for granted, isn’t it?”


As I mull the virtues of darkness and the origins of the universe, Martin shares these lighting principles and tips:

Lighting principles:

  • Create places in spaces. Anyone can fill a room with boring light. But 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, says Martin. 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, says Martin. As important, however, are less visible fixtures that don’t call attention to themselves. Recessed can lights, art spots, under-cabinet lights, or soffit lighting that wash a wall can be invisibly gorgeous.

Tips for spaces:

  • Dining rooms. Light them like a theater, says Martin. 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,” says Martin.
  • 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, which aren’t movable, 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 night stands.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through





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