It's not exactly breaking new this, but a well-considered lighting design is one of the most important players when it comes to interiors. I've mentioned before that the best cure for a shite room is moody lighting. Not because moody lighting ultimately means less light, and less light means you can see less of the shite room, but a well-considered lighting scheme really does help to elevate a space, whatever it may look like.
The idea of primary and secondary lighting isn't a new concept, or at least it shouldn't be.
Without complicating things too much, a room with only a primary lighting design is like Susan Boyle on audition day for BGT: A lady who could belt out a great tune. A room with a good secondary lighting design is like Susan Boyle on the grand finale of BGT: That same lady, belting out another banger, but this time with way more effort paid to her appearance.
Secondary lighting is a little like Subo's new hair and make-up, the bells and whistles. They didn't necessarily make her a better singer, but it did make her slightly more marketable.
However in our quest to ensure that our rooms "look as good as possible on stage" have we placed too much emphasis on what our secondary lighting looks like, and less on what it's actually there to do?
Are we more concerned about physically having wall lights for example, so we can tick some sort of imaginary box, than paying attention to how those wall lights interact with the rest of the items in the room?
Don't get me wrong, it is better to have secondary lighting than not, and in this case looks count, but if ol' Susan Boyle couldn't sing, her new hair and makeup wouldn't really have helped much in a talent competition.
Are we potentially doing more harm than good to our interiors by trying to make each and every light fitting the main star of the show?
1. Visual real estate.
Which is more important on a wall, a wall light (sconce) or a piece of art?
If you had a gun to your head (again with the high risk designing strategies) a lot of people would probably argue that the answer is a sconce. A wall light at least has a practical component to it, and therefore more beneficial to the overall look. Moreover, if the sconce was pretty enough you could argue that the wall light itself was a piece of art and therefore served both purposes.
You aren't wrong in thinking this. However, you aren't right either. The correct answer is why not both? It should seldom be either or.
I get that every time you hang a piece of art you don't need to question if you should perhaps install a light fitting as well, however whenever you are determining the position of a wall light, you should ask yourself one of these two questions.
1) Is the position of the wall light preventing me from doing something more with the space? I.e. is the wall light in position that is perhaps in the way of me displaying art (or even a mirror) and better utilising the "visual real estate."
2) Is it possible to position both art and a wall light in this location?
If the answer is yes to either one of these questions, re-specify or reposition the light fitting so that you don’t have to sacrifice the art or mirror.
The simplest way to satisfy both the need for art and light, is with a picture light positioned horizontally above a piece of art, or simply position a wall light, running vertically, either side a piece of art.
By doing so you prevent the unfortunate scenario where you have a standalone light in location you now can't change, and a massive chunk of visual real estate that has no substance to it other than a sconce that gets turned on for a couple hours an evening. This is secondary lighting we're talking about here remember, there is no real need for a wall light to take prime position just so you can have some mood lighting once in a while.
Obviously if your wall light is a piece of art, and by that I mean a sculpture, not just pretty, by all means let it take prime position. However in your average home that might be the case only once, in which case all other times, ask yourself, why not both.
2. A conflict of balance.
Unless you don't mind all the work that goes along with changing a light fitting every time you want one moved, you'll agree with me that these things are pretty permanent.
Not to rehash the point I have already made above, however it's important that we get their placement right.
I'd say that most people can walk into a room, and even if the room isn't symmetrical, they would be able to determine the mid-point or balance point. Without even realising it, we all take certain cues from a room to help make sense of it. Perhaps a remnant of our fight or flight days. The better a room has been designed and laid out, the easier it is to do this. When designing, one would generally pick a permanent fixture, such as a chimney breast, and use that to determine the centre or balance point. As a result we have become accustomed to looking for permanent fixtures to help us visually balance a room...it's not quite plotting an escape route from a sabre-toothed tiger, but our brains adapt.
It's not always about chimney breasts and windows however. Because light fittings are perceived as permanent, our eye looks to these to help find balance. If these are now positioned in the wrong place, our rooms will never feel quite right. Imagine talking to somebody with a skew hair piece, but your hands are tied behind your back and there is nothing you can do to fix it. This is your life now.
One area in particular where I see this conflict of balance is in the bedroom.
I'm not here to tell you how to lay out your bedroom, but if you are going to install permanent wall lights or drop pendants either side of your bed, there are some definite rights and wrongs that you need to keep in mind.
These only look good when the bed side tables on each side of the bed are the same, and there is complete symmetry on the "headboard wall."
When we plan these things, it's a little chicken and egg this, what comes first the furniture or the lights? However because we perceive wall lights as being permanent and furniture movable, at the end of the day we look to the light fittings to find balance. If these are now positioned over asymmetrical bedside tables, it will always feel like room has missed the mark, the furniture is the wrong size or in fact the very room itself is too small and pinched on the one side.
If you are forced to lay out a bedroom with two unequal sized bedside tables, for space constraints for example, don't amplify the imbalance with fitted lighting. Rather play up the asymmetry with table or floor lamps to help even out the scale.
If you are set on a fitted wall light however, because you have that imaginary box to check, install only one wall light or pendant over the dominant (larger) beside table. That way at least there is a bit of rationale as to why you've placed the table where you have.
3. I can does not mean I should.
A question I get asked a fair bit is on pendants. People love a f**king pendant. Controversial opinion, but pendants are generally picked on what they look like, and less on what they are actually meant to do, which is provide light. They are the epitome of a secondary lighting source, the ultimate hair and make-up.
When selecting a pendant, the questions people ask are never practical ones like how much light does this pendant give off, or is pendant actually the right thing for a room. It's always, I need a pendant, I want a pendant, is this one nice enough, should I maybe get two of them?
In some instances down lighters or ceiling mounted spot lights might not be possible, and a central pendant is the only way to go for your primary lighting needs. However for the large majority of homes, especially those undergoing a renovation, there is no reason why a pendant needs to be the primary source of light in a room.
Just like children, just because you can have one, doesn't necessarily mean you should. Not every room is suitable for a pendant, and therefore not every room should get a pendant.
It goes back to the point above about a light fitting being used to help find a centre point of a room, and there is no better example of something demarcating the centre of a room like a pendant dangling from the ceiling.
Before going ahead with selecting the pendant, whatever it may look like, you need to ask yourself the following questions.
1) Do I centre the pendant on other permanent features of the room (like a chimney breast) and run the risk of it being off centre to the furniture below?
2) Do I position the pendant central to the furniture but then have a room that feels off balance to the other permanent features in the space?
If you can't satisfy both those questions with a justifiable rationale, your room does not need, nor should it have a pendant.
Don't let your want of a pendant work against you. Rather find other suitable alternative locations to install secondary lighting which will allow your room to best shine.
4. In the zone.
Whenever I specify light fittings for a house I am always surprised at how many different types end up going into one home. When they're all lined up, even just on paper, I often think, "Crikey, have I not maybe picked too many?"
Generally I'll end up doing some editing as I go along, and add and remove where necessary to get the best result. However when people are left to make all these decisions on their own, without a designer on board, they end up going down one of two paths.
1) Panic about all the choices, flip out at the budget and remove a whole bunch of fittings to make the process easier. Less lights, less choice, less money.
2) Want each and every decision they make to be meaningful and impactful. “Light fittings are expensive, so if I'm going to be forking out, why be boring and have them all match?”
At this stage, we're all on board that this blog is really for all the number 2s out there, but the following bit of advice can be applied to either camp.
Break your home into zones, and match all your light fittings in those zones.
For example. Hallways and Landings, one zone. Kitchen, one zone. Bathrooms, one zone. Etc. etc. Not only will this reduce the number of individual decisions you need to make when it comes to selecting light fittings, it will enforce a sense of repetition thought the house.
Repetition isn't a bad thing. Sure too much repetition may get a bit boring after a while, but the point of this exercise is to prevent each and every light fitting from being the main star of the show. Rather have a repeating, considered selection of lights, than have a mishmash of fittings that look like you raided a lighting warehouse for the last of all their stock.
Repetition implies intention, and it is better to have secondary lighting with intention, than having it just for the sake of it.
5. All you need is (a) lamp.
I reference throughout this post, an imaginary check list that people use when making decisions about their interiors. I call this check list the “bragging rights checklist” and it consists of all things you drop into conversation when chatting to a mate about your new home. They are the type of things that should elicit the “oooh, nice” response. Things like soft close doors and home automation. In reality these are nice things to have, but they don’t really paint a real picture of the true look of the house. Wakefield prison after all probably has soft close doors and home automation, and calling that home is not really something to brag about.
To a certain degree, fitted secondary lighting is on this list. I am not now saying don’t bother having wall lights or pendants, I love a wall light and I wouldn’t design a home without one, but that doesn’t mean I overlook other sources of lighting, like the humble plug in lamp, in light of of trying to sound cool in conversation.
You can sometimes achieve a more curated, organic and layered design by opting for a simple table lamp.