When designing the lighting for your home, you should start by learning the “language of light.” Don’t be intimidated. There are only four words to learn: decorative, task, accent, and ambient. All electric lighting falls into these four categories. Once you have these terms down then working out the lighting for any of the rooms in your house becomes much less overwhelming. There is no one light fixture that can give you everything you need to illuminate a room properly. The trick is using a variety of light sources to create a flexible, inviting space. This is what is referred to as “light layering.” These categories are also referred to as the four functions of light. Here is a list of what they are and what it is that they do:
These are what I like to call “architectural jewelry.” Their only purpose is to look pretty. They add sparkle to a space. Chandeliers, exterior lanterns and candlestick-type wall sconces fall into this category. They should not be used as the work horses for lighting a space. When they are too bright they can visually overpower the other elements of the design. Subtle is the way to go when thinking about decorative lighting.
Lighting by which you do work, such as the under cabinet lighting in the kitchen, reading lamp next to a chair, lighting in your closet, and lighting at the bathroom mirror for applying makeup or shaving.
Lighting used to highlight objects in a space. This adds depth and dimension to an environment. Recessed adjustable fixtures, track lights, portable uplights, and directional landscape lights all fall into this category.
This is the gentle fill light for a room. It softens shadows on people’s faces and fills the volume of the space with a warm glow, as if the room was being filled with the light of a roaring fire. Ambient light comes from illumination that is bounced off the ceiling. Such sources as opaque wall sconces, torcheres, pendant hung indirect fixtures, and cove lighting can be used to create the ambient light.
The Bottom Line
By layering these four functions of light together you can create an environment that welcomes visitors into the space, while providing usable light for day-to-day activities. Getting a feel for these terminologies will get you on the right path to understanding how light can work for you.
Accent light is directed illumination that highlights objects within an environment. Lighting devices such as track lighting and recessed adjustable fixtures are used to bring attention to art, sculpture, tabletops, and plants. Just like any of the other three functions of light, accent light should not be the only source of illumination in a room.
If you use only accent light, you get the “museum effect,” where the art visually takes over the room while guests fall into darkness. Subconsciously, people will feel that the art is more important than they are. Of course, some people do feel that the art they own is more important than their guests.
How many times have you had to sit down and rest or search for an espresso after going through three rooms in a museum? People can get really exhausted when looking at illuminated art next to non-illuminated walls. Even museums nowadays are adding additional illumination beyond accent light to help reduce eye fatigue, thus cutting the contrast in the overall environment. They too are learning the advantages of light layering to counteract the energy draining museum effect.
Effective accent lighting thrives on subtlety. A focused beam of light directed at an orchid or highlighting an abstract painting above an ornate chest of drawers, can create a wondrous effect. If done well, people won’t notice the light itself. They will see only the object being illuminated. The most successful lighting effect achieves its magic through its very invisibility. If you see the light source, then there is no magic.
In the movies, if we can tell how a special effect has been achieved, we feel cheated. We don’t want to know how it’s done, because we want to think it’s supernatural. In lighting design, it should be no less the case. We want to see the effects of light, but the method needs to remain unseen. This subtlety is what will create a cohesive wholeness, allowing the design, the architecture, the furnishings, and the landscaping to become the focus of a space, not the luminaires or the lamps glaring out from within them.
These are choices that I find great for accent lighting; you’ll find that most of them are energy efficient choices – because beauty can also be wise.
With the best accent lighting, put a spotlight on your favorite art and home accents. These best track lighting recommendations also fit in with your decor so they shine the light on your favorites without getting noticed.