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Randall Whitehead

Professional Lighting Expert

Best Ambient Light & Best Low Voltage Lighting

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The Best Ambient Lighting

Ambient light is the soft, general illumination that fills the volume of a room with a glow of light and softens the shadows on people’s faces. It is the most important of the four functions of light, but it is often the one element that is left out of the design of a room or space.

The best ambient light comes from sources that bounce illumination off the ceiling and walls. Such light fixtures as opaque indirect wall sconces, torchères (floor lamps), opaque or semi-opaque pendants, and cove lighting can provide a subtle general illumination without drawing attention to the source. You could call it the “open hearth effect,” where the room seems to be filled with the light of a roaring fire.

Keep in mind that filling a room with table lamps does not provide adequate ambient illumination. These are decorative fixtures that can double as task lights when needed, but they cannot provide ambient light, although they can provide ambience. This is what helps people form an impression of a space, but using them alone in a space creates blobs of uncomfortable illumination that can overpower the environment. Let these portable lamps act a true decorative source, creating welcoming little islands of light instead. Utilizing other sources to provide the necessary ambient light lets the decorative luminaires create the illusion of illuminating the room without dominating the design.

The inclusion of an ambient light source works well only if the ceiling is light in color. For example, a richly hued eggplant colored ceiling in a Victorian dining room or a dark wooden ceiling in a cabin retreat would make indirect light sources ineffective, because the dark surfaces absorb most of the light instead of reflecting it back into the space.

One viable solution to this situation is to lighten the color of the ceiling. Sometimes the best answer to a lighting problem is to alter the environment rather than change the luminaire. Instead of the whole ceiling being dark colored, how about a wide border in that color with the rest of the ceiling done in a cream color or similar light hue? A wooden ceiling could be washed with a light-colored opaque stain, giving it a more weathered look without taking away from the wood feel itself, as simple painting would.

If you are dead set against changing the color, a light fixture could be selected that can provide its own reflective surface, essentially providing its own ceiling.

Using a traditional chandelier or pendant with a hidden incandescent or fluorescent source could complement the design while adding a subtle layer of ambient light. Sometimes fixtures can be multi-functional, providing either task and decorative light or task and ambient light from the same fixture. This multifunctional type of fixture is good to use when you want to create the illusion of a secondary ceiling level in a vaulted space to create a more human scale to a room.

There are many ways of getting ambient light into a room. Ambient light, just like the other three functions, should not be used by itself, because you end up with what is known as the “cloudy day effect,” where everything in a given space appears to have the same value, without any depth or dimension. Here again, ambient illumination is only one component of well-designed lighting. Light layering is always the way to go.

(Article continued in the Best of the Rest section...)

The best ambient light recommendations means you'll always have the right mood in every room of your home. The best low voltage lighting softens shadows and leaves the room feeling like it has the light of a roaring fire.

Best Ambient Lighting by Randall Whitehead

The Best You Can Get

  • Ingo Maurer - Flotation

    Randall says: This is one of those fixtures that is both a decorative light source and also ambient illumination. The fixture is Japanesque in feel but lends itself to many design styles. It is available in three sizes and takes one 100-watt par 30, two 60-watt household bulbs and two 40-watt household bulbs. It can also use screw-in compact fluorescent lamps. While some of the light is transmitted through the paper, most of the light is directed upwards to provide gentle fill light for the room.

    • 3 sizes
    • Uses 60-watt and 40-watt standard bulbs
  • Sirmos - Pavilion Sconce 80209R-053

    Randall says: Sirmos is a very inventive company that uses cast resin to create the look and feel of other materials. The ‘Pavilion’ wall sconce can be made to look like aged limestone or terra cotta. It comes in two sizes, the smaller size takes a 60-watt bulb and the larger size uses a 100-watt bulb.

    • Aged limestone finish option
    • 2 sizes
    • Small sconce – 60-watt bulb, large sconce 100-watt bulb
  • Belfer - Varial Sconce 6230

    Randall says: This low profile wall sconce can pack a lot of punch and providing ambient light. Its diminutive size 4-7/8” x 6.75” allows it to almost fade away. It comes in four standard finishes and takes a 100-watt halogen bayonet base bulb. I would recommend ordering it with the square backplate.

    • 100-watt halogen bayonet base bulb
  • JH Lighting - Kristine Tripod Pendant C790

    Randall says: For a more traditional setting, this solid brass opaque pendant by J.H. Lighting and Brass Works, Inc. does a wonderful job of providing the much needed fill light for a space. It has a 22” diameter and a 24” overall height which can be ordered in custom lengths. It uses three 100-watt household bulbs, three 20-watt screw-in fluorescents or can be ordered with hard-wired fluorescents.

    • 100-watt bulbs, or 20-watt fluorescents
  • Boyd - Spectro Pendant 2505

    Randall says: This is a great fixture to use when the ceiling color may be too dark to use as a reflective surface, because it has its own ‘ceiling built in.’ A 250-watt frosted halogen bulb bounces light off a frosted glass disk while allowing a small amount of light to pass to the ceiling line.

    • 250-watt frosted halogen bulb

You will be happy with any of these

  • Siena Lighting - Bella Bellissima Floor Lamp PI1026-180

    Randall says: The fastest way to provide ambient light for a room is to plug in a torchère or two. This floor lamp is made of blown glass and hides a very energy efficient 24-watt fluorescent bulb.

    • 3 color variations available: Black/Red, Black/Yellow, Sandblasted/Black
    • 24-watt T5 Mini Bi-Pin Linear Fluor
  • Birchwood Lighting - Ashley ASH-T5

    Randall says: This is not the fluorescent that you grew up with. There is no humming, buzzing, nor that unflattering greenish glow. This indirect light source provides an even glow of illumination that is shadow free and very energy efficient. It comes in three different lengths and has a dimmable version. The fixture is 1.5” deep and 6” wide, fitting nicely into cove lighting detail.

    • T5 or T5HO fluorescent bulb
    • UL and CUL listed for dry and damp locations
  • Seagull - Ambience LX Lighting System

    Randall says: For those homeowners who are just not willing to embrace the newer energy efficient technologies like fluorescent and LEDs, they can look at the Ambience LX series made by Seagull Lighting. This is a very easy to install system that uses a xenon source. Their special festoon light bulb has an average rated life of 150,000 hours (when operated at 23 volts) which is actually longer than the LED bulb rating. It is also dimmable.

    • Black, Chrome, Eurotech, Polished Brass, and White finishes
    • Festoon Xenon light bulb
    • Dimmable
  • Belfer - Reflex 1341

    Randall says: The Belfer ‘Reflex’ series is in essence a recessed wall sconce that fits flush with the wall surface. It is available in both incandescent and fluorescent dimmable bulb options. It also has six different trim options and five different finishes. This is the perfect fixture for narrow hallways and tight staircases.

    • White, Satin, Titanium, Stainless Steel trim finishes
    • Both incandescent and CFL options
    • Dimmable
  • Phoenix Day - Tuscany 2930 Pendant

    Randall says: The ‘Tuscany’ pendant is an opaque plaster fixture that helps provide ambient light in a traditional setting. It uses three 100-watt household bulbs or three screw-in compact fluorescent bulbs. The metal rods are available in twelve different finishes. The fixture is 30” in diameter with an overall height of 32”.

    • 100-watt household bulbs or standard socket sized CFL

Related Articles

Find the best ambient light at the best price to set the right tone in your home. We suggest the best low voltage lighting, whether pendant or other light fixture that softens shadows for the right mood. The best modern lighting includes ambient lighting, and often the right color ceiling will help you set that subtle tone of a roaring fire that you desire.