The deep dark world of lighting

Submitted by Andrea on March 12, 2012

After struggling for months to complete our lighting plan, I now understand why most builders just give up and install recessed cans everywhere. You put a decorative fixture over the dining room table and in the bedrooms, maybe combined with a ceiling fan, plus some attractive pendants in the master bathroom, and voilà — a lighting plan!

Ted and I stubbornly resisted this approach, and after wrestling for ages with our own lighting design I can absolutely see why most people succumb and go the easy route. Our not-so-fun experiences included:

  • Getting a terrifyingly-high initial quote from a top-tier lighting consultant (more on this later).
  • Spending countless hours perusing lighting websites (I'm looking at you, Lighting Universe, Lumens.com, LampsPlus, Rejuvenation, Schoolhouse Electric, Barn Light Electric, Neena's, Lightology, and EuroStyleLighting.com).
  • Being led down the garden path by a vendor who said we simply had to see their terrific showroom, and then driving a long way to discover they had a tiny showroom with exactly nothing we liked.
  • Asking for specific advice from said vendor, waiting a week for that advice, but then being sent nothing but a quote for hugely expensive fixtures we never even asked about.
  • Choosing a bunch of attractive and reasonably-priced pendant fixtures, only to find out that someone near and dear to us suffers petit mal episodes around gently-swaying pendulums.

Yup, putting together this lighting plan has been a non-stop party! But now that the plan is done, I'm glad we toughed it out — I think our lighting will look great and function well, and I want to share what we've learned.

Our first step back in October was to contact a highly-recommended lighting designer from out of state. We got off on the wrong foot, though, when he sent us a quote based on a palatial Vermont ski house he had consulted on, and we had to explain that we were the lesser-known kind of of Vermonter who only has one home. (The overwhelming majority of Vermonters fall into this category, but if you're a renowned lighting designer in the greater NYC area you tend to meet only the other type.)

Once we conveyed to him what cheapskates we are, he assured us that he's happy to work on an hourly basis for people who just want a few pointers. Our first meeting with him was very productive and we planned to keep consulting him, but then Ted broke his collarbone and I freaked out about costs and decided we should just figure out the lighting all by ourselves. Ted devised an elaborate plan, rife with LED strips and T5 fluorescent tubes hiding behind valences, but it was really way too complicated and when I presented it our electrician in late January he soberly told us it was going to cost a friggin fortune to install.

We weren't really sure how to proceed, so we decided to meet with the lighting consultant again. He took a red pen to our plan, and two hours later we were all set. Here are the key items:

Indirect LED strips

We're probably going to get WAC Lighting InvisiLED Pro strip lights. They have a pretty decent color-rendering index (CRI), though a little short on red, which means we need to be careful when we choose our wall paint color. The light will bounce off the paint, so we'll go with a faintly rosy shade of white.

More recessed cans than I expected

Our lighting bible has been Martin Holladay's 10 Rules of Lighting, and he really hates recessed downlights. He points out that in nature the sky is bright and the earth is dark, and yet downlights mostly just light the floor. Furthermore, they cast unflattering shadows (as my bathroom mirror reminds me every morning), and on a high ceiling they don't really provide much useful light at all.

Ted and I were prepared to forgo recessed cans almost entirely, using them only above the shower and bathtub, and also as tasks light over the kitchen sink. But it turns out they work well if placed the right distance from the wall (24-27" for a high ceiling), and so we're going to use a wee smattering of them. They'll all be Juno IC-20 5" housings, with LED PAR30 replacement lamps.

Lighting alongside the bathroom mirrors

The most flattering lights for a bathroom mirror are the old Hollywood-style lightbulb surround. Light hits the subject from all directions, which means no creepy shadows. But many bathrooms only have downlights (this kind of fixture is all too common) — they look nice on the wall, but not so nice on the face.

The Hollywood lights are a bit over the top (and screamingly inefficient), so we're going with sconces on either side of the mirror. Not fancy, but flattering, and it'll bounce some light off the ceiling as well.

(We found an awesomely goth lighted mirror that we wanted for the master bath, but sadly it is discontinued and we'll have to content ourselves with something far more pedestrian.)

Incandescent decorative fixtures

Wait, huh? I thought incandescent bulbs were a big waste of electricity!?

They are, but the fixtures have nice standard sockets which take plain old Edison bulbs, and that's the biggest segment of the LED replacement market. So as long as we choose decorative fixtures that don't take too weird of bulbs, we can easily make them more efficient.

Choosing fixtures was often quite a challenge. Ted and I don't always have the same taste, and we're both quite opinionated. And once we agreed on a fixture that was the right price (another huge challenge), we'd discover it uses some crazy little non-standard halogen bulb which will almost certainly never get an LED replacement.

No dark shades!

This also comes from Martin Holladay's lighting rules: Don't block that light with silly dark shades. And don't obstruct light from bouncing back toward the ceiling. We're being careful to prevent glare from exposed bulbs, but otherwise we're letting it all hang out, lightwise.

I could say much more on the topic of lighting but will instead treat you to photos of some of the fixtures we've picked out.

Wall sconces along the stairwell:

On either side of the master bathroom mirror:

Two rigid-stem (non-swaying) pendants over the dining room table, hanging off a monorail:

A big friendly pendant in the middle of the kitchen ceiling:

Wall sconces in one of the guest bedrooms:


A cheerful little ceiling light at the back door:

There are several others, but I will wait until I can display them in their new home!