Discover all you need to know about creating a well-lit space
Types of Interior Light
The five main types of interior lighting are: general, ambient, mood, task and accent.
Some lights can fit into a few types (depending on their placement, brightness and use) but a general understanding of each individual type of lighting can be very helpful in planning an effective scheme.
1. General Lighting
General lighting is the basic foundation of a lighting scheme, providing a uniform glow over an entire room and illuminating a space functionally rather than for aesthetic reasons.
The defining characteristic of general lighting is that it’s usually direct and should be controlled by a dimmer switch to account for changes in daylight.
A central pendant light is perhaps the most commonly used source of general lighting and can be an important part of the design of the room. A luxury chandelier or an artistic installation both make great visual statements in a room and direct the eye.
Having said that, these must be accompanied by other lighting layers as a central light source on its own casts unflattering shadows (especially for people) and gives no real life to a room.
A lighting scheme this simplified is generally considered vastly inadequate for creating a welcoming space.
2. Ambient Lighting
The next layer of lighting is ambient lighting which is a great partner to general lighting. Both types share important characteristics—they’re primarily functional and used to light a complete area. The main difference between the two is in the direction of their light. Interior designer April Russell explains the difference by saying, “General lighting is just that—practical light for every day and night use. Ambience lighting will more times out of none be connected to a dimming system to control the light levels depending on the occasion. Ambience lighting is generally used for entertaining—it creates drama.”
Ambient lighting is indirect and therefore softer than general lighting—because it doesn’t usually use downlighting, it doesn’t create unflattering shadows. Think of eyeball spotlights or wall sconces which wash a wall with light, backlit perspex panelling or concealed coffer lighting which throws light onto a ceiling like this cinema room by Finchatton, left.
The ambient lighting used here is also an example of architectural lighting which is often used to alter the appearance or size of a space. Without it, this windowless room would be terribly dark and feel very confining.
3. Task Lighting
As its name would suggest task lighting is any light source used for a particular task like reading or cooking. By nature, these lights need to have a stronger wattage than most other lighting. Always combine with adequate ambient light, however, to avoid eye strain caused by the sharp contrast from light to dark areas.
Reading and working areas (like this home office by Elicyon) are some of the most obvious areas in need of task lighting. Balanced-arm lamps make great desk designs whilst flexible reading lights fixed near a headboard are great for bedtime reading. Mirror lighting works well in personal grooming areas and bathrooms. The kitchen is another area into which task lighting must be incorporated to make food preparation easier and safer. Under-cabinet spotlights, recessed downlights over worktops or a long and low pendant light over a preparation island are just a few of the options for kitchen task lighting. Task lighting can also be used to create foot flow paths in a room or hallway or in the form of floor-level directional lights or riser lights on stairs.
4. Mood Lighting
Mood lighting is as important to the overall look of a room than general and ambient lighting and a space would be bare without it. It makes a room pleasantly inviting by creating pools of light which counteract the shadows caused by general lighting.
It’s also an important element of a room’s style as it tends to be equally concerned with style as it is with function—popular options being table lamps and floor lamps as seen in this Parisian living room design by Jean-Louis Deniot.
For table lamps, a solid side table or console is preferable otherwise it can be tricky to conceal the wires. Thread wires though a discreet hole drilled into the surface or tape or staple them down a leg.
Keep plug sockets close to where your lamps will be situated—another good reason to leave your electrical planning until nearer the end of your designing.
Because mood lighting is often the layer of lighting closest to eye level, it’s important to shade any glare from unsightly bare bulbs with a filter. The same goes for your general or ambient lighting if the bare bulb can be seen from below.
A handy tip from interior designer Barbara Barry helps with placement—“I like to place the source of lighting (the lamp shade) just above eye level which illuminates the whole room and is the most flattering because it doesn’t cast a down shadow.”
Image credit: Elicyon
Where once tungsten filament bulbs were the most popular choice, halogen and LEDs are the modern-day replacements for the now near-banned predecessor due to their cost and energy efficiency. Opt for a lower wattage for mood lighting—unlike task lighting, high wattage bulbs are too harsh and not appropriate. Higher wattage bulbs also need a large shade to provide enough space between the bulb and the material.
When choosing both floor and table lamps, pay attention to the proportions of the shade to its base as well as the proportion of the lamp to your furniture. Linda Holmes, LuxDeco’s creative director, says, “A huge faux pas that many people make when choosing lamps is that they choose ones that are too small. When in doubt, always go bigger. Unless, of course, the lamp has to fit a narrow console table. In that case, always measure.”
There are lots of other considerations when it comes to shades too. Hardware should always be covered by a shade—unsightly hardware look silly and ruins the aesthetic. Textures can also alter the look of a lamp especially when lit—for example, rougher linen designs will create a different light than a glossy satin shade.
If the light in your room relies heavily on mood lighting, paler tones are best to allow as much light to shine through; a darker shade is great if you’re going for a moody, atmospheric look. Silver or gold linings are the best for replicating a luxurious glow.
5. Accent Lighting
Similar to task lighting, accent lighting has a particular function and is any lighting which has specifically been included to highlight a particular feature in a room.
Spotlights which highlight artwork, sculptures and objets in cabinets or on pedestals are examples of accent lighting which enhance the pieces and prevent them from being lost in an under-illuminated space.
Similar to task lighting, because of its nature, accent lighting needs more lumens (the light output)—at least three times as much—and therefore requires a higher wattage.
Sometimes architectural lighting can be included in accent lighting as well as ambient lighting. Accent architectural lighting tends to be a little more subtle, however, highlighting textures and defining perimeters instead of a specific object.
Downlighting is a very useful and most popular form of lighting in interiors—most central light sources or spotlights will be downlights. It does cast unflattering shadows (especially for people) so it needs to be counterbalanced with adequate ambient lighting.
Uplighting is a much softer alternative to downlighting as it indirectly introduces light into a room by having it bounce off the ceiling and reflect back into the room.
3. Wall Washing
Wall washing evenly illuminates a vertical surface in a soft way. Place the light at an adequate distance so that the beam reaches the entire surface.
4. Wall Grazing
Wall grazing places a light intentionally close to the surface it’s to illuminate, effectively highlighting its texture.
Spotlighting is used a lot in task and accent lighting to highlight a particular feature of a room.
6. Perimeter Lighting
Perimeter lighting accentuates the dimensions of a room and expands its apparent size. Coving or cornice lighting is an effective way to do this and is used often by interior designers and architects.