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Using Light to Enhance a Space

Oct 23, 2006 | by Wendy Weinert

What constitutes good lighting design? Whether a space is large or small, whether you are laying out a design for a private home or a public business, a number of factors must come together for lighting to be both effective and beautiful.

First off, the lighting should look good. This may seem to be a simple statement, but attractive lighting involves more than just an expensive fixture or a pretty shade. For good lighting design, the decorative fixtures should not only enhance the overall interior design, but also blend together the light quality and quantity to enhance the space and not detract from it.

Other factors for good lighting design include providing the right amount of light for the tasks performed in any given room; meeting all the budget, code, and other client sensitivities; giving consideration to energy efficiency and lastly, using well-placed switching and dimming as tools to help create "scenes" in lighting designs.

In the book, Lighting Design Basics, James Benya partners with Mark Karlen to lay out the essentials on how to create beautiful lighting designs. Having taught lighting design and applications for over 30 years, Benya uses the layered approach, which incorporates four layers of lighting for effective design; the ambient layer, the task layer, the focal layer, and the decorative layer.

The Ambient Layer

As the layer of general, overall lighting, the ambient layer creates the relatively uniform lighting of the space. It tends to establish the mood or atmosphere, and is used to navigate any space and give basic visual recognition.

The ambient layer can include uniform downlighting, indirect lighting (using uplighting and wallwashing techniques), but can also be the decorative lighting for the room.

The Task Layer

The task layer is the specific lighting provided for any task or workspace. Generally limited to lighting focused onto horizontal work surfaces, task lighting can also help to create drama and exciting lighting contrasts in a room.

Lighting choices for the task layer may include a variety of fixture styles, such as downlights, undercabinet lights, lamps and pendant fixtures.

The Focal Layer

The focal layer is used to focus attention on features such as signage or artwork. Generally limited to accent lighting and similar effects, the focal layer is used to highlight items on display. It also creates drama with a greater contrast of light levels between the focal and ambient layers.

The most typical type of focal lighting is track lighting, frequently used because of its adjustability and flexibility.

The Decorative Layer

The fourth layer is the decorative layer, which includes any fixture selected to enhance the design of any space, adding the decorative touches called for by the architecture or interior design style, period or motif. Usually it adds to the general illumination, and in many designs, the decorative lighting will actually be the ambient lighting for a room.

Lighting fixtures for the decorative layer can include chandeliers, pendants and sconces. Generally, the decorative layer is not sufficient for task lighting, unless it is a directional fixture, and usually reduces contrast instead of increasing it.

Lighting design is a complex subject, and is an element of interior design that is often difficult to master. Using the layering technique is a great way to start, and will help guide you in learning how to create simple, beautiful lighting designs.