Recessed lights the building block for illuminating a room

When it comes to lighting, people often focus on the fixture style — contemporary, traditional and retro are among the most popular — but experts from the American Lighting Association say to truly decorate with light, you should be paying more attention to what the light source is doing.

“A lot of people think wall sconces and chandeliers are great ways to light a room, but the reality is they are not very good light sources. They can, however, be used as a layer when you are decorating with light,” said Steve Schwartz of ELCO Lighting in Vernon, Calif.

When people come to him looking for recommendations on how to incorporate decorative lighting into their homes, he always offers the following advice: “Start with ambient light and go from there.”

Al Thomas of Seattle Lighting Design says ambient light can come from any number of sources — wall sconces, pendants or lamps to name a few.

“They dispel the darkness, add warmth to a room and provide the foundation layer of light for a room. Once you have that first layer down, then the next step is to turn to recessed for task, accent and wall lighting.”

Developed in the 1950s, recessed lighting created the ability to light a space from above the ceiling plane. This innovative idea changed the future of lighting used in both homes and commercial spaces, and is still one of the most important architectural tools in lighting design.

Today, recessed lighting fixtures are being used to create dramatic effects in every room in the house. In the living room, they can spotlight a painting on the wall or a piece of furniture; in a hallway, they can create a scalloping effect as you walk; in the kitchen they are replacing the typical center fixture and providing more functional task lighting where needed; and in bedrooms and cozy corners of dens, they are being used as reading lights.

“The possibilities offered by recessed lighting are truly endless,” said Jim McCarthy of Cooper Lighting in Peachtree City, Ga. “I love how you can use it to do pretty much anything you want to do. It’s the true workhorse of the lighting industry.”

Bob Wedekind of the recessed division of Lightolier, headquartered in Massachusetts, says when done right “recessed lighting will be very discreet. It will draw attention to the item you’re illuminating. Not the fixture or source of light.”

Working with recessed lighting

* Make crystals shine. When you walk into a foyer, your eyes are instantly drawn to a crystal chandelier with incandescent bulbs, even though it is not producing much light. McCarthy says this is because as the light given off by the recessed lights above criss-crosses, it cools off the light source, making the crystals sparkle.

* Enhance a display of collectibles. When you look into a china cabinet in the dining room, the collectibles inside shine and/or sparkle under the recessed lighting casting down on them from above.

* Define spaces. You can have a large great room and use the recessed fixtures to define various spaces, like a seating area or game area.

* Illuminate vertical surfaces or wall washing. This will give the illusion of a larger space. If you put somebody in a room with dark walls, they will feel a sense of confinement. Light up those same walls and it will feel more spacious, more open.

“Recessed lighting offers the ability to properly illuminate any number of spaces. Depending on what you want to illuminate, you have access to warm or cool light, ambient or direct light, whatever you need,” said Wedekind.

Thomas agrees that it is important to choose the right bulbs and fixtures. For example, a low-voltage MR16 will make a granite countertop shine, he says, while a typical R30 reflector will not. If you want to bring out all the colors in a piece of artwork, use an MR16 bulb. An R30 would skew towards warm colors only.

Aperture size is also a consideration,” pointed out Thomas. “In a small powder room, you’d want to use a smaller aperture recessed can, while in a great room, the larger aperture would work fine.”

To learn more about how to decorate with light, log on to the American Lighting Association Web site at and click on Enter Consumer Site, then Lighting Your Home and you will find a lot more information.

Courtesy of ARAcontent

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