"Lighting 101 is layers," Christine Frisk said. Many houses, "because they were built without designers or architects or lighting consultants," feature rooms with only one source of light. But multiple sources -- recessed cans, a ceiling fixture, sconces, lamps and spots -- let you change the lighting depending on how you're using the room. For example, you'll generally want a bright room-wide overhead light in case someone loses an earring. But imagine lying in bed and staring up into a recessed ceiling can, Frisk said. Most of the time, you'll want either softer light or light focused directly on a task. Laura Bischoff's rule of thumb is "lighting on the ceiling, the walls, the floor and/or tables," she said. "The way I set the lights is completely different when I'm entertaining from when I'm packing lunches in the morning."
For softer and more interesting effects, "splash it along a wall, a countertop, artwork," Thuftedal said. Frisk likes to light a room's perimeters with small recessed cans (three- to four-inch openings) rather than more common six-inch ones, which can produce unpleasant overhead glare. "In order for the room to really feel light, the walls need to get light," she said.
Even a chandelier in a dining room can look "a little bit dead," Frisk explained, casting harsh shadows under facial features and leaving the surrounding walls dim and gray. Nicole Thuftedal prefers directing light onto the table top itself with cans or soffits and turning the chandelier light down.
They're inexpensive, and let you control the light, extend the life of the bulb and save on electricity. "We don't always need it to be bright," Frisk said.
Incandescent bulbs produce warm, pleasant light. Fluorescent bulbs use less energy, but historically produce a cooler light that is often perceived as chilly, harsh, even depressing. Fluorescents and LEDs have vastly improved, the designers agreed, producing ever softer and warmer glows. Some designers are still holding out for even better versions; Jen Ziemer and Andrea Dixon "never use fluorescents." If you do, Thuftedal suggested painting the walls warmer colors to counterbalance the cooler light.
Designers' strategies to boost natural light in a room include omitting upper kitchen cabinets, using shiny or mirrored surfaces (even glossy ceilings!) and covering windows with translucent shades that diffuse light without blocking it.
• Don't use fluorescent bulbs in rooms where the lights are turned on and off frequently or you'll miss the energy savings, Thuftedal said. A fluorescent light uses the most energy when it's first lit, then very little after that.
• The ideal light around a bathroom or vanity mirror comes from the sides, "where it actually washes over your face," Frisk said. Overhead is the next best, but avoid backlighting that leaves your face in shadow. Also, put a light in your shower, especially if you have a curtain that would block light from elsewhere in the room.
• Two of the exterior doors in Bischoff's home feature large, energy-efficient glass panes. "It's a way to bring in natural light without putting in a window," which is far more expensive, she said. For nighttime privacy, the panes are equipped with diffusing blinds that match those on her windows.
• A beautiful sconce can function like a piece of art on a wall, Frisk said. Yet when you take into the account the price of art and framing, a sconce can be cheaper.