HOW TO

LIGHT YOUR APARTMENT

Say no to the glow bomb centered in your ceiling.

Apartment lighting generally sucks. Landlords don't have an incentive, the know-how, or a desire to provide quality lighting in most cases, so we're left with cheap glow-bomb fixtures mounted in the center of the ceiling. This standard-issue lighting is the lowest common denominator; code requires a light fixture, you get one. There. But does anyone truly enjoy living out their lives in spaces that feel like mental institutions? There's got to be a better way!

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Compare the standard issue glow bomb on the left with our solution on the right. Note the corner and surface lighting. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.

Concepts

Regardless of fixture type, technology, or control, these three guidelines will make your spaces feel awesome: light surfaces, light the corners, and light what you want to see.

Light Surfaces

"Lighting surfaces" typically means to deliberately light walls or ceilings - the surfaces most often in our field of vision. Lighting those surfaces will redirect light back into the room, creating a soft ambient light that's free of glare and harsh shadows. Down-lights in ceilings will light the floor, or a table surface, or a wall if they are near one. Area lights will, for the most part, distribute light equally on all surfaces.

Light Corners

Corners are a great element to light - they are typically the darkest spots in a room, so lighting them will make the room feel bigger. Also one light illuminates not one, but two surfaces, increasing the ambient light levels.

corners
Note the aluminum foil on the right providing additional shielding from direct view of the source.

Light what you want to see

Got a beautiful painting on the wall? Light it! How about a few instruments? Light them! Bookshelves, tables, you name it. Reserve light for the things that deserve light, and conversely, don't light what you don't care to see. Here are some basic details and rules of thumb we use in the profession:

details
Diagrams by the author, original posted on Lam Partners website.


Technology and Hardware

The standard light bulb, officially the A19 or 'A-lamp', is the core form-factor of light sources in residential spaces. (In professional lighting a light bulb is called a 'lamp' - the bulb is actually just the glass enclosure of incandescent sources.) While the form-factor has not changed, the technology certainly has. LED lamps are now readily available and cost effective, and can be used in a number of fixture types. Here's a great introductory video by CNet on LED light bulbs for residential use:

When abiding by the concepts outlined above, the emphasis becomes the lit objects and spaces, not the light sources themselves. Therefore, relatively inexpensive lighting hardware can be just as effective, if not even moreso, than expensive fixtures. Bare sockets and artist clip-on lights can go a long way towards unique and comfortable lighting solutions!

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A silver-bowl LED lamp shields direct view of the light source. A well hidden bare socket under furniture creates comfortable under-glow lighting, perfect for setting the bedtime mood.

Room types and techniques

Different rooms require different qualities and quantities of light depending on the tasks performed or experiences desired. Generally, begin with as little light as is tolerable and build up slowly. You'll create more comfortable spaces and use less energy (unless your house is powered by PV, then use as much as you'd like!)

Living room

Living Room
Left: “As-is” lighting; Right: our lighting solution..

Our living room has a TV, a couch for reading, and a bookshelf. We lit each corner with a different light, as well as add light behind the TV to reduce the contrast ratio between the screen and surround (better on the eyes!). An adjustable reading lamp sits next to the couch. We turn on the light above the bookshelf much less often, only when we need some extra light. The result is a customized yet simple configuration that yields beautiful light quality in the space.

Bedroom

Overhead lighting in a bedroom is particularly egregious; it ruins any sense of quietness and intimacy. Bedrooms require minimal light levels - softly lighting two corners, or under-lighting a piece of furniture may be enough to navigate safely. Add a reading lamp if you require one, and voila!

bed
Underlighting the dresser gives the room a soft glow. We found our dresser on Folk Love Studio, a furniture refinisher who does wonderful work in the Boston Area

Bathroom

Bathroom lighting in an apartment may be less awful than other spaces in the house, but if it is bad, don't hesitate to modify it! Most importantly, cross-light the mirror to reduce unsightly shadowing on your face. This means one fixture on either side of the mirror, or a continuous fixture across the top. Also, be sure you don’t light your face from behind or directly over your head – it will be impossible to do make-up and other similar tasks in the mirror. Beyond that, set the mood how you like!

(No pics for this one - google 'bathroom lighting' to get some crazy ideas...)

Kitchen

If you don't have adequate light over work surfaces, get some. Clip lights aren't always the most aesthetically pleasing option, but if well-hidden they can be effective. Many companies make cost effective LED under-cabinet lights that can provide much-needed task light on countertops (Be careful to choose the right color temperature). Also if your cabinetry doesn't go to the ceiling, hide some light up on top! Get a bare socket on a long cord, or some LED tape-light, and just lay it up there, being sure to hide the cord.

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Office / Studio

Our office/studio has a few layers of light for various tasks, while a series of lights in corners and on furniture light various items in the room. To light a homasote wall for painting, we purchased a line of track on a cord+plug,installed in the ceiling, and ran it down the wall to a socket.

office
Many low-output sources create a soft and pleasant luminous environment

studio
This track by Intense Lighting may be larger than needed be for most residential use, but in our case, the fixtures hide high-tech PAR38s by Ketra.. Fixtures supplied by Boston Light Source.

Nursery

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Track mounted to the ceiling (left over from old studio space) lights the walls and objects. Low level lighting allows the baby to acclimate to the cosmos!

Outdoor spaces

Christmas lights can be beautiful if used in interesting and tactful ways. Here, they line the perimeter of our porch and make a starry night.

outdoor
All about the sparkle with minimal copper wire string lights.

Advanced Techniques

If you are comfortable with electrical work, ceiling mounted fixtures are not terribly difficult to switch out. Turn off the circuit, unscrew a few things, uncoil some wire, and the base fixture can be stored in the basement while a more beautiful option takes its place during your time in the apartment!

kitchen
The Louis Poulsen PH5 fixture in our kitchen is definitely not what comes with the apartment. Fixture supplied by Omni Light.

Super Advanced...Make your own light fixture and replace an existing hard-wired fixture.

Controls

Adding additional wall switches in a rental is typically not an option, but many alternatives exist. On the cheap end of the spectrum, wireless remotes control any lighting plugged into special sockets (multiple lights can be plugged into one socket). These work great and give you up to 5 individual layers of light.

For more options and fun, a whole range of 'smart' lighting products based around that ol' A19 lamp exist allowing control from smartphones. Phillips Hue is one of a number of options available.

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