3 Basic Types of Lighting

Learn about ambient, accent and task lighting and how to use each in your home
Modern Living Room Gives Nod to Mid-Century Style

Modern Living Room Gives Nod to Mid-Century Style

With neutral walls and soft, natural wood finishes, the tangerine fabric of an Arne Jacobsen swan chair pops in this modern, Mid-Century-inspired living room. Orange pillows carry the chair's fun color onto the neutral sofas. The extra-tall swing arm lamp and low-profile coffee table with exaggerated casters add quiet pops of whimsy.

Photo by: Geoffrey Hodgdon

Geoffrey Hodgdon

By: Jill Connors
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The single most important concept in creating a good lighting plan for the home is to use an array of different types of lighting. "My best advice whatever you're doing, whatever you want to achieve, is to create three layers of lighting—ambient, task and accent," says Patricia Rizzo of the Lighting Research Center. Too many people make the mistake of expecting one type of lighting to do it all. Each type meets a particular need.

Layering Light

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Contemporary Living Room

Recessed fixtures with MR16 halogen lightbulbs provide both ambient and accent lighting in this contemporary living room. Near the fireplace wall, recessed fixtures are positioned to accent the artwork and mantel; the remaining recessed fixtures provide ambient light. In the bookcases, accent lighting for niches is provided by low-voltage halogen lights. All lighting is on dimmers. Lighting design by Markus Earley, Providence, R.I. Photo by Markus Earley

Traditional Sitting Room

For a sitting room filled with framed original artwork, three layers of lighting are included. Ambient lighting comes from recessed fixtures in the center of the ceiling, which have MR16 halogen lightbulbs. Accent lighting for a wall with a grouping of artwork is provided by track lighting that has been recessed in a slot between ceiling joists; the adjustable heads have MR16 halogen lightbulbs. Two round recessed fixtures in the ceiling near the windowed wall provide accent lighting for framed artwork, and a table lamp near the wing chair provides task lighting for reading. Lighting design by Markus Earley, Providence, R.I. Photo by Markus Earley

Fireplace Accent

Track lighting suspended from the ceiling provides accent lighting for a framed print (center two track heads) as well as the mantel (outer two track heads). PAR30 halogen lightbulbs are used in the track heads. Lighting design by Markus Earley, Providence, R.I. Photo by Markus Earley

Cathedral Ceiling

A living room with a vaulted ceiling receives ambient and accent lighting via a combination of track and recessed fixtures. The track lighting, with PAR30 halogen lightbulbs, is primarily used to accent the artwork and fireplace, while the two recessed fixtures in the ceiling, with MR16 halogen lightbulbs, provide ambient lighting. Lighting design by Markus Earley, Providence, R.I. Photo by Markus Earley

Hallway Gallery

In a home where a hallway doubles as a gallery for framed artwork, cove lighting is used to provide both ambient and accent lighting. Low-voltage frosted halogen lightbulbs are concealed in cornice molding placed several inches below ceiling height. A table lamp is used as night lighting for the hallway. Lighting design by Markus Earley, Providence, R.I. Photo by Markus Earley

Open Kitchen

Ambient and task lighting in this kitchen, which opens to a casual dining area, are provided by several fixture types. A group of eight recessed lights, with MR16 halogen lightbulbs, provides ambient lighting as well as some task lighting over the island. Recessed fixtures around the perimeter also double as ambient and task lighting for the countertops and sink; these fixtures also have MR16 halogen lightbulbs. Three pendant fixtures with low-voltage halogen lightbulbs provide task lighting at the island. Two sets of undercabinet fixtures provide task lighting near the range; the fixtures have T5 fluorescent lightbulbs with warm light (3,000 Kelvin correlated color temperature). Lighting design by Markus Earley, Providence, R.I. Photo by Markus Earley

Entry Stairway

Just inside the front door, a stairway is illuminated by double-height windows as well as several recessed lights high up in the ceiling (not shown), with powerful PAR36 halogen lightbulbs. Ambient lighting from recessed fixtures in the living-dining area also lights the entry stairway. Lighting design by Markus Earley, Providence, R.I. Photo by Markus Earley

Front Door

A wall-mounted fixture near the front door provides accent lighting for a home’s entry, emitting a soft glow from a 210-lumens (25-watt) incandescent lightbulb. Photo courtesy Lighting Research Center, Troy, N.Y.

Bath Valance

A valance above the mirror conceals T5 linear fluorescents that provide ambient and task lighting as well as uniform illumination and decreased shadowing caused by poorly directed light. Photo courtesy Lighting Research Center, Troy, N.Y.

Bedroom Haven

Avoiding the glare of downlights is a key consideration in a bedroom. Cove lighting, concealed in a wall-mounted wooden ledge, creates ambient light with a tranquil glow. The uplight, which features T8 fluorescent lightbulbs, also enhances the sloped ceiling. Task lighting for reading takes the form of a table lamp with a 900-lumens (15-watt) compact fluorescent lightbulb. Photo courtesy Lighting Research Center, Troy, N.Y.

Neutral Kitchen

Ambient lighting is provided by linear T2 fluorescents running the length of the top of the cabinets to bounce light off the ceiling; several recessed fixtures with 1,500-lumens (26-watt) compact fluorescent lightbulbs also add ambient lighting. Task lighting comes from undercabinet T2 fluorescents, decorative pendants over the island, and a recessed fixture with a PAR halogen downlight over the kitchen sink. Colors of walls, cabinets and countertops greatly influence the choice of lighting. Neutral and warm tones like grays, browns, and beiges require warm color temperature lighting, in the 2,700 to 3,000 Kelvin range. Use consistent color temperatures of bulbs when mixing fluorescent and incandescent in a room. Photo courtesy Lighting Research Center, Troy, N.Y.

Family Room With TV

Creating a glare-free lighting design is key in a room where television watching takes place. In this room, ambient lighting is provided by cove lighting above the entertainment center, which washes the upper wall with light, and by valance lighting along an adjacent wall, bouncing light up and down the wall. Both examples of architectural lighting keep the illumination from positions where it might be reflected in the television screen. Warm color temperature T8 linear fluorescents, with dimming electronic ballasts, allow flexibility of light level. Photo courtesy Lighting Research Center, Troy, N.Y.



Ambient Lighting

Ambient Lighting

Ambient: Also called general lighting, ambient lighting provides overall illumination for a room, and is intended to create a uniform light level throughout a space, independent of any special lighting that may be needed in targeted areas of a room. In most home settings, when a person steps into a room and flips on a switch, ambient lighting illuminates the space. Ambient lighting takes many forms, including: ceiling-mounted or recessed fixtures that direct light downwards; wall sconces or floor-lamp torchieres that wash the walls with light; cove, soffit and valance lighting that bounces light off ceilings and walls.



Task Lighting

Photo by: Jupiterimages


Task Lighting

Task: Targeted to a particular area of a room, task lighting is intended to illuminate a specific function. Areas of a home that require task lighting include kitchen counters where food will be prepared; living room seating areas where reading will take place; and home office desk surfaces where paperwork will be done. In a kitchen, under-cabinet lighting provides task lighting for a countertop; in a living room, a table lamp is often used for task lighting to accommodate reading.



Accent Lighting

Accent Lighting

Accent: Also called highlighting, accent lighting draws attention to a particular object, such as artwork, sculpture, plants or bookcases. Accent lighting is often used outdoors, to highlight a beautiful tree, plant or water feature, or to draw the eye to a particular area of the landscape. Recessed or track lighting is often used for accent lighting, with adjustable fittings that allow light to be focused precisely even on a small object.

When planning the layers of light in a room, it usually makes sense to consider the ambient lighting first, then consider task and accent lighting. "I like to move from general to specific when planning the lighting for a room," says lighting designer Markus Earley of Providence, R.I. With rooms that are heavily task-oriented, however, such as home offices, some designers focus on task lighting first. And in a hallway that doubles as a photo or art gallery, accent lighting might be the first consideration.

"It's so important to think about how you really use a space, and what you do in specific rooms," says interior designer Bruce Fox, partner at Wells & Fox, which has offices in Chicago and Boston. "Only then you can start to identify where you need task lighting and accent lighting."

Next Up

Types of Lighting Fixtures

Whether you choose a valance or pendant, there's a fixture for every need in your home

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