Lighting Tips for Every Room

Find out what types of fixtures work best throughout your home


By: Jill Connors

Whether you want to improve the lighting for a specific room or plan a whole-house lighting makeover, keep these room-by-room tips in mind:

Living Rooms / Family Rooms

The concept of layering light is particularly important in the living/family room, an area of the house where people tend to gather for long stretches of time and engage in an array of activities, including conversation, watching TV, reading, playing board games and using a laptop. "In rooms where people spend a lot of time, I like to get away from recessed downlights, and instead use lights that bounce off the ceiling for ambient illumination," says lighting designer Markus Earley, of earleylight, in Providence, R.I. "Bouncing light off the ceiling creates a sense of brightness in the room, and avoids the shadows or downward direction of recessed lights."

Earley also favors bouncing light off the ceiling because it suits the human tendency to visually perceive vertical planes—looking up—versus looking at our feet.

To accomplish ambient lighting that bounces off the ceiling of a living room, Earley suggests integrating cove or valance lighting into the room's architecture. "Or, if you have bookcases or an entertainment unit that doesn't go all the way to the ceiling, there's an opportunity to add a piece of millwork and put a linear fluorescent behind it," suggests Earley, who likes the new slim T5 fluorescents that are dimmable and have good color rendering and a warm appearance.

Another way to provide ambient lighting in a living room is to wash the walls with light, which can be accomplished with soffit or valance lighting, recessed or track lighting that is directed toward the walls, or even with plug-in floor lamp torchieres with translucent upward facing globes.

Task lighting for a living room may be provided by table lamps, such as pharmacy-style adjustable lamps placed near a reading chair or game table. "An apothecary-style reading lamp with an LED or incandescent light bulb is one of my all-time favorite choices for task lighting," says interior designer Cheryl Katz of C&J Katz Studio in Boston.

Accent lighting in a living room may be used to focus on an architectural element, such as a fireplace or bookcase, or on a painting, sculpture or plant. Uplights placed on the floor may be used as accent lighting for a plant, while track lighting may be used as accent lighting for artwork. When lighting an art collection, the brightness and heat generated by a type of lighting must be considered; for some lighting designers, accent lighting for artwork is a particular area of expertise.

In a large living room formerly lit by recessed cans and table lamps, a new lighting design that includes architectural lighting might consist of two valances running the length of two opposite walls (mounted about a foot below ceiling height), one soffit installed directly above a fireplace (at ceiling height), and a table lamp placed next to a reading chair. Wall switches would control the valance and soffit, or a keypad could control all the lighting with preprogrammed 'entertaining,' 'reading,' 'all on' and 'all off' settings.

In a modest living room that has one wall switch wired to an outlet, a homeowner fix that provides energy efficiency and versatility would be to replace the wall switch with a dimmer, and add faux-cove lighting by concealing a fixture behind a piece of millwork added to the top of a bookcase, and wired to the outlet controlled by a dimmer.

Lumens: Ambient lighting for a living room should be 1,500-3,000 lumens. Task lighting for reading should be a minimum of 400 lumens.

Living Room Lighting Designs

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Layers of Light

A well-lit living room requires a combination of ambient, accent and task lighting. In this living room, recessed fixtures cast general lighting, wall-mounted lights showcase artwork and an adjustable floor lamp provides light for reading. Design by Andreas Charalambous

Track Lighting

Sleek, low-voltage track lighting highlights artwork in this living room and gives the space a soft, ambient glow. A table lamp provides task lighting for the seating area, while a floor lamp washes the wall with light. Design by Lin Lee

Soft Accent Lighting

Subtle up-lighting accentuates the beautiful wood ceiling in this living room. The custom-built media cabinet is softly illuminated with recessed light fixtures. Design by Christopher J. Grubb

Photo By: Scott Mayoral

Modern Floor Lamps

In this living room, designer Van Tullis used track lights to illuminate artwork displayed on the wall. Floor lamps with modern, square-shaped shades provide ambient lighting and look dramatic against a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.

Warm Lighting Design

Two hanging pendants complement this living room's traditional look and cast soft light throughout the space. Recessed fixtures wash the walls with light, while candles and a fireplace provide a warm glow. Design by Amy Bubier

Cove Lighting

Cove lighting, installed in a ledge high up on the wall, provides soft, ambient lighting that bounces off the ceiling and adds a touch of glitz to this living room. Designer Andrea Schumacher installed the lighting on a dimmer, allowing the homeowner to create a mood when entertaining.

Clean and Contemporary Lighting

Designer Andreas Charalambous used halogen track lighting on dimmers and LED cove lighting in blue to enhance this living room's contemporary design. A stylish arc floor lamp offers task lighting for reading.

Photo By: Geoffrey Hodgdon


With its heavy focus on the functions of food preparation and cleanup, as well as its tendency to be a gathering spot, the kitchen requires careful consideration of task and ambient lighting. Think in particular of the task lighting for the counters, where most of the work takes place, and over the sink.

One of the main reasons sinks have often been located at a window is to take advantage of natural light, and this layout is still highly recommended by lighting experts. Augment the natural light with a ceiling mounted or recessed fixture above the sink. Using undercabinet lighting is a good way to illuminate the countertop work surfaces without relying on an overhead light that will cast shadows on the person working at the counters.

When Providence lighting designer Markus Earley, an adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, upgraded the lighting in his own kitchen recently, he compared LED and compact fluorescent lighting options for his undercabinet lighting, and chose T5 linear fluorescent light bulbs that are dimmable and emit a warm light with a correlated color temperature (CCT) of 3,000 Kelvin. "My one concern with LED technology is that the LED chip is a tiny little directional light source so that in a linear undercabinet LED light, you have a multiplicity of little tiny light sources that create shadows," Earley says.

A basic lighting plan for a modest kitchen might consist of a central, ceiling-mounted fixture providing ambient light, with undercabinet fixtures providing task lighting for the counters, soffit lighting providing task lighting above the sink, and a pendant providing task or ambient lighting over the island. This traditional lighting plan is adequate for many kitchens and can be improved simply by putting all lighting on a dimmer, and choosing energy efficient light bulbs.

A new lighting plan for a medium-sized kitchen might call for cove lighting along two opposite kitchen walls to provide ambient lighting that bounces light off the ceiling, instead of recessed downlights or ceiling-mounted central fixtures, both of which primarily send light straight down. Valance lighting above the sink and undercabinet lighting would provide the task lighting.

Lumens: Ambient kitchen lighting should be 5,000-10,000 lumens, with task lighting at counters, sink and range a minimum of 450 lumens in each area.

Importance of Kitchen Lighting 02:42

The right lighting for various activities is a must for every kitchen.


With its emphasis on personal grooming that requires viewing oneself in a mirror, the bathroom requires careful consideration of lighting placement. Too many bathrooms feature a central ceiling-mounted fixture that casts shadows on a person standing in front of the mirror. "One of the best improvements you can make in a bathroom is to light both sides of the mirror," says Patricia Rizzo of the Lighting Research Center. In small baths, where one may have to choose between a wall-mounted fixture on the side of the mirror or an overhead fixture, lighting designers say to always go with the wall-mounted placement. "You don't want to cause shadows in a bathroom," says Rizzo.

A common lighting design for older bathrooms may feature a central ceiling-mounted fixture plus a fixture above the mirror. An improved lighting plan would eliminate those fixtures and replace them with three wall sconces, two on either side of the mirror, and one on an opposing wall (offset from mirror position).

Lumens: Ambient lighting in a bathroom should be 4,000-8,000 lumens, with task lighting at the mirror a minimum of 1,700 lumens.

Importance of Bath Lighting 02:35

Now more than ever, bathroom lighting blends function and style.


Several purposes are served by outdoor lighting, including safety (on pathways), security, and pure aesthetics (playing up a beautiful plant or tree). Jody Pritchard, a lighting designer in San Francisco, says one of her first bits of advice regarding landscape lighting is to choose quality fixtures for durability. "The outdoor environment is so harsh, particularly on the coast, that it is worth paying a little more up front so you don't end up replacing fixtures every three years," says Pritchard.

When planning landscape lighting, Pritchard suggests thinking in threes: light something close to the house, something midrange in the yard, and something in a far corner. "That way you create interesting focal points when viewed from the house at night," she says. One overlooked benefit of outdoor lighting is that it minimizes the reflection of glass surfaces viewed from inside the house at night. "If you provide something outside that is lit, even a plant just outside a French door, you will be looking beyond the glass reflection," notes Pritchard.

Avoid the mistake of using too much light outdoors. "People often think more is better, brighter is better, but outside wherever you create a super bright area you've also created super dark areas, and that can be unsafe. It's better to have low levels of lighting all around," says Pritchard.

The front door is one of the few outdoor areas where a brighter light is acceptable, with a traditional lighting plan calling for two wall-mounted fixtures flanking the door.

Lumens: Lighting at the front entry should be 1,000-2,000 lumens; on pathways, a minimum of 300 lumens is recommended.

Outdoor Lighting Designs

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Plan in Threes

Planning several layers of outdoor lighting creates visual interest in a landscape. Here, designer Ilija Karlusic achieved this effect by lighting the entryway, the tree in the middle of the yard and the mailbox in front of the property.

Photo By: Rhiannon Slatter

Even Light Distribution

Installing extremely bright lights in an outdoor space often creates unsafe dark areas. Instead, install low levels of lighting all around, as seen in this patio designed by Robert Hursthouse.

Entry Lighting

Two wall-mounted light fixtures flank the entryway of this contemporary home, playing up the double door and providing a safe entrance at night. Design by Amy Bubier

Inexpensive Party Lights

Decorative string lighting fastened inside an umbrella provides inexpensive illumination for outdoor entertaining. Design by Robert Hursthouse

Accent Lighting

Exterior accent lighting can be used to draw attention to your home's unique features, such as architectural details, sculptures or plants. In this outdoor space designed by Jamie Durie, lighting adds another dimension to the sculpture at night, changing highlights and casting shadows.

Path Lighting

Landscape lighting is an important safety element for any outdoor space. In this garden, a series of path lights illuminates the meandering walkway that leads to the destination terrace. Design by Robert Hursthouse

Step Lighting

An alternative to path lights, step lights can be integrated into outdoor stairs to enhance safety. In this space, designer Paul Wrona also incorporated lights in the water feature for added interest at night.

Upgraded Lighting

This outdoor space features multiple lighting fixtures that enhance its functionality and safety, including path lights along walkways and spotlights in the pergola and bar area. Design by Paul Wrona

Dining Rooms

The primary focus of dining room lighting is the table, and fixtures placed directly above the table may provide both ambient and task lighting for this room. Dimmers are particularly desirable as they provide flexibility in establishing a relaxing atmosphere when entertaining. An important consideration in a dining room that has French doors is to light something outside the doors (see "Outdoor" section) so that people using the dining room at night have a focal point beyond their reflection in the glass doors. "Light one element outdoors and you have a simple solution to the problem of glass reflection in a room at night," says lighting designer Lana Nathe.

Another consideration when lighting a dining room is to consider the wall treatment, as dining rooms often have decorative paint treatments or wallpapers. A darker color paint on the walls will reflect less light, so more lumens may be required in the room's light fixtures.

A traditional lighting plan for a dining room consists of a chandelier above the table, plus a pair of wall sconces flanking a prominent breakfront or sideboard, with all lighting on a dimmer. An upgraded lighting plan might include cove lighting on two opposing walls and a dimmable chandelier over the table.

Lumens: Ambient and task lighting combined in a dining room should be 3,000-6,000 lumens.

Dining Room Lighting Designs

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Contemporary Chandelier

Chandeliers aren't just for traditional dining rooms: A floral chandelier complements the ghost dining chairs and gloss brown table. A mirrored white buffet table provides a spot for decorative accents, like vases and candles.

From: Sullivan Design Studio

Classic Chandelier

Simple and effective, a chandelier over the table is a classic way to light a dining room. Improve this lighting feature by installing a dimmer to enhance the mood of your meals.

Track Lighting

Track lighting can often be the best option to highlight specific parts of a room, like a favorite piece of art. In this modern dining room, the wavy track lighting becomes a focal point along with the graphic artwork and towering centerpiece.

Dual Chandelier

Two contemporary pendant lights serve double-duty as art. Romantic upholstered chairs surround a Versace dining table. Tangerine-hued draperies open to allow natural light to bounce off the hand-carved fireplace.

From: Troy Beasley

Cove Lighting

Cove lighting, installed in a ledge high on the wall, adds a glamorous touch to this elegant dining room. A sparkling crystal chandelier and coordinating wall sconces cast ambient light throughout the room. Design by Lina Khatib

Layers of Light

Recessed and pendant light and table lamps provide plenty of lighting in this open-concept dining room. The windows surrounding this gorgeous dining room make the space feel as if it's floating in the night sky. The open timber ceiling structure adds to the woodsy, natural vibe.

From: Luxury Portfolio International® and Intero Real Estate Services, Inc.

Photo By: Intero Real Estate Services, Inc., a member of Luxury Portfolio International

Pendant Lights

Glass pendant lights provide ambient lighting and put the spotlight on this dining room's beautiful Carrera marble table. The custom-designed wall of shelving is equipped with brilliant accent lights, making it the focal point of the room. 

Wall Sconces

You can enhance your dining room's design style with the right wall sconces. In this French Country dining room, delicate candle-like sconces flank a charming fireplace.

Table Lamps

A pair of quirky table lamps placed on a sideboard wash the walls with light for subtle ambient illumination. The chandelier over the dining table draws attention to the silver leaf ceiling. Design by Ana Donohue

Photo By: Warren Patterson


Bedside reading and closet lighting are two of the primary concerns in a bedroom lighting plan. For bedside reading, lighting experts suggest wall-mounted light fixtures with adjustable arms so that the light can be directed on the reading material. Each bedside light should operate on its own switch, either directly on the fixture or a wall switch within easy reach.

Ambient lighting may be provided by floor lamps, architectural lighting, or a pair of sconces flanking a wall mirror. Because the bedroom is a room where a relaxing, sympathetic atmosphere is welcomed, it may be best to avoid central ceiling-mounted fixtures that might be perceived harshly when viewed from bed. Consider the paint color of bedroom walls when planning light output as dark-colored walls reflect less light. For a closet, ceiling-mounted or recessed fixtures are commonly used.

A traditional lighting plan for a bedroom might consist solely of floor and table lamps, with table lamps on nightstands and dresser. A new lighting plan might include either wall-mounted fixtures flanking the bed or table lamps on the nightstands, plus a pair of wall-mounted sconces near the dresser.

Lumens: Ambient lighting in the bedroom should be 2,000-4,000 lumens, with a minimum of 500 lumens for each reading light, and 400 lumens for closet lighting.

Bedroom Lighting Designs

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Recessed Lighting

A versatile lighting option, recessed lights cast subtle ambient lighting in this bedroom. Table and floor lamps provide task lighting for reading in bed or on the chaise lounge. Design by Andreas Charalambous

Photo By: Geoffrey Hodgdon

Layers of Light

Without lighting, this opulent bedroom wouldn't be nearly as striking. Recessed fixtures installed along the perimeter of the ceiling highlight the windows and the elaborate screen behind the bed. Table and floor lamps provide task lighting. Design by Baylor Anne Bone

Wall-Mounted Lights

In this bedroom designed by Ann Wisniewski, wall-mounted light fixtures with adjustable arms allow for convenient late-night reading in bed. Bedside lights should operate on individual switches, either directly on the fixture or a wall switch within easy reach.

Soffit Lighting

A soffit fixture casts soft light over an upholstered wall in this bedroom, creating a focal point and providing ambient illumination. A large window lets in ample natural light. Design by Jennifer Duneier

Modern Mood Lighting

In this bedroom, the dark wenge backdrop to the bed contains a cove with a hidden LED light strip that can be adjusted according to mood. Hanging pendant fixtures flanking the bed provide light for reading and add another stylish touch. Design by Andreas Charalambous

Elegant Chandelier

A dramatic black and polished-nickel chandelier sets a romantic mood and provides soft ambient light in this luxurious bedroom. Coordinating sconces and table lamps wash the walls with light. Design by Lisa Stanley

Multifunctional Track Lights

Track lighting serves two purposes in this contemporary bedroom: It provides general illumination and highlights the artwork displayed on the wall. Simple light fixtures complement the room's clean design. Design by Andreas Charalambous

Home Offices

Identifying where particular tasks will take place in a home office is the first step to designing a lighting plan for this important room; reading books or paperwork, working at the computer, and talking on the phone are common tasks. A key consideration is to ensure that a light fixture is not reflected in a computer screen, so knowing the position of the computer—which may be limited by the location of outlets and internet cables—is essential. A task light for the desk area should be positioned to minimize shadows and reflections, so place it to the right or left side of the occupant's main work orientation.

Lighting designer Patricia Rizzo favors indirect lighting (reflected off walls or ceilings, rather than distributed in one direction) for a home office. "Use cove lighting to wash the ceiling or wall sconces that project the light upward, or a floor lamp torchiere that directs light upward if a plug-in fixture is your only option," Rizzo says.

If the room's layout permits, positioning a reading chair next to a window allows for natural light to be used for reading during the day. A table lamp can provide task lighting for reading at night.

Lumens: Ambient lighting for a home office should be 3,000-6,000 lumens, with task lighting at the desk a minimum of 1,200 lumens.

Home Office Lighting Designs

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Dual-Purpose Fixtures

Recessed light fixtures beautifully highlight artwork and books displayed on the shelves of this home office while also providing overall illumination for the room. French doors let in plenty of natural light.

Task Lighting

Task lighting for the desk area is a key feature of a home office lighting plan. In this office, a desk lamp is positioned to the side of the workspace to minimize shadows and reflections. Recessed light fixtures provide general illumination.

Indirect Lighting

Avoid lighting options that create distracting reflections on your computer screen. This home office features wall sconces that create indirect illumination by washing the walls with light. Design by Nicole Sassaman

Floor Lamp

A floor lamp placed next to a chair creates an inviting reading area in this home office. Positioning the chair next to a window allows for natural light to be used for reading during the day.

Track Lighting

This family-centered workspace features a fun track lighting fixture that can be adjusted to illuminate the room's desks, shelves and blackboard. A rice-paper floor lamp provides additional illumination.

Entries, Hallways & Stairs

The entry points and pathways through a home typically require nothing more than ambient lighting, unless there are focal points such as artwork or architectural elements that should receive accent lighting. A small entry may be sufficiently lighted by a ceiling-mounted or recessed fixture or a wall sconce. A double height entry with a staircase may require a chandelier with lighting controls at both the bottom and top of the stairs. Ambient lighting in hallways may be provided by recessed fixtures, ceiling-mounted fixtures or wall sconces.

If a hallway is used as a gallery for artwork or photographs, consider accent lighting, which is achieved by precise positioning of directional fixtures that use light bulbs emitting very narrow beams of light. PAR (parabolic aluminized reflector) and MR (multi-faceted reflector) light bulbs are often used for accent lighting; fixtures include ceiling-mounted track lighting or recessed fixtures. Proper accent lighting of artwork requires professionals with skill and experience in locating and aiming the fixtures to avoid glare and ensure that artwork is not damaged.

Lumens: Ambient lighting for entries and stairways should be 1,200-4,000 lumens; ambient lighting for a hallway should be 1,200-2,500 lumens.

Entryway Lighting Designs

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Elegant Chandelier

An elegant chandelier makes a grand statement in this double-height entryway. Recessed fixtures provide additional ambient lighting.

Ceiling-Mounted Fixtures

A ceiling-mounted light fixture is often sufficient for illuminating a single-level entryway. This entryway's simple yet elegant light fixture casts light upward, highlighting the beadboard ceiling.

Accent Lighting

Accent lighting can be used to highlight a focal point in an entryway. In this space, designer Shane Inman incorporated a recessed light fixture to emphasize a stunning stone wall and a soothing painting.

Photo By: Marc Courville

Glamorous Fixtures

Globe-like glass chandeliers add sparkle to this entryway designed by Lori Dennis. Contemporary wall sconces provide additional illumination and accentuate the tiled walls.

Wall Sconces

A series of wall sconces draws attention to the architectural detail in this home's beautiful arched entryway. The sconces cast light both upward and downward, illuminating both the ceiling and the hardwood floors.

Warm Lighting

Candle sconces and a drum-shaped light fixture cast soft, warm light in this entryway. Designer Shelly Riehl David used track lighting to draw attention to the exquisite artwork displayed in the space.

From: Shelly Riehl David

Foyer Focal Point

In this entryway, designer Shane Inman used recessed light fixtures to highlight a custom-made bench with storage space and two display niches.

Gallery-Style Lighting

This entryway achieves an art gallery feel with directional light fixtures that showcase framed photographs. Design by Andreas Charalambous

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