Create a balanced, visually comfortable space with lighting

As the busy days of summer wind down, so do the plentiful hours of sunlight. Soon we will be waking in the dark and (finally) going to sleep in the dark. I say this because, just as I look forward to summer every spring, I also look forward to the fall. Kids are back in school, routine is in effect and we aren’t trying to cram in all of the company, activities and myriad things we do in the short three-ish months of summer. Don’t get me wrong, I adore summer! It’s one of the best seasons in the valley, but by mid-August, I’m ready for fall. My kids will go to bed at a decent hour. No more fighting bedtime with the excuse that it is still light out at 10:30 p.m. The 15-plus hours of daylight in June dwindle to eight-plus hours in December. To make up for the lack of daylight, we turn to artificial light, and in the winter months we need a lot of it.

Lighting can be extremely complex, and in about 1,000 words I will give you the very basics. I’m certainly no expert when it comes to lighting, as designers and architects are notoriously known for embracing natural light. That’s great, until the sun goes down, and we’re all left in the dark. I leave the lighting to the professionals.

Welcoming spaces include carefully chosen light and wisely placed light fixtures. There are three basic types of lighting that work together as layers. A good lighting plan combines all three. The concept of layering light involves combining ambient, accent, and task lighting to create a balanced, visually comfortable space. In fact, every room should have the three basic layers of light:


Ambient or General Lighting

The first layer of light is ambient or general light. Ambient lighting provides an area with overall illumination emitting a comfortable level of brightness without glare. It is a broad wash of light that allows us to see and walk safely through a space. It can be accomplished with chandeliers, ceiling or wall-mounted fixtures, recessed or track lights. I will talk about the different kinds of fixtures below. Having a central source of ambient light in all rooms is necessary for a good lighting plan.

Task Lighting

The second essential layer of light is task lighting. Task lighting provides light that helps in performing specific duties, and therefore requires a higher level of light that is specifically directed. The intense light aids in things that require concentration like reading or cooking. It can be provided by recessed and track lighting, pendants, under cabinet lighting, and floor and desk lamps. As a rule of thumb, task lighting should be about three times as bright as ambient light and free of distracting glare.

Accent Lighting

The third layer of light is accent or mood lighting. Accent lighting adds drama by creating visual interest. It can be used as an instrument to draw attention to architectural features of a room or to highlight important objects. In addition to providing atmosphere and influencing mood, accent lighting is used to draw attention away from the things that aren’t as pleasing.


Lighting can have a subtle presence, or it can make a statement. It all depends on the space, task and type of light fixture. The options are endless when it comes to choosing styles, types, and locations of lights. It can be very overwhelming, but it is important to choose the right fixture for the right application. Below is a list of the basic types of light fixtures.

Entry Light

Simple entry light.



Pendant lights hang from the ceiling, suspended by a chain, cord or rod. They’re often used in multiples and come in a variety of sizes and materials. Pendants are functional and versatile; they can provide overall ambient light or directed task lighting. Pendants are found over kitchen islands and typically over billiard tables.


A chandelier is a type of pendant because it is hung from the ceiling. They deserve their own category because they are generally larger, hang longer and are more dramatic. The term chandelier no longer means the fancy Victorian crystal kind we think of in palace foyers. Today, they come in all shapes and sizes and can be quite contemporary. They’re a great way to set the tone of a room and serve as a fantastic focal point, all while giving off light.

Semi-Flush and Flush Mount Lighting

Semi-flush and flush lighting fixtures are designed to provide ambient light using well-diffused soft area lighting and are ceiling-mounted to provide illumination to a larger, more generalized space. Semi-flush lights hang below the surface of the ceiling while flush mounts are mounted flush with the ceiling so that no space can be seen between the fixture and the ceiling itself. Traditionally, flush lighting fixtures were used in hallways and closets. Today’s flush lighting can be found in bedrooms, kitchens, dining areas, bathrooms and more. Semi-flush lights usually hang 4 to 8 inches below the surface of a ceiling. This lighting type provides a nice alternative for areas where ceilings may be too low for pendant or chandelier lighting. Recessed lights are a popular flush mount as they can elegantly “disappear” into a ceiling while being functional. In a kitchen, recessed lights can provide great task lighting above a counter top or sink, and they can also provide ambient or background lighting in living rooms, dining rooms, even bedrooms.

Layering Light

Good example of layering light.



Sconces are attached to the wall and use only the wall for support. They are typically installed in bathrooms, as vanity lights above sinks or alongside mirrors, and often used in hallways to provide both lighting and points of interest. Attached directly to a house, sconces can also be used as exterior lighting. Sconces can be used as only decoration if so desired.

Picture Lights

Picture lights that illuminate artwork have slim bulbs hidden behind a metal housing and can be mounted on the wall or attached directly to a picture frame.

Hall Lighting

Hall lighting.


Table & Floor Lamps

Table and floor lamps are used for both accent and task lighting, and perhaps the most versatile of all the types of lighting, as they can be used in any room. All you have to do is plug them in – no installation necessary.

Dimming Lights

Dimmers allow you to adjust light levels in rooms. I suggest putting dimmers on every single fixture. Sometimes you can never have too much light, but occasionally you only need a little. The dimmer switch will be your best friend, and you will be glad you did it.

According to Energy Star, the average home has about 30 light fixtures and 12 percent of an annual energy bill for a typical single family home is lighting. (Energy Star is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency voluntary program that helps businesses and individuals save money and protect our climate through superior energy efficiency). This fact proves that lights are an important part of our homes and our lives. I won’t get into the energy aspect this time. That’s a whole different article.

Lighting is a significant element in the function and style of a room or space. Just as it can make a person look good or bad, it can do the same with an area, room or space. While we all hunker down in the dark winter months, we need good lighting. Even with the warmth and light of a beautiful fireplace glow, our thoughts will be looking forward to early morning sunrises and sunsets after 10 p.m.

Meredith Coopman of Meredith Coopman Design Studio lives in the Flathead Valley. She has a background in architecture and interior design. You can reach her at