Lamps are one of the most important factors in a room's design, says designer Brian Patrick Flynn of Flynnside Out Productions. Yet homeowners often give lighting less attention than they do furniture or wall colors. • Flynn and designers Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design and Molly Luetkemeyer of M. Design Interiors share tips on choosing the perfect lamps, lampshades and light bulbs to achieve maximum style and function.
If a room has no overhead lighting or wall sconces, it's worth hiring an electrician to add them.
Flynn recommends using 2-inch or 4-inch recessed halogen lights overhead, rather than brighter 6-inch can lights. "They instantly fill a room with the much-needed illumination, but without looking tacky or heavy," he says.
Wall sconces also cast a flattering glow and can serve as striking decorative pieces. Vintage (or new vintage-style) sconces are popular, says Burnham, and can be found at some flea markets. If you buy them used, "take them to a lamp shop to check all the wiring," she says, and replace any worn parts before installing.
But don't light a room exclusively with overhead lighting: Light from above that isn't balanced by lamplight can be "prison-like," Luetkemeyer says. Instead, create "pools of light" at different levels for a warm, layered effect, she says.
Flynn accomplishes this by choosing lamps at various heights. "It's all a game of scale and proportion," he says.
Edison-style bulbs have become popular and look great in industrial or vintage light fixtures or in chandeliers. But they can cost as much as $15 per bulb and give off minimal light.
So use them "as sculptural features integrated into lighting," Flynn says. "Since they're offered in many shapes, they're almost like art. The ideal place for Edison bulbs is romantic spaces which are not high-traffic."
Another vintage option is the globe light that first appeared in the 1950s. Their "milky white finish and perfectly round shape" can cast a flattering glow, Flynn says.
Or try vintage Nelson pendants, which are made of wire and vinyl in many shapes and sizes. "One of the best investments as far as lighting is concerned is to invest in classic George Nelson bubbles," Flynn says. "I love to group them together and hang them above beds or dining tables."
Forget old rules
Don't feel obligated to use the lampshade that comes with a lamp, Burnham says. You can replace it with another of similar size but a different shape, style or color. Or keep the shade but add piping or ribbon to change its look.
Another bit of rule-breaking: "Chandeliers should not be limited to living rooms and dining rooms," says Flynn. "I use them in bathrooms a lot simply to bring more of a decorative look to an otherwise task-oriented space."
His trick for making chandeliers appear less formal? "Swap out flame bulbs for globes. It modernizes an otherwise traditional, heavy element."
Dimmers, too, aren't just for dining rooms. The designers suggest adding dimmers in every room of the home. Installation is easy enough that you may want to do it yourself, Luetkemeyer says, and "it's a complete game changer" in how the home is lit.
Also, consider using a floor lamp as a bedside reading lamp. Many floor lamps have bulbs that sit between 4 and 6 feet above the floor — perfect for illuminating a book when you're in bed — and they take up little space.
Lighting as art
Some lamps come with warning labels advising owners to use only low-wattage bulbs. Think of these lamps "more as accessories than true light sources," says Flynn.
Luetkemeyer agrees: Think of low-wattage lamps "almost as sculpture," she says.
Once you've chosen the right lighting, it's important to select the right bulbs. Along with Edison-style bulbs, silver-tipped bulbs are becoming popular. Their ends are painted so that little or no light escapes there. The result is softer, more indirect light.
Luetkemeyer likes frosted bulbs and soft pink ones, and she favors three-ways bulbs for the same reason she loves dimmers: They let you choose soft light when you want it and bright light when you need it.