Does your living room lighting design need some fresh ideas to make the room more comfortable?
Perhaps you need some specific lighting design ideas for your apartment living room?
Are you unsure how to decide what lighting types to use in your living room for best effect?
Fear not! At various times I’ve looked around and wondered the self same questions. I’ve done some research and put together some great tips on how to set about giving your living room lighting a makeover. You will learn about the three main types of lighting. You will also see our tips for living rooms in general as well as tips for smaller living room lighting design.
Larger living rooms have their own challenges such as achieving an even light spread across the room as well as how to stop the feeling of detachment from large open spaces.
Apartment living rooms are usually smaller and present a different challenge. How to deal with lower ceilings, the squashed up feeling of claustrophobia and sometimes limited daylight, for instance.
Let’s first learn a few basics on types of lighting and why they are important to consider together as a whole.
Ambient Lighting Design for Living Rooms
Ambient lighting design considers the light needed for general use in the living space. In terms of lighting, if you think “General” then you are thinking about ambient lighting.
This type of lighting has to provide sufficient light levels for general tasks like cleaning the room and normal daytime use. Fairly high lumen levels are needed for those things.
Don’t be afraid of the word lumen – it is just a measure for the amount of light – a bit like kilograms for weight. Most people are not very familiar with the word so think of it just as a measure of brightness. We don’t need to get too technical here.
We should differentiate between the term Watts which measures power consumption and Lumens which measures light output. They are definitely not the same. Not even close!
Typically ambient light is provided by lights hanging from or recessed in the ceiling. Recessed lighting by means of pot lights (the lights cut into and sitting flush with the ceiling) are often used for this purpose.
Ambient lighting also has to provide lower light levels for comfort use, often at night and so it has to be somewhat adaptable. This can be achieved to some extent with dimmers and types of bulbs that change color when dimmed.
Whilst ambient lighting describes a general type of light, the requirements for living rooms are different to other spaces in the house. This is because the living room is more multi-purpose than, say the kitchen or bedroom, and so the lighting design must be more versatile. It must provide adequate levels for general daily use and maintenance (think cleaning), as well as provide a suitable mood and atmosphere for relaxing.
On the whole, people prefer a warmer light to relax with, which means a yellower light cast.
Incandescent (normal type) bulbs ordinarily produce a warmer light when dimmed, whereas a standard LED or tungsten low voltage bulb produces a much bluer & whiter light. This bluer / whiter light is considered cooler light and more suited to a work environment.
Technology has moved forward to enable some bright white LED type lights to become a softer, yellower light at lower lumen levels such as these warm glow bulbs by Phillips. But you will need to ask for them specifically. These are ideal as they provide both the harsher, whiter light at higher lument levels needed for everyday use as well as a more romantic, relaxing light when dimmed. The best of both worlds maybe!
What’s Ambient Lighting?
Ambient lighting is light that spreads across a wide area and is non-directional. In lighting design, it may be natural lighting or widely spread artificial lighting that provides light to a space.
What’s the Difference between watts and lumens?
A watt is a unit of power calculated from the voltage applied (Volts) multiplied by current (Amps). Lumens are a direct measure of the strength of light or in other words how bright a light source is.
When most household light bulbs were the incandescent type, you could get a rough idea of how bright a light would shine by the wattage rating. Since they all produced light in the same way the power consumed was a good measure for people to be able to choose lightbulbs. A 40W was dim and cheap to run, a 100W was over twice as expensive to run but you could see well as it was bright.
These days manufacturers are quoting the lumen output and often color temperature so we see a 13W LED bulb a similar shape as a regular incandescent, outputs as much light as an old style 100W bulb. A saving of about 85% in power consumption! WOW!
Accent Lighting Design for Living Rooms
Accent lighting refers to lighting intended to highlight a particular feature, ornament or piece of art. It is important for living rooms because these rooms tend to be where the most important art pieces are on show. The living room is also the room most often seen by guests and so it pays to impress with great lighting design in your living room. It is also the room in which you will spend the most waking time relaxing.
Whilst the definition of accent lighting is simple there are hundreds of variations on this theme such as:
- Picture lights which most often take the form of wall or ceiling lights that shine down on or near pictures.
- Ornament lighting that is often directly lit from above.
- Artwork lighting in recesses where the architectural recess is lit to bring attention to the piece .
- Wall wash lights that bring texture to the fore.
- Flood lights to highlight larger areas
- Special purpose lighting for unusual effect
Note that accent lighting not only highlights something you want to show off but also adds tremendously to the mood of the room. In this way it works together with your ambient lighting to provide an overall effect. So both of these types of lights need to be designed together.
What is accent lighting?
Accent lighting is lighting designed to focus attention on a defined area or feature. It is often used to showcase art, sculpture or architectural texture.
Task Lighting – Reading Light over Armchairs
Task Lighting Design for Living Rooms
Task lighting is just as the name implies – lighting to service a particular task. So far as living rooms are concerned the major task lighting will be for reading, though smaller apartments may also have a table for home work.
Examples of task lighting might include:
- Desk lamps to help brighten your work area.
- A standard lamp next to an arm chair to provide localized light for reading.
- Ceiling pendant lights above a table maybe used to play games
- Magnifying floor standing lights for needlework and the like.
Sometimes the light is provided directly onto the work area such as the magnifying example above. Other times the light will be provided more obliquely to reduce glare. This lighting may be fairly fixed in nature, such as the standard lamp for reading example above. Other times the lights may be adjustable, intended to be multi-purpose or accommodate different seating positions, such as lying down or sitting up, on a couch.
So we have explored and understood the various classes of lighting and the intention of each.
Just a few more important considerations and then we will discuss the various types of light fittings worth considering.
What’s task lighting?
Task lighting is bright, focussed artificial light to give better visibility for a particular task. It covers small areas like a desk or wider areas such as kitchen worktops. The brightness and best color temperature of light will depend on the task to be lit.
Layers & Levels of Lighting
One aspect of lighting design that’s often overlooked is the ability to cast lighting at different levels. We are not talking about how bright the lighting level is, but rather the height at which the light is positioned as well as the height at which the light ends up.
Lights can be directional as well as non-directional providing completely differing effects. Not only that but light will reflect off the surfaces it hits so placing a piece of furniture in the path of a light source will affect the height in the room that the light impacts.
Varying the height of lighting and the levels of furniture in its path will dramatically change the effect produced.
What are levels of light in lighting design?
In lighting design terms, levels of light can refer either to the level of brightness measured in lumens or to the height at which light hits and illuminates a surface. The meaning is understood by the context of the conversation.
What are layers of light in lighting design?
Layers of light can mean the varying height light hits a surface, or it can mean multiple lights providing several layers, often in several different colours. The meaning is dependent on context of the discussion.
Natural light is one of the most important sources of light for any room. Light from windows can provide a huge effect on mood for humans. Rooms with little or no natural light will soon induce a feeling of depression.
A recent study reported in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine and authored by Phillis Dee M.D. said “There is increasing evidence that exposure to light, during the day –particularly in the morning — is beneficial to your health via its effects on mood, alertness and metabolism.” There are many other studies on the topic but suffice to say that embracing natural light will certainly uplift your mood during the day. This is especially so for small spaces where the living space is restricted. These spaces feel closed in but natural light from windows will make the room feel more open and comfortable.
Natural lighting should be the first consideration for any room.
Also consider the effect of drapes as even when open they can obscure light if they hang over the frame. Adjustable blinds can control the daylight entering a room at various times during the day, shut out harsh sunlight etc.
The secondary seating area, where you might work or have coffee for instance, will benefit from a little thought on how daylight enters the room at different times of the day as well. You may not want hot sunlight pouring onto your work desk when you will working at it. On the other hand you may want sunlight coming through the window to fall on a decorative vase of beautiful flowers.
Bear in mind that north of the equator, south facing windows will have more daylight love than north facing rooms. East facing windows will have a little harsher light in the mornings and west facing windows a little softer light late afternoons. North facing windows will receive light but it will be much more diffuse and lower level.
The design of your living room is very personal and should reflect the way you plan to use the space as well as allow you to feel the beauty of those things you love.
What is natural light?
Natural light usually means light from the sun though moonlight is also natural light. In living spaces, natural light from windows is very important. It is a healthy mood enhancer providing free Vitamin D and helps produce serotonin, our body’s sword against depression.
Light Bulb Color Temperatures
Light bulbs are designed and marketed with different color temperatures.
They’re designed to produce light at different colours ranging from the yellowish colour through to the whitish blue colour that is called daylight.
There is however no replacement for natural daylight because light bulbs do not make Vitamin D in your body!
There are three colours mainly talked about, namely warm light, daylight and cool light. There is a fourth category which is the neutral colour temperature which lies somewhere between, what’s commonly called, warm and daylight – sort of cloudy day daylight I suppose.
You may also see lightbulb colours referred to in terms of colour temperature in Kelvin (K), or using layman’s terms.
Bear in mind that the manufacturers lightbulb colour temperatures of warm, neutral, daylight and cool, are themselves descriptors of a range of colour temperatures lying within those broad categories.
Another thing to remember is that the colour temperature of the light produced by a bulb will change the brightness for a given wattage. So a yellowish light at 60 W produces less light than a cool lightbulb at the same voltage
What is warm light?
Warm light refers to soft, yellowish light. This is the type of light that is commonly output by incandescent bulbs. It has a color temperature range somewhere between 2,000K to 3,000K.
Light bulbs nearer 2,000K will be much more yellow than those nearer to 3,000K. Various different styles of light bulb are available ranging from standard incandescent bulbs, to dimmable LED lights, candelabra type and low wattage smart bulbs. This list is not exhaustive.
What is neutral light?
Neutral light is the colour range from around 3,000K to about 4,250K, which is the range from very, very slightly yellow to white light.
The term neutral light has come into standard vocabulary in lighting design because of the advance of LED lighting. It is a similar colour temperature to a normal white fluorescent light. This light is predominantly white without much of a colour cast and is very good for task-based lighting.
What are daylight bulbs?
Daylight bulbs are light bulbs that attempt to replicate the colour of light that is found during a normal, sunny but slightly hazy summer day.
The colour temperature of these bulbs are from around 4000K to 5000K. Color is subjective as the each label daylight, cool light etc., covers a range. So take care in choosing.
Daylight bulbs can be of many types such as fluorescent strip lights, low voltage lamps or LED’s.
The colour temperature of daylight changes throughout the day and also depending on the latitude and weather. So daylight bulbs also vary in temperature and there is quite some confusion between daylight bulbs and cool light bulbs – see below.
What is cool light?
Cool light is similar to daylight but higher on the Kelvin scale, 5-7,000K. The light is very white with a bluish tinge such as noon sunlight on a snowy day. It is used in situations where very high light levels are desired.
This sort of light produces the highest lumen output per watt and is suitable for task-based lighting. The light is very harsh and bright as you may find in an operating theatre or showroom.
The light appears a little blue but would better be described as blue/white such as you might expect from the brightest star.
Which light bulb color temperature to choose?
- Below 2,000K – Dim yellow / orange light similar to a candle.
- 2,000 – 3000K – Soft yellowish light suitable for relaxing ambient lighting.
- 3,000 – 3700K – Slight yellow tinted light becoming whiter for ambient & mood accent lighting
- 3,700 – 4,500K – White, bright light tending to blue/white for task lighting in kitchens & office.
- 4,500 – 6,500K – Blue white light that is very bright for specific purposes like surgical lights & jewelry displays.
You will need to decide the objective of the light fitting that will house the light bulb and how you want the light to appear. The opacity and color of any shade also factors into the color cast, directionality and spread of light produced.
You’ll also need to decide on the type of lightbulb because different lamps use different materials to produce their light which affects the quality and tone.
We’ve created an infographic to give you a quick overview of the various forms of light that are used in the language of lighting design. Feel free to share.
Decorating Ideas Worth Thinking About
Although we’re not going to discuss much in the way of wall coloring and furnishings, it is important to understand their importance on living room design. This is especially true for smaller living rooms as you might have in an apartment.
Mirrors are a useful tool to expand the apparent size of a room as you will have probably seen in small restaurants. But they are also a great help in making the most of light since they reflect it so well.
A well placed mirror can reflect light into a dingy corner without that corner being lit directly.
Another important factor when coming up with decorating ideas is that lighter wall colours will tend to make a room feel more open and airy than darker colors. Don’t forget though that splashes of bright color can be uplifting, can serve as a room separator and be used to cast a hue into the entire room.
In passing, it is worth mentioning that furniture such as brightly colored couches accentuated with light throw pillows can also be used to great effect and contrast.
Let’s now consider various types of light fittings, their benefits and usage.
Types & Styles of Light Fittings
1 Chandeliers & Ceiling Pendants
Not all small rooms have particularly low ceilings. If the ceilings are a normal height, around 8 foot, then ceiling pendants or a chandelier may still be usable. If you have a higher ceiling, perfect!
There are millions of designs to choose from to match any living room décor styling you choose. With a fairly wide reach from the centre they can provide a good overall level of lighting. Using regular light bulbs they are readily dimmable to provide both high level and low level ambient lighting depending on the desired mood.
If you intend to use this type of fitting you should measure the floor to ceiling height and allow about 6’6″ of clearance for taller people. The difference will give you the maximum drop you can allow for the light fitting. The alternative is to set the fitting above a fixed piece of furniture, like a table, that would stop people from walking under the chandelier. The chandelier then becomes a centrepiece for the room.
Some of these fittings come with a central hanger which can be reduced in length to shorten the drop of the fitting.
What is a Chandelier?
Strictly speaking a chandelier is a type of ceiling pendant hung from the ceiling with a central supporting chain or rod. Multiple arms support many lamps helping to spread light. Often provided with crystal glass decoration which refract and distribute the light in wonderful patterns.
Nowadays, the word chandelier also covers fittings with plastic or glass crystals lit from behind where the lamps do not always ‘hang’ from a supporting rod or chain.
What’s a Candelabra?
A Candelabra is a support structure for multiple candle holders. Around since 400BC as freestanding portable candle holders and later as hanging chandelier type fittings. Both freestanding and hanging fittings are still used today, the latter often fitted with candle effect light bulbs.
Here’s an interesting fact – the root of the word comes from the Latin for candle which is Candela and Candelabrum meant a multi branched candle holder. The Latin word Candelabra is the plural of Candelabrum so meaning multiple, multi-branched candle holders. Today we use the word Candelabra to refer to a single multi-branched light fitting (or candle holder). So much for Latin then!!
2 Ceiling Pendants for Low Ceilings
Is your ceiling too low to be suited to any type of ceiling pendant light?
All may not be lost. It may be possible, even desirable, to buy a feature pendant fitting that makes a statement in the room yet without enough clearance to walk beneath.
Typically larger sized fittings can be fitted with furniture such as a table beneath. They can both provide light at an unusual level yet disperse light widely across the room at the same time as being an awesome design feature.
In the picture on the right a large brimmed shaded pendant is set over a coffee table providing both task lighting and reduced ambient lighting. In this particular example the light is all directed downwards so will not spread out much across the room.
Different shades and types of light fitting can provide more ambient light using the same idea.
Depending on the style of fitting chosen, low level or multi-level lights can be accommodated to provide light sources at various levels. These are excellent focal points to a room and provide a widely lit dispersal area.
It is a good idea to sit quietly in a room and try to picture the look you want in order to come up with ideas that are a little outside the box. It can pay not to dismiss types of lighting that at first would not seem to fit.
3 Flush Mounted Recessed Lighting – Pot Lights
Many rooms with limited ceiling height can make use of flush mounted lighting pots cut into the ceilings. These do not protrude and can make the ceiling feel higher up.
These fittings typically use low voltage light bulbs and utilize a transformer fitted above the ceiling (inserted through the hole cut to accommodate the light fitting) to provide the correct power.
Historically, these types of fittings provided quite a harsh blue / white light which limited their use to providing high levels of ambient lighting. They were much less useful for warmer ambient lighting that is more relaxing.
Another issue is the loading issues on dimmers which made the dimmer switches expensive and prone to breakdown.
These issues have largely been overcome with improvements in technology and manufacturers providing warm glow dimmable light bulbs.
Although recessed pot lights can provide a complete ambient light solution, they are perhaps better used to complement pendant type lights. These provide relief to the otherwise flat expanse of a usually, white ceiling. Pendant light fittings of the right design can also be used as a focal point for the room.
Some recessed light fittings have swivel lamp holders within them to allow for directional lighting typically using low spread light, narrow focus light bulbs. These can be used to provide accent lighting to pictures and ornaments in a room or highlight design elements like floating shelves.
4 Semi-Flush Ceiling Lights
The semi-flush ceiling light might bring to mind the rather ugly round glass covered lights with frosted patterning you see in cheap far eastern houses. These were the norm decades ago, but served a purpose as they do not hang down and therefore cause a hazard in the room – particularly for tall people.
These days design has come far to give a wide range of fittings that serve the same purpose but are eons ahead in the way of design and desirability.
It might be well worth your while exploring some of the latest designs of these types of fittings, especially if your living room has quite low ceilings.
5 Lighting with Wall Lights
Wall lights can serve several purposes. They can be used for:
- Uplighting to reflect light off light colored walls and ceilings
- Uplighting or lighting vertically to highlight wall texture
- Textured lighting by patterning light
- Accent lighting on pictures or above sculptures and other ornaments
- Long throw task lighting (covered below)
- Complimentary ambient lighting
6 Long Throw Wall Sconces
Sconces – another word for wall lights effectively.
In smaller sized living rooms the living space available is at a premium. If the room is not to look overfull and cluttered then you may not have room for tables and table lamps everywhere you need them.
Likewise, you may be struggling for space to place standard lamps for reading.
You may even prefer the design idea of long throw wall lights to provide a versatile task light right where you need it – sitting upright or laying prone reading your book.
Long throw wall lights project some distance from the wall and the fittings can be adjustable with flexible joints to manoeuvre the light head to just where you want it.
In recap, they provide flexibility to do away with tables and other furniture that would clutter small living rooms. They can also be a design focal point and still provide the task lighting that you need.
7 Accent Wall Lights for Texture
Following on from above, wall lights aka sconces, are often used to accentuate wall textures.
In the picture some way above, the texture of beautiful brickwork to the living room wall is highlighted by the light playing on it from the wall light.
Where a room has been designed with one wall of brickwork or stonework to break up flat plastered wall surfaces, wall lights would be a great addition to highlight the design idea.
Lighting such as this brings interest to the room and breaks the light up for a warmer, earthy and natural feeling.
8 Directional Reflective Lighting
Directional reflective lighting can be used in any sized room. In large rooms this lighting can be used to brighten up specific areas, reflecting the light of light colored walls and ceilings.
Smaller rooms can use directional and reflective lighting to help smaller central light fittings used to balance the room size. In this way they supplement the reduced lumen level provided by smaller lights, usually because of a smaller number of bulbs.
The main idea is to throw the light against the wall or ceiling and using the reflected light from the surfaces to bounce back into the room – much as a photographer uses a reflective surface to soften flash lighting.
For best effect the reflecting surfaces need to be painted in a bright color. If you are contemplating repainting in a color other than white, then it is also worthwhile asking the light reflectance value of the particular color you are contemplating. You should be able to obtain this information from the manufacturer or paint supplier.
9 Track lighting Modern Style
Track lighting is another worthwhile contender for apartment living rooms. This type of lighting sits close to the ceiling and uses light heads that are either fixed or moveable along the track.
Track lights are often made for LED bulbs and can either be low voltage or standard voltage depending on the fitting.
The lighting effects that can be achieved are wide ranging depending on fitting, number of light heads, lumen output of bulb fitted and color of light emitted, ability to be dimmed and the angle of focus of the bulb.
So it is the design style that may have you lean you towards using these types of fitting rather than their inability to provide the type of light needed.
10 Table Lamps
Table lamps should be used as part of an overall lighting plan. They are not normally able to provide sufficient light for ambient lighting but can complement pendants and downlights.
To use for task lighting pick one with an opaque shade with reflective inner surface which directs all the light out of the shade in the direction it is needed.
For use as complimentary lighting the shade should allow light to pass through it, providing illumination from the top and bottom as well as through the sides of the shade. In this set up it is often a good design idea to design with lamps in pairs. Either use two table lamps or a table lamp and standard lamp if space is tight.
In very small living rooms it is often not practical to use table lamps but better to use wall sconces in preference to free up space.
Densely packing a small living room with furniture will only make the room feel smaller and closed in.
11 Standard Lamps
Similar to Table lamps but these units are freestanding on their own base and do not need a table for support.
Once again these are used either as complimentary lighting to the ambient lighting, for lower level mood lighting or brighter task lighting.
Standard lamps and floor standing lamps are essentially the same save for tradition. Standard lamps your grandma might have used would have been lampshades, typically with a single bulb and shade thus serving a limited area.
These days, floor standing lamps can be lit with multiple bulbs, sometimes the full height of the lamp, so can provide much higher lumen levels and serve multiple purposes.
With these lamps, as with all the above, bear in mind the scale of the light compared to the room. Unless you are going for an intentional design statement, you probably don’t want floor standing lamps with huge shades in a small room with otherwise small light fittings elsewhere.
12 Accent & Ambient Tray Ceiling Lighting
Tray ceiling lighting is the lighting you see sometimes fixed to the ceiling yet hidden in a tray purpose formed in the ceiling to support the lights that sit hidden inside the tray.
This type of lighting is often formed with fluorescent tube lighting fitted with purposed tubes for warm light, colored light or even color changing LED’s. The fittings are set behind some form of construction at ceiling level such as a recess overhang to the ceiling.
Often used in smart home installations, but can also be used to provide background lighting to reflect off the ceiling and help lower powered ambient lighting.
Great for mood setting and for ceilings that cannot take fittings with a significant drop.
13 Floor or Pot Uplights
Floor uplights are sometimes used to provide reflective light from washing the wall with light from the floor upwards. This enhances the texture of the wall as explained earlier. The effect is hugely different to that achieved using ceiling or wall mounted down lights.
Another use for the larger types of floor lights are as accent lighting to larger sized architectural features within larger and more opulent rooms.
Pot lights, on the other hand, are set in planters to provide upward lighting to foliage and can provide a pleasant aura. These are more often used outside the house than inside though.
There are other more specialized floor lights that can be set into the floor or even underneath translucent floors, but these are somewhat outside the realm of the ordinary home.
14 Lighting in Living Room Furniture & Architectural Features
The final type of lighting we should cover is lighting set within furniture or construction such as recesses supporting ornaments or statues.
This form of lighting can be within wooden display units or fixed into place within a design feature. It can be accent or ambient lighting depending on form. The level of light produced within the room is variable.
Nevertheless the effect can be striking.
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Reference to study reported in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine by Phillis Dee M.D.
Natural Light – Hacking into your Happy Chemicals – Huffington Post