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Tricks plied by designers in using the three main types of illumination for inside the home: Ambient, task and accent


At home, where we cook and eat, sleep and dream, read and entertain, lighting has to be flexible, unlike the purposefully soft, romantic lighting in a restaurant or the dark, dramatic lighting in a nightclub.

"You can't borrow ideas from the commercial and apply them" wholesale to residential settings, said Linnaea Tillett, the principal of Tillett Lighting Design in Brooklyn. "In a private space, you expect to have flexibility." Generally speaking, lighting designers strive for a certain consistency in lighting.

"Our eyes don't like to deal with extreme contrast," Tillett said. "A lot of contrast creates eye exhaustion. You want to diminish contrast in a room that people will be in for a long time."

To eliminate contrast and create balanced light in a room, there should be at least three kinds of lighting, according to lighting experts like Randall Whitehead, the author of "Residential Lighting: A Practical Guide" (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

Soft, indirect ambient light should illuminate the whole room with a glow, and task lighting should be positioned (usually between the top of the head and the work surface) to enable working or reading.

Accent lights should be used to highlight artwork and decorative objects. (A decorative light like a chandelier is a fourth, not necessarily essential, component of lighting design; it should never be the sole source of light in a room because it throws everything else into darkness.)

But some rooms call for creative solutions that go well beyond the basics. Particularly in deep winter, when days are at their shortest, homes that do not get lots of natural light (and darker rooms even in those that do) can benefit from clever lighting design.

In the examples that follow, designers have come up with an array of tricks, from a glowing interior landscape with walls of backlighted onyx, to a scheme that mimics the grand lighting of Radio City Music Hall.

Even the smaller-scale solutions, such as artificial skylights and lighting built into furniture, offer new ways of thinking about the traditional trio of ambient, task and accent lighting.

No reflective glare

When Dr. Louis Aledort, and his wife, Ruth, bought their six-room apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2001, they interviewed several architects, and mentioned to each of them that they had an art collection. Only one architect, Richard Lavenstein, a partner at Bond Street Architecture & Design in Manhattan, asked to see the collection.

"No one else said, 'What kind of art? What period is the art?' " Aledort said.

Lavenstein was hired.

The Aledorts, who own mostly lithographs by Robert Rauschenberg, Elizabeth Murray and Jasper Johns, not only wanted to light their art well, they needed to compensate for part of the apartment facing a courtyard and having very little light.

They could have lowered the 10-foot ceilings to put in recessed lighting, but Aledort, a hematologist, and his wife, who works with breast cancer patients in a support group held at Mount Sinai Medical Center, didn't like that solution. Instead, their architect collaborated with lighting designer Francesca Bettridge, whose firm handled lighting for most of the public spaces of the Time Warner Center.

Bettridge designed a lighting scheme that is "relaxed," she said, and that "makes people comfortable." She washed the walls gently with light, using tiny but elegant fixtures to create museum-quality lighting. Because most of the couple's art is under glass, she took care to minimize reflections.

In every room, she chose each light fixture to fulfill a specific function. There is not a random fixture in sight, and all of them are on dimmers.

In the foyer, which has black and white prints, "I wanted to add layers of light, and balance the room," she said. A translucent torchier glows in the far left corner, spreading its diffused light on the ceiling and on the wall, while also lighting the art to its left. On the right side of the foyer, translucent sconces flank the entrance to the living room, creating more light on the ceiling and walls, while also shedding light on two pieces of art. The light is soft and warm. The foyer is clearly an entry, a hallway with art, but it is not an art gallery.

In the living room, she and the architect used low-voltage halogen track lighting covered with aluminum bands that were painted to match the wall. The light fixtures, called Valux, from Nulux, hold MR16 lamps, each with a reflector, so light from the bulb bounces off the reflector and shines down on the art.

Because the lamp also has a ribbed lens the light is spread more evenly. (The track was $140 a square foot, and the lamps were $215 each.) "When you're lighting a piece of art, you aim the light at 30 degrees, and if it's a shiny surface you come at the art at an even steeper angle," said Bettridge, who aimed the light in the living room at 15 degrees. "Here we are washing the wall to get a wide spread of even, soft light."

Built-in glow

In 2006, when Omer Arbel was hired to design a 7,800-square-foot duplex penthouse for a bachelor in Vancouver, he placed the living room, dining room and bedrooms in locations with spectacular views.

But that left the kitchen, master bathroom, powder room and office not dark, exactly, but lacking lots of direct sunlight or intriguing sights.

He made up for it by using light to create a landscape that pulls the eye inward. In the kitchen, he built much of the space with onyx, a translucent stone, with lighting behind it. The light that passes through the stone, even at its brightest, is layered, and varied in color and shading.

He created pods with glowing onyx in the other spaces without views -- the master bathroom, powder room and office on the second floor.

The lights are all dimmable, and when they are low, the architect said, the onyx pods appear ghostly.

"The pods have three purposes," said Arbel, 31, an architect and industrial designer in Vancouver. "They light the space in a sensual way, they delineate the space, and they contain domestic activities." The pods are light used as architecture, and when the brightness changes, so does the sense of space.

In the 256-square-foot kitchen, onyx panels ?-inch thick are hung as shingles on steel hinges. Behind the panels Arbel placed 2?-foot-long dimmable fluorescent tubes from Sylvania, $180 for each tube, including the dimmable ballast and the lamp, installed. When a fluorescent tube needs to be replaced, the onyx shingle can be flipped up to reveal the fixture. (Onyx costs about $250 to $300 a square foot, installed.) Onyx is also used to hide a pantry, and a low, lighted panel is used to face a walnut-topped bench, a small social amenity designed for someone who wants to keep the cook company, and "sit there sipping a glass of wine," Arbel said.

An onyx-sheathed bulkhead is yet another source of light, and also conceals a white canvas curtain that can hide the kitchen from guests.

For accent lighting, Arbel suspended cast glass globes, which are part of the "14" series of lights he designed for Bocci, a chandelier manufacturer in Vancouver, where he is also the creative director.

He likes to design lamps that have layered light -- light that is not a bright, single, shining beam, but one that has been interfered with. "The cast glass is an organic material," he said, "and there are so many bubbles and imperfections inside that catch the light." Each globe, which sells for about $300, is divided horizontally, and the bottom can slide down the cord, for easy replacement of the tiny bulb.

Let there be light

The little 18th-century house in Siracusa, Italy, was striking for its location near the sea in a town known for its light. But when Enzo Cucchi, an Italian painter, bought it in 2005 to use as a summerhouse, he knew that it would need light. It had windows on the front, but none on the rear or on the sides.

He hired Johanna Grawunder, an American designer based in Milan and San Francisco, to renovate the house, design the furniture and bring light in. She finished it in October, in collaboration with the Roberto Giustini & Partners Gallery in Rome, which produced the furniture and lights with local craftspeople, at the client's request.

In Cucchi's 14-foot-wide by 45-foot-deep house, light is diffuse, and the sources are often unexpected -- from under tables, sofas and a sink. The glow of light is not unlike the quality of light in Siracusa, Grawunder said. "There is light everywhere and nowhere, just a mysterious light effect that bounces off of forms and walls and the sea."

Her first idea was to put in skylights that went from wall to wall. "They would have been stunning, but the city said no," Grawunder said. "So we made a series of fake skylights using recessed fluorescent lights in the ceiling."

The skylights are translucent plastic, and each skylight conceals two Phillips fluorescent tubes. The diffuse light streams down from the roof to the first floor entry, partly through the stairwell and partly through the spacing of the wood planks on the third-floor landing.

On entering the foyer, the first thing one sees is a sink. "He wanted to walk into the house and wash his hands," said Grawunder of her client, who she said compares it to a sacred cleansing ritual in a fountain. She designed a lava stone sink and lighted it from underneath with a 20-watt fluorescent tube.

After the sink comes the kitchen, with lighted shelves, and then a dining room, where the table is cantilevered from a shelf on the wall. The dining room is lighted with small fluorescent tubes placed beneath the shelf, and a hanging lamp from Flos that was designed by Grawunder.

The second and third floors are identical in plan. In the front there is a sitting room furnished with a 14-foot wood sofa upholstered in red canvas that is built in from wall to wall. Along the sofa every 3? feet, fluorescent tubes glow through translucent plastic diffusers. Each diffuser is like a table, Grawunder said. "You can put your martini there."