Enlightening Advice


Having recently purchased an eight-figure home on Gramercy Park without ever seeing the space at night, my client was shocked to discover that her already low-ceilinged apartment could not be lit with recessed lighting without further lowering the ceilings. The ceiling height had already been established to its maximum by the structural slab, above which could not be pierced or channeled without compromising the building’s structural stability.

As my client has quite a clean, modern aesthetic, and despised (but as I pointed out, she was unfamiliar with) lamps, she was bereft!

Frankly, modernist aesthetic or not, I am not a fan of peppering the ceiling with a Swiss cheese-like maze of “down can” lights, turning the residential experience into a discount appliance store grab-all. Granted, with halogen bulbs and light-emitting diode (LED) technology, we no longer have to stare up into an 8-inch diameter blackened abyss that once lit, blinds you like a supernova explosion.

The newer instruments no longer demand great ceiling depth for installation. But the halogen light quality, though crystalline, sharp and dimmable to a warm degree of Kelvin, still lends an icy frigidity to spaces. LED light quality, no matter what its proponents tout, is a whiter, bluer, colder experience. And when it dims, it dims to a dreadful mortuary gray.

However, LED’s environmental impact is unchallengingly positive as it requires minimal electricity. The jury is still out on the often heralded longevity of its bulbs.

It seems that mankind is inevitably drawn to the warmth of the candlelit flame—a primal attraction to fire—which Edison so passionately tried to emulate in his incandescent light bulb. So, without the crutch of a perforation of down lights, how can a homeowner still achieve a clean, well lit environment?

The answer is simple: many sources are better than a single source. And lamps have come a long way from Saint Emily’s Meissen extravaganza.

Some of my favorites are the Italian hand-blown glass shapes. These are attenuated, elegant and lithe, catching the essence of light in their shimmering transparency. The revival of mercury glass had gifted us with a soft, reflected light. And mother-of-pearl-clad lamps, as well as the many metallic lamps, do double duty as source and sparkle.

Lamp shades have come so far they are becoming the illumination themselves. Twine wrapped wallpaper, fabric-clad, parchment, silk and linen shades offer up new choices. Though modified drums are currently in mode, square, rectangular, diamond-shaped, empire and even coolie hat shapes are springing forth—all engendered to soften and romanticize your room.

When lined with pink silk, even the pastiest gray complexions will glow and wrinkles seem to fade away. When lined with gold foil, a room will exude a rich warmth.

A second lighting source to consider is the wall sconce. This eye-level illumination flattens out the wrinkles and fills in the droopy bags and dark circles under the eyes, which are often highlighted by down lighting. Not only are sconces flattering as a light source but they help to punctuate the architecture, articulating long hallways and breaking up those vast expanses of Sheetrock we so often specialize in out here in the Hamptons.

A third source of light may emanate upwards. The uplight celebrates the ceiling’s splendor while glamorously bouncing off light. If the ceiling is painted a camel, cerise or peche, the effect is almost magical. Plain white walls benefit dramatically from the old trick of uplighting plants like ferns, bamboo palms and other tropicals because the shapely shadows dance theatrically across the plain plaster. This is a highly effective and very low tech option.

Working on a tall-ceilinged Italianate Victorian in Brooklyn Heights with magnificent rococo crown mouldings, I will be disguising uplight cans behind sofas and chairs in order to highlight these delightful confections. Designer George Dandridge, who has designed multiple palatial homes, chooses to uplight his vaults and domes from midway up the wall with a wall-mounted sconce whose light is directed only up.

A fourth source of light comes from picture lights, which provide an elegant solution to increasing lumens while highlighting your art. Streamlined tubes suspended above black-and-white photos are fetching.

I use picture lights, both tubular and single-source bulbs, to focus on bookcases and display cases. This is a gentle and unobtrusive method of gaining more light.

Picture lights also function well as atmospheric night lights, dimly but sufficiently guiding the late night owl safely to bed. Do place these carefully with an electrician, installing a clock outlet to plug them into, otherwise the wires dangle obtrusively down to the ground.

A fifth source is strip lighting, which can be installed and hidden very successfully under shelves and cabinets, in the returns of bookcases and under the nosing of stair steps. The LED strips—that are literally less than a quarter of an inch thick—proffer no fire-inducing heat but they display a saturated bright light. As a result, strip lighting is a no-brainer. Cove lighting also benefits from this even light technology without the old chaser light effect.

For a sixth source, there are pendant and flush-mounted ceiling fixtures or chandeliers. These are frequently are the sole provider of light, uncomfortably washing the entire room. I prefer this source to always be amended by several of the other sources.

With a traditional chandelier, I always take my cue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I remove the plastic electrified candles and replace them with real candles. Then I highlight the trunk and arms of the chandelier by tucking in 12-watt halogens here and there to magically highlight the chandelier’s form. Now and then, I light the candles with a long acolyte’s lighter.

Lastly, a seventh source in my bag of tricks is the standing lamp, preferably of the pharmaceutical lamp style, which focuses the light for specific reading tasks or other activities that require bright task light. The modern tubular and square riggers are ravishing, sculptural and worthy of standing next to any chair.

In the end, the clue to a successfully lit room is choosing at least three sources of illumination. The clue to successfully turning them on and off is installing switch outlets and combining sources into just a few switches and dimmers. I prefer adjusting my light bulbs through the light bulb wattages versus using the dimmers where unknowing guests can disturb the balance of your perfectly lit drawing room.

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