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Designing Balanced Lighting, continued

Task Lighting

Task lighting is needed for activities like reading, cutting vegetables, and sorting laundry. The best location for task light is between your head and your work surface. Light from the ceiling is less effective, since it can cast a shadow of your head onto the book or countertop you are trying to see. Incorrectly placed task lighting can cause glare, especially when light from the ceiling hits a shiny surface (like glossy paper). Light coming in from one or both sides of the direction of your gaze is less likely to cause glare than light coming toward you from the direction you're looking in. For casual reading, portable table lamps with solid shades often do the best job. In a kitchen or study, task light can be provided by fluorescent or incandescent strip lights installed under wall cabinets or under a shelf above a desk.

Accent Lighting

Accent lighting (also called feature lighting or highlighting) is directed illumination that spotlights objects like art, tabletops, or houseplants. Accent light is usually provided by track lighting or recessed adjustable fixtures (see "Shopping for Recessed Lights, 6/00). Choose lamps that cast a narrow or focused beam of light, like a halogen 50-watt MR 16 lamp (Figure 5).

Recessed adjustable fixtures, like the Multilum from Prescolite shown here, are often used for accent lighting. The Multilum usually takes a halogen bulb and is available in either a 120-volt AC or a 12-volt DC version.

If accent light is the only type of light in a room, the result is the "museum effect" — the spotlighted objects take over the room, while the people fall into darkness. If the seating area remains dark while every painting glistens in its own pool of light, how will the homeowners go through the mail, do their taxes, or put together a puzzle with the kids?

Decorative Lighting

Decorative lighting comes from fixtures chosen for their attractiveness — chandeliers or candlestick-type wall sconces, for example. You shouldn't expect such fixtures to perform any other function than to look pretty. They add sparkle to a room, but don't count on them to provide usable illumination.


The best kitchen task lighting is usually undercabinet lighting (see "Undercabinet Lighting Options," 8/01). Several types of undercabinet lighting are available, including halogen hockey-puck lights, fluorescent strip lights, and incandescent strip lights (Figure 6).

The undercabinet task lighting in the kitchen at left is provided by xenon Puklights from Lucifer Lighting.

Mount the fixtures as close as possible to the front face of the wall cabinet. It's a good idea to choose a fixture with a light shield, to prevent the light from glaring in the eyes of people sitting nearby. Undercabinet lighting is easiest to conceal if the wall cabinets have a 2-inch recess, although the standard 1 1/2-inch recess is adequate. Both Alkco and Progress have a good selection of undercabinet lights. To provide task lighting for islands, or for kitchens without wall cabinets, I often recommend a series of pendant fixtures at eye level; the most unobtrusive are only 2 or 3 inches in diameter. Above a sink, task lighting can sometimes be provided by an undershelf light, as long as there's room for a shelf at the level of the bottom of the wall cabinets. If there's a window above the sink, the solution is to use a pair of adjustable recessed ceiling fixtures, arranged to cross. It isn't perfect, but it works. Although track lights work well for accent lighting, they are usually a poor choice for task lighting. However, if the kitchen has exposed ceiling joists that make recessed fixtures impossible, it may be necessary to use a track system or an open-conductor system to provide task lighting for a sink. (Open-conductor systems, available from Translite Sonoma, support the small fixtures on horizontal low-voltage conductors the diameter of a pencil.) Ambient lighting. If the wall cabinets don't go all the way to the ceiling, their tops are a good location for indirect light fixtures for ambient light. If the ceilings in the kitchen are at least 8 feet 6 inches, we sometimes use a series of pendant fixtures to provide ambient light (see Kitchen & Bath, 12/97).


Good task lighting is essential in a bathroom. A single fixture mounted above the mirror is inadequate, because it casts strange shadows on one's face. It's better to use two fixtures flanking the mirror for cross-illumination. Don't skimp on wattage; if you're using incandescent lamps, each fixture should provide at least 100 watts. A good mounting height is 5 feet 6 inches above the finish floor (measured to the center of the electrical box). Good choices for flanking a mirror include the ubiquitous three-bulb vanity light bar and a translucent wall-mount fixture like the Full Robbia from Artemide. If it's impossible to flank the mirror with wall-mount fixtures, it may be necessary to use fluorescent or incandescent soffit lights above the sink, fitted with an acrylic diffuser or egg-crate louvers. This isn't ideal, because soffit lighting mostly illuminates the top half of a person's face. A white countertop will reflect some light up, but that bouncing effect is lessened as soon as the countertop gets covered with towels and cosmetic bottles. Ambient lighting. Bathroom ambient light can be provided by either wall sconces or cove fixtures. A tub or shower also requires good general light. Make sure that any light fixture used in a shower is approved for damp locations. (UL-listed fixtures suitable for damp locations have a blue label.) My favorite fixtures for showers are waterproof recessed low-voltage halogen fixtures with adjustable trims (Figure 7). These fixtures, which usually take an MR 16 lamp, are available from Contrast, Iris, Juno, and Lucifer.


Figure 7. Lucifer's Naiad fixture, a recessed adjustable low-voltage halogen for wet locations, is perfect for tubs and showers.

Living Rooms

Living rooms often include portable lighting — table lights for reading and torchieres for ambient light, for example. If the living room is large, and furniture is located in a cluster in the middle of the room, floor outlets may be required. In that case, it's important to get the homeowners to decide as soon as possible where they'll be placing their furniture. Sometimes it's necessary to make lighting decisions before the homeowner knows where the art will hang. Include a few recessed adjustable fixtures for accent light near the most likely locations for wall art, and you'll probably be safe.