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Designing Balanced Lighting, continued

Dining Rooms

A dining room illuminated only by a chandelier creates a glare-bomb situation. If you crank up the dimmer to provide enough light to see by, the chandelier becomes a supernova, and everything else in the room fades into secondary importance. The solution is to balance the chandelier with ambient light from wall sconces, torchieres, or cove lighting. Most dining rooms also require accent light (Figure 8).

The pendant fixture in this dining room directs most of its light toward the ceiling. The light from the pendant is balanced with ambient cove light and accent light on the painting.

A fixed chandelier makes it hard to move the dining table to a different location. For more flexibility, consider a decorative fixture that hugs the ceiling; that way the fixture won't look so odd if the table is moved. Or select a pendant light on a pulley system that allows the fixture to be raised and lowered. A third option is to skip the chandelier entirely and simply use recessed adjustable fixtures to illuminate the table.


To make it easier to pack for trips or go through drawers, a bedroom needs good ambient light, usually provided by wall sconces or an opaque pendant fixture. Most bedrooms have insufficient ambient light; when in doubt, plan for more rather than less. One way to provide task lights for reading is to use recessed adjustable fixtures on the ceiling above the bed. To reduce glare, adjust the fixture on the left to provide light to the person on the right and vice versa (Figure 9).

A pair of separately switched, recessed ceiling fixtures over the bed provide reading lights for two people. The light on the right is aimed at the left side of the bed and vice versa, so that one person can read and the other can sleep without getting light in their eyes.

Of course, all of the lights in a bedroom should be controlled with three-way switches, located near the bed as well as near the door.

Circulation Areas

Non-room areas such as entryways, hallways, stairs, and closets have their own special lighting needs. Entries. In an entryway, avoid using recessed downlights, which make people look like gargoyles. If the entry includes a mirror, it can be flanked by a pair of wall sconces to provide ambient light. A painting should be accented with a recessed adjustable fixture. Hallways. Recessed downlights are also a mistake in a hallway. Since the light comes out tepee-shaped, the upper quadrants of the hall fall into darkness, making the hall look like a bowling alley.

Light a hallway with a combination of wall sconces and recessed adjustable fixtures highlighting art on the walls. The best location for hallway art is on a blank wall opposite a door; the doorway provides enough room to stand back and admire the picture. Stairs. I don't recommend using recessed ceiling fixtures above stairs, where setting a ladder to change a bulb is awkward. They can work well, however, in a flat ceiling above a landing. Stairs can also be lit with shallow wall sconces. A third option is to use step lights, which are small fixtures mounted flush with the walls, usually about nine inches above the tread (Figure 10). Most models have a louvered face plate that throws the light down onto the stair treads. All you need is one light every three steps — usually, four or five fixtures for the average flight of stairs. Most step lights take a 20-watt halogen lamp and can be left on at night. In combination with recessed ceiling lights on the landings, step lights can provide adequate illumination for safely navigating stairs.


Figure 10.Step lights, like this model from Juno Lighting, provide adequate but unobtrusive light for safely navigating stairs.

Closets. In closets, we often use a fluorescent fixture with a color-corrected (daylight) lamp, mounted on the wall above the door. We've had good success with the Progress P7148-15EB fixture; it has a non-humming electronic ballast and can take a daylight T-8 lamp.


Keep a few rules in mind when locating switch boxes. They should be located at a consistent height from room to room; although many electricians center their switch boxes at 48 inches from the floor, I prefer 42 inches. The maximum number of ganged switches is four; if more than four switches are required at one location, consider going to a smart-house system. If a homeowner wants rocker switches instead of toggle switches, be sure they're used consistently throughout the house and not just in a few rooms. Finally, remember not to locate the switches behind the door swing.

Randall Whitehead, IALD, a lighting designer in San Francisco, has written five books on lighting design. They can be ordered online at

Sources of Supply

Alkco Lighting


A variety of fixtures, including linear strip undercabinet fluorescent and xenon fixtures

Artemide Inc.




A variety of fixtures, including step lights, wall sconces, fluorescent cove lighting, and low-voltage lights

Boyd Lighting


Con-Tech Lighting


A variety of fixtures, including RLM fixtures and track lighting

Contrast Lighting


A variety of fixtures, including a recessed adjustable halogen fixture for wet locations (Artlite 2)



Fabby Lighting


Wall sconces, pendant fixtures, and ceiling fixtures made of paintable bisque (unglazed ceramic)

Halo Lighting / A division of Cooper Lighting


A variety of fixtures, including RLM pendants

Ingo Maurer


Iris Lighting Systems / Brand of Cooper Lighting


A variety of fixtures, including a recessed adjustable halogen fixture for wet locations (model N3/MR AASR/C)

Juno Lighting


A variety of fixtures, including RLM pendants and a recessed adjustable halogen fixture, for wet locations (TC44-441W-WH)

Justice Design Group


A good range of reasonably priced wall sconces and pendant fixtures

Kichler Lighting


A variety of fixtures, including step lights

Koch & Lowy


LSI Abolite Lighting


A variety of commercial-industrial fixtures, including RLM pendants

Lucifer Lighting Company


A variety of fixtures, including a recessed adjustable halogen fixture for wet locations (Naiad DL21X) and halogen hockey-puck fixtures (Puklights)

Prescolite, Inc.


A variety of fixtures, including step lights and wall sconces

Progress Lighting


A variety of fixtures, including indirect xenon fixtures for cove lighting, fluorescent closet lights, halogen hockey pucks, and linear strip undercabinet fixtures

Translite Sonoma


Low-voltage dual-conductor cable systems