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Darren Palmer's Lighting Fundamentals

By Sarah Lefebvre on Jun 20 2014
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The key to great lighting is creating drama through contrast. Whether you’re renovating for profit, planning a new or existing space in your house or wanting to add glamour when marketing a property, good lighting is one of the most fundamental aspects of successful interior design. Here are my tips and advice.

Darren Palmer's Lighting Fundamentals

Tell a story with lighting

Using Contrast to Create Drama

The key to great lighting is creating drama through contrast.

Whether you’re renovating for profit, planning a new or existing space in your house or wanting to add glamour when marketing a property, good lighting is one of the most fundamental aspects of successful interior design.

Lighting for me is all about telling a story, creating drama and adding an element of visual interest that furniture and decoration alone simply won’t achieve.



The most important element in lighting is contrast. It’s the interplay between light and dark spaces that creates drama and the illusion of space. If we take the absence of light as a starting point, then it’s the way in which light hits a room or object that immediately tells a story, sparks the imagination and sets the tone and mood for a room.

Understanding the fundamentals of good lighting will help enhance the quality of your living space and also improve the value of your property without taking too much out of your budget.

Use Natural Light to your Advantage

The first rule of lighting is to try to capture as much natural light as possible. Natural light is the most desirable feature in a property. It’s important to identify which rooms receive the largest amount of natural light and learn how to use this to your advantage.

If a room is completely sun-drenched, try using filtering window coverings to soften its intensity. If there is limited natural light available, consider the use of mirrors and reflective finishes. Used cleverly, these will allow you to bounce natural light deeper into dark spaces. 



Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

A common tendency I find people have when first experimenting with lighting is trying and fill up as many dark spaces as possible. I’m not sure if this stems from some innate fear of the dark, but over-lighting a room misses out one of the most key elements of good design - contrast.

Darkness brings out the different moods and personalities of a room and adds an air of uncertainty and romance that can be exciting and even sublime. As light creates shadow, this can be used to distort the boundaries and dimensions of a room which actually enhances its sense of space. For example, shadows can form patterns or geometric shapes on the ceiling or walls which are appealing in themselves. Highlighting a painting, artwork or sculpture on a dark wall gives the illusion of objects being suspended in space. Here are some great examples I found of darkness being used effectively as a design technique:



Shine the Spotlight on your Features

Light also gives you the opportunity to direct people’s gaze to the elements of interest in your room or home. Direct lighting or accent lighting can be used to highlight certain features of the room such as tables, statues, artworks or even statement furniture pieces. Lights can also serve as sculptural objects themselves.

In the dining room or kitchen, cabinet lighting and illuminated shelving are impressive and eye-catching features and create great conversation topics for friends and family. Similarly in the living room, pendant lights are great for creating ambient lighting, but should also be layered with different light sources, to ensure the space remains functional.



Surfaces can also serve as features because of the way light responds to different materials, such as timber, brick, and metallic or reflective surfaces. Light will be reflected or become diffuse as it makes contact with these surfaces, and the resultant effects of shadow, repeated patterns or arcs can add drama and depth to a room.

Concealed lights are also another great way to enhance a feature, as it can sometimes give the illusion that light is emanating from behind or beneath an object. Feature lighting can also be introduced in more subtle and ambient ways, such as from behind a statue or pot plant. If there are multiple features in a room, try using several techniques to highlight them according to their importance and the different roles they play in the room.

Understand Space and Create Light Zones

Light doesn’t take up room but it does have a direct relationship to how we perceive a space. As soon as light enters a room, it creates a boundary or zone between what’s visible and what isn’t. You can use this fact to accentuate a room’s strengths and take the focus away from any weaknesses. Angled down lights and wall sconces can be used to expand a room’s size or break up open spaces and walls into discrete areas.

Height is also very important when it comes to light. Up lights can be used to make a room feel taller or can be used to highlight certain architectural features. Conversely in rooms with vast ceilings, table lamps, floor lamps or feature candles can bring the focus below eye level to make a room feel more inviting and intimate. 



Take Task Lighting to Task

Another fundamental rule is that light should always suit what you're doing in a room at a particular time. There should be a seamless flow throughout the house as you move from room to room, activity to activity and also as you transition from daytime to nighttime. Ambient lighting used alone rarely achieves this, so there should be several different sources of light at your disposal for different times of the day. Dimmers are a great way to adapt the lighting levels in the room to suit your activity or mood at the time.



Task lighting is essential, as every space in a house has its own unique characteristics and each will demand a different degree of lighting intensity, according to its overall purpose. When people speak to me about lights the first examples they usually give me are of bad task lighting, and how frustrating it can be to do things like cooking, reading, applying makeup or working on the computer in poor lighting conditions.

Shadowing is a common problem in bathrooms and dressing spaces and these rooms should employ a variety of different types of task lighting techniques. You can see examples of how I used lighting while renovating the bathroom of my North Bondi apartment in my other article on bathrooms on the LJ Hooker website. a good rule of thumb for lighting for dressing or makeup application is to have a light source coming from in front of you, whether it's above or from each side, preferrably diffused and casting an even amount of light on both sides of your face.  

Master Movement and Lighting

When you feel that you have mastered all of the above, you can turn your attention to more advanced lighting features, such as the use of sensors and automated lights. Sensors and home automation create a sense of luxury and comfort that just flicking a light switch won't achieve.

Being able to walk into your wardrobe or bathroom and have lights turn on automatically servee you functionally but also feels like your home is responding to your needs. With home automation, light can be set to different intensities in different areas and at different times of the day. This allows you to change your functional, bright preparation space into an elegant entertainment space with friends or a relaxed and romantic evening in, without having to pull out the candles to impress.


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