Light and shade is important for creating atmosphere

Irish designer Ray Power's series of Link pendants offer cumulus style clouds of stripped natural white wood in a varietyof stains, that split, diffuse and scatter light. €405-€2,000, Willie Duggan

Nothing else can so immediately influence what is described as the ‘tone’ or ‘mood’ of a place as the layering, quantity, quality and the positioning of light.

Old houses, visited by day, enjoy a special atmosphere drawn from the contrast of light and shadow delivered by more reserved window sizes. In our more contemporary homes, some sheathed in walls of glass, day can be a banal time, with flat illumination ironing out any worrisome shadow.


Ambient light, task lighting and accent lighting should all work together in any successful lighting plan. Some fittings will step between two camps, being decorative accent lights but delivering enough light to make a whole area safely lit.

For relaxation and atmosphere, it’s accent lighting, above all, that will increase intimacy and feel. We don’t want to easily see everything in the room so conjure up some mystery. Is someone holding hands under the Christmas table? Get the lighting right and you won’t immediately be able to tell.

Accent lighting creates contained highlights, puddles of softer illumination, points to lovely things while distracting us from less that lovely things, and inviting us to various stations in the room.

General, ambient light should wash the room with enough light to make it safe to traverse, allow guests to find their food, and be an eye-catcher in itself — an important element of decorative light.

Matched to the versatility of a dimmer, there’s no reason to snap off the pendant for a romantic evening or dinner party, but sometimes your accent lighting will throw enough light to make it unnecessary for special occasions.

Alone or floating gently on this wash of ambient light, walls sconces, table lamps, cabinet lights and many other forms of accent light deliver more intense, fascinating highlights.

Positioned from floor to table tops and up on walls, accent lighting uses opaque and translucent housing and shading of the bulb to throw light directly down to a lovely surface, scattering it gently over a wall, backlighting something with a great line — it’s for looks rather than task.


There is a rough formula for adding artificial light, which, with the exception of vast loft spaces, works well. Multiply the length and width of the room in metres and multiple it by 25 to give the total wattage needed for standard lighting needs. This formula combines all your lighting tools on the ceiling, on walls and free-standing.

Sadly, you will have to convert this estimate to lumens (printed on any light bulb box). Dark colours, opaque shades or scon es, and high ceilings may swallow some of this wattage; so bring the total figure up if you feel you’re stumbling around the space.

We can play with the amount of light in the room by using a shifting cast of lighting elements and by using dimmers if possible to vary the feel. Versatility of individual fittings adds even more possibilities. You can mechanically change the height of some light fixtures, cranking them into the space, lowering shades or using multiple fittings fully or in part.


Generally, we’re looking for a warm orange-based light in a bulb that won’t poke rudely from the housing. Blue based light typical of the cheapest of CFLs is superb for operating theatres but lends a ghastly macabre chill to the skin tone of most people.

Traditional incandescent bulbs (hoarded still by fanatics since their ban) have a colour temperature measured in Kelvins (k) of around 2700k. Look for this area of temperature or better, on the box of new energy saving bulbs to avoid Ice Station Zebra in an intimate dining or living room.To get warmer and redder, go down the scale from 2,700k, not up. Candlelight has a Kelvin reading of around 1,500k. CFLs and Halogen bulbs generally work with dimmers but with LEDs, you may have to upgrade the type of dimmer for the very low wattage.

LEDs have a 25 year life span despite their immediate expense and use 90% less energy than an incandescent bulb. The angle and spread of the light will be influenced by the shape of the bulb too, from spotlights which will focus on a narrow area, to globes which will throw light over as much as 360°. Glare is our greatest enemy for a lovely nightime setting, so pool, diffuse and bounce light to melt its potentially dazzling edge.


Table lamps are a great start for accent lighting, as the reflective quality of surface they sit on will increase the sense of theatre. A darker shade will sharply direct light down and up in a plume, whereas something paler will diffuse and scatter it.

A black shade with a gold interior raises the Kelvin count of the bulb but removes the shade from view once on. The closer you move the lamp to the wall, the greater the lick of light on the wall above. Avoid hitting box frames from below in this way. Bulbs girdled in reflective strip can further push the light around, and raking through ribbons of fabric or wood, decorative shades become mercurial light-shifters once on.

Spotlights blanketed over a ceiling matched to a dimmer can be lulled to a quiet, sophisticated mood, but hidden sources and indirect lighting, such as LED tracks set behind pediments or trimmed beneath recesses on cabinets and even walls and voids are generally more magical.

Don’t go too far, carving the room up in mysterious but dangerous caverns of shadow ringed by sparkling spots, especially when you have guests and children around. Balance your ambient and accents carefully. Take a torch and card and simply experiment with positions and directions to see how they might work before finding a fitting.


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