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The Sweet Science of Light Layering

According to lighting experts, a room cannot be illuminated by one ceiling fixture alone. At least not properly. It is suggested that various types of fixtures be combined to light a room well. The popular term for this technique is "light layering."

A Layered Confection

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Think of lighting as a big cake that consists of three layers plus a good dollop of pretty frosting. Each layer does its job in forming the overall structure.

Layer #1

General lighting, also known as ambient lighting, is the foundation of our light-cake. It is the layer that serves the foundation of all others to come. It is the dependable tier who you call on to get the job done. (You might want to think of this as the go-to vanilla layer). In this category are chandeliers, flush-mounted ceiling fixtures, and wall sconces. Their general lighting radiates a comfortable, soft glow which provides enough illumination to go about the all-round business of life.

The Sweet Science of Light Layering

Layer #2

Our next tier is Task lighting. Such lights provide direct, more intense lighting to help curb eye strain when performing certain tasks such as reading, hobbies and cooking. Into this category fall reading lamps, low voltage under-cabinet kitchen lighting and pendants. (I like to think of this as the when-the-going-gets-tough-the-tough-eat-chocolate layer.)

Layer #3

Accent lighting is the delicate top tier of our layer cake. Its job is to add visual interest to a room. (Picture the intriguing swirls of a marble cake). This category consists of track lights, up-lighters, directional eyeball lights and wall sconces. Accent lights highlight objects, such as artwork and architecture. It can even lend visual interest to rooms lacking architectural elements. For example, using up-lighters to throw shadows behind furniture and through foliage add intrigue to severe right angles.

The Frosting

Every cake needs frosting, and ours is topped with decorative lighting. This category has the easiest job in the lighting world, as, like marzipan, it really just needs to look pretty. These prima donnas attract a lot of attention and create a lot of oohs and aahs but don’t provide much light. Because of their decorative quality, they should be on the dim side so they don’t overpower your cake. I mean decor.

A Final Slice

For more information about light layering, visit randallwhitehead.com and Hinkley Lighting. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a Twinkie in the other room that’s calling my name.

"Birthday Cake" pic courtesy of Hayley Seviour @ flickr.

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Walrus on Feb 27, 2007:

the timing of this article couldn't be more perfect... I was literally telling my friend the yesterday how lighting is a huge component of a room but unfortunately I know nothing about lighthing and needed tips... great article!


jasimar on Feb 26, 2007:

Fantastic explanation.  And let me tell you, you really got my attention by associating the lesson with food.  You can pretty much teach me anything if you compare it to chocolate.  It's very sad but I exist in only ambient.  2 table lamps to a room.  Gotta get some icing, er I mean lighting.


Sydney on Feb 26, 2007:

Great tutorial, but now I'm craving cake! Thanks, very helpful.


balubalu on Feb 26, 2007:

Whow, really good info - thanks for putting this together.


lilybee on Feb 26, 2007:

Who Knew?!? Thanks for the cakey tutorial Maven,  really useful stuff in an easy to swallow (heh- heh) format. I knew there was a reason I love this place!


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