The Light Stuff
10 questions for Marcus Steffen, master of illumination
March 2, 2019
When you can't quite put your finger on why a room feels "right," chances are it's the lighting. Lighting doesn't just serve a function — although de-boning a chicken in a badly lit kitchen can be a guaranteed ticket to the ER. Well-thought-out lighting is an essential ingredient in a well-designed home, enhancing colors, illuminating details, and making a space feel welcoming.
Part art and part science, putting together a lighting scheme is something that architects, contractors, and lighting specialists talk about early in a building's planning stages. But even if you've been in residence for a decade, improving your home's lighting is eminently doable.
Marcus Steffen, author of "Residential Lighting Design" (The Crowood Press Ltd., 2014), is an award-winning lighting designer who has worked on projects from private homes to commercial spaces for nearly two decades. He combines expertise in the technical side of electronics with an aesthetic appreciation of what looks beautiful. We reached him in the London office of MS Lighting Design and asked him to shine a light.
Q: What takes lighting from functional to beautiful?
A: The secret is creating different levels of light. Look at the key lighting groups: task lighting, ambient lighting, and accent or feature lighting. When you've covered all of these — and ensured that they are adjustable in brightness — you create the kind of layered atmosphere that turns a house into a home.
In additional to bright lighting that attracts the eye to a beautiful feature — be it a dining room table or a piece of art — soft shadows can help draw attention to a lit area, as well as hide less attractive spaces.
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Homeowners should look at the lamp itself — that's what lighting pros call the bulb — as well as the light fitting, which is known as the fixture in America. [Editor's note: For clarity, this article will use the terms bulbs and fixtures.] If you want to create soft light, for example, a chandelier with exposed bulbs can be very bright and will be right in your eyes. Adding dimmers will help control the brightness and subdue the glare.
Q: How do you put together a kitchen with good task lighting that also makes entertaining and dining a pleasure?
A: If you're using a kitchen for other things besides cooking — perhaps it is home to a dining table or breakfast bar— you want something other than bright task lighting. Make sure the task lighting, which could be spotlights above or under the counter, focuses solely on the work surfaces. Then put pendants and wall lights on different switches. When you want to work, increase the task lighting. When you're dining, the task lighting goes down and the other lighting comes into play.
Q: What is the ideal bathroom lighting for shaving and applying makeup?
A: The key is to avoid shadows on your face. If you only have recessed lighting from above, you'll have shadows under your eyebrows, nose, and chin. Try for a halo light around your mirror. Think about the classic Hollywood dressing room mirror surrounded by lightbulbs.
Q: What's the best way to light a hallway? Using low-level lighting and uplighting, or ceiling-mounted lights or chandeliers?
A: Hallways are transitional spaces. You're not spending a lot of time there, so you don't need lots of light. Low-level lights are easy to work with and also save energy.
Uplights, on the other hand, are there to create a bit of drama and set a stage. When you walk in your front door, they signal that you've arrived home and escaped the business world. When you're entertaining, they jolt people into a new experience. Uplights are also ideal for highlighting architectural details such as columns and windows.
Q: Do you see recessed lights fading in popularity, or will they continue to be popular? Is there a more contemporary option?
A: There's a reason downlights are so popular: They've very easy for architects and contractors to quantify. A contractor can walk into a room under construction and decide that you need nine of them. Then he just multiplies that number by a price to get the cost of lighting the room.
Downlights are very good at providing targeted light, and I use them when I want to highlight a feature. But a simple grid of ceiling lights is not the answer when illuminating an entire space. Each light should have a purpose and a reason. I combine them with lots of other elements, including wall lights and pendants.
The good news in 2019 is that recessed lights don't come with the type of visible edging that gave them such a 1990s feel. Trimless fittings, in which the body of the light is plastered into the ceiling, are much more discreet. When it comes to recessed lights I want people to see the light, not what it's coming from.
Q: What's the formula for hanging a chandelier? Does it go in the center of a room? Over a major piece of furniture?
A: We agonize over this, particularly in a new build. You need to figure out what the chandelier is the center of: a seating area, a table, an island? If your living room has a fireplace, you need to determine where the middle of that seating area will be once the furniture goes in. If we're installing it in what will be a dining room, we have to work out exactly where the table will go, then center it over that spot. That's one reason we advise leaving chandeliers until the very end of the build, and then asking the contractor to leave extra cable in the ceiling. A foot or two of flexibility will allow you to pull the chandelier over a bit, if need be.
Q: How do you know whether to invest in new LED-integrated lighting fixtures, or simply use LED bulbs in existing fixtures?
A: LED bulbs are definitely the way to go, because the energy savings and maintenance savings are huge. But homeowners are probably best off keeping their current fixtures and simply buying new LED bulbs. It's a matter of thinking ahead. Say you install a new LED-integrated fixture, and five or ten years down the line, you need to replace the bulb. The manufacturer probably won't make the same fixture as you originally purchased. So you're going to have to change the entire thing, which means getting in an electrician to do the work.
Q: Speaking of LEDs, can you get the same warm color temperature as with incandescent or halogen lights?
A: Yes, you just have to know what you're looking for. Bulb color is measured in Kelvin: The higher the number, the whiter and colder the light. A warm incandescent bulb is equal to 2,700 Kelvin; a warm halogen is 3,000. I normally don't go lower than 3,000, although 2,700 is pretty suitable for most tasks.
If you want a very warm light — for example, when you're relaxing in the bath, and you want the effect of something like candles — look for an LED that grows warmer as it dims. Few people are aware that although incandescent and halogen bulbs get warmer when you dim them, producing a cozy effect, most LEDs don't change color when they are dimmed. Newer LEDs can create a cozy glow.
Q: Are there specific ways you change-up lighting for older people?
A: Getting older means your eyes can't take in as much light. If you're a younger person, try turning down the lights by 50 percent — that's what happens as you age. So it's important to provide high levels of light throughout the house, including plenty of task lighting for reading and food prep, to make it feel safe. Thanks to the much higher output of light from LEDs, that's much easier than in years past.
Q: Without undertaking a full lighting makeover, are there any quick fixes or upgrades you can recommend for a homeowner?
A: I have two simple recommendations: First, install dimmers. A contractor can do it very easily with no damage to your walls. It gives you control over how a space feels.
Second, bring in floor uplighters. These are small cubes or canisters that sit on a floor and can frame a fireplace or an entry, or highlight curtains bracketing a window. They're easy to hide behind sofas or curtains, and you'll be impressed by how much they add to a room.