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How to Layer with Light

If you have seen a fantastically lit interior you will have seen great layering of light. Layering with light is a fundamental design technique used to sculpt lights and darks into an interior space, creating the appealing patchwork of highs and lows of light that the eye loves to see.

It’s not always obvious to understand what exactly is going on that makes the room look so great, so let us explain how you can harness the power of layering with light and unlock the full potential of your own spaces.

Layering With Light
Layers of Light to create a visually interesting space

Layering With Light Process

Light in a room should come from a combination of light sources that have been chosen for two main reasons. How the room will be used, considering the activities and people that will be in it as well as any architectural or interior design features that warrant attention. Each choice adds a layer of light into the space.

When deciding upon your own lighting choices you need a framework of decision making to base these choices on. This system of choosing is called layering

Layers are the Key to Successful Lighting

The key to successful lighting design is to use light where and when it is needed and no more. That is the light created, not necessarily the light fixture itself, there is a difference. 

Each light fixture position and the colour and strength of the light it creates is chosen by answering the questions of how each activity in the space will be best served with light, with each group of choices becoming a layer that builds a lighting scheme tailor made to the space and the activities performed in it.

An example of a Layer of Light could be a number of recessed ceiling downlights over a dining table to illuminate the area to work on.

It sounds obvious but it can be a brave move not to over light just in case. Too much light will wash out the interior loosing the contrasts that make up the interest the eye desires.

Layering with Light Bedroom
Ambient & Accent Layering

Choosing Layers by Lighting Type

Interior lighting can be categorised into four descriptive elements:

Task Lighting – how the work orientated activities in the space will be lit

Accent Lighting – where can smaller isolated or pockets of light be introduced to create interest

Ambient or General Lighting – the choice of light for the brightest lighting for general use

Feature or Decorative Lighting – where light fixtures can be introduced to be deliberately seen to enhance the look of the room.

The choices we make within each of these categories create our layers and we should try and include something from each category if at all possible for the best lighting schemes. Multiple layers allow for a greater choice of lighting scenes, effects and moods.

How to Light a Kitchen shows this process in action for the busiest space in the home.

Task Lighting Layer

Task Lighting delivers a focused brighter illumination and should be the brightest areas of any space. Task lighting needs to come from sources that provide shadow free light onto the work surface, such as recessed downlights positioned over a counter where the user’s body does not cast a shadow over the area of work.

How to Choose a Task Lighting Layer of Light

For each room decide upon where any activity in it could benefit from a more intense focus of light and then consider some of the following options to provide that light.

Kitchen under cabinet lighting from linear or single sources will deliver a strong focused light onto the work surface.

Bedside reading from an LED reading lamp delivers a strong light especially useful for older eyes. Beside reading next to a table lamp is considered a task light too so any desk or table lamps together with floor lamps can be used as task lights for reading or writing when close to the user.

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Mirror Task Lighting

For a bathroom mirror the face is best lit from vanity wall lights either side of the mirror to create an even wash of light across the face. The mirror above has LED strip around the perimeter of the mirror reflecting light off of the shiny tiles and a double lamped wall light above it to increase the lumen level.

Pendant lights that throw light downwards and are close to the surface they are illuminating are an option, such as a group of drop pendants over a kitchen island.

Adjustability within any source of task light will always allow the user to direct the light to exactly where they need it.

A task lights colour temperature will benefit from being cooler to increase the feeling of brightness. Kitchen work top task lighting looks great in 3000K for example.

Accent Lighting

Accent lighting should be brighter than the general ambient lighting as it’s in or from a defined area but not as bright as task lighting. 

How to Choose an Accent Layer of Light

Within the room choose to highlight unique areas of detail and interest that would benefit from being lit and help create depth and three dimensions to the space they are in.

Accent Lighting Can Be Visually Decorative

Wall sconces and wall lights add to the decoration of the space and help create focal points. This is an opportunity to possibly not be too concerned about the amount of light the wall lights create but more what they contribute to the overall interior design.

Wall lighting can frame an object placed either side of it, like a mirror or even a window.

Artwork lighting over a painting or print introduces picture lighting that will enhance colour and detail and contribute to the overall lit visual interest.

Accent Lighting Can Be From Hidden Sources of Light

This is where the object itself that contains the integrated lighting can become the accent light.

Modern joinery such as shelf lighting has been revolutionised by the miniaturisation of LED sources. Hidden LED strips in each shelf transform the traditionally standard area of storage or for decorative objects into a lit feature of the room 

Shelf Lighting (LINK) can be an incredible accent source of light when designed and installed well.

LED strip hidden over cabinets, cupboards and furniture can provide a soft gentle reflected accent light.

Ambient or General Lighting

Ambient Lighting is a general level of light potentially coming from all the lights in the room but specifically chosen to make sure the levels of brightness are increased to higher levels. 

How to Choose an Ambient Layer of Light

If there are not enough task and accent lights to combine together to create an acceptable general illumination then a dedicated ambient layer of light is required. A larger room will almost always need this contributing source to fill in the gaps where other layers are not providing light. For smaller rooms such as toilets and bathrooms, this may be the only light source for the space. 

Additional ceiling downlighters may be used to infill light, but do not simply light the floor. Try to reflect light off of cupboards or walls.

Ambient Lighting Shower
Ambient Lighting in the Shower

During the day the daylight can change dramatically depending on the time of year and weather, so consider supplementing the effect daylight brings into a room by adding reflected light. Lighting from above cupboards onto the ceiling will freshen the space with reflected general illumination. The image above shows clever shower lighting lit solely from reflected light onto the ceiling from perimeter waterproof LED strip.

A central flush mount ceiling light in a hallway with a diffuser or shade will create an ambient layer of light.

A lower lumen output lamp in a fixture could provide the ambient lighting required, such as from a table lamp.

Almost any light fixture can contribute to ambient lighting, flush mounts, chandeliers, pendants, wall sconces, cove lighting, coffer lighting – just ensure the room does not have a darkened area for when full illumination is needed like cleaning the room.

Feature Lighting

This is more than just an accent light layer, although the level of light is in that category. The feature or decorative layer of light creates a focal point to a room, allowing the lighting to make a statement.

How to Choose a Decorative or Feature Layer of Light

The boundaries between art and craft and lighting are often blurred. Lighting seems to be the excuse sometimes to hang a huge decorative object into a void that needs an object to fill it. The lighting in a decorative feature is more to light itself rather than the room.

Chandeliers require plenty of space around them to allow the statement they make work without confliction from other elements. 

Decorative lighting creates an opportunity to introduce a new finish to the overall interior design or emphasise a finish used elsewhere and add to the theme.

Glass in decorative lighting has been an obvious companion, allowing illumination through whilst often looking better lit.

Porcelain lighting looks incredible lit, creating warm candle like tones of light bringing the material to life.

Controlling Layers of Light

As each layer of light introduces its own unique effect to the space, so each group of fixtures providing that layer will be best controlled individually and will require their own circuit. The more control over each layer you have the greater the variety of combinations you will have at your disposal to shape the room to your taste and suit every occasion.

Andrew Orange , the owner of Orange Lighting qualified and worked as an interior designer in 1993 before specialising in lighting working on high profile projects based in London. Since starting Orange Lighting Ltd in 2003 he has been sharing his knowledge and unique teaching style mostly to his designer clients, offering practical real life advice born from running a busy consultancy and lighting supply business. Launching in 2020, his blog has evolved into Quick & Easy Lighting, curating some 25 years design experience into making the lighting choice and design process achievable and easy to understand for all.