Let the light shine through

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 January, 2008, 12:00am

Most of us don't think twice when buying a lamp, we simply choose the one that fits our budget. In the grand scheme of interior decoration, lighting is an afterthought. Indeed, say the experts, no one really wants to spend money on lighting at all.

But that would be a mistake, because the use of lighting to bring out architectural features or to create an atmosphere is almost as important as their role in illuminating a room.

'There's a lot of nice lighting around. People should appreciate the design more,' said Virginia Lung Wai-ki, director of interior design firm One Plus Partnership.

Sure, it costs a little more, but the house-proud will find it money well spent. However, since choosing lighting fixtures is difficult, start early and bring photos or hire an interior decorator to help you shop.

Even professionals struggle with the many choices of fixtures and bulbs. One designer likened finding the right lighting fixture to finding the right boyfriend, 'once you meet it, then it's there'.

'I would say it's easier to get a chair or sofa than the right lighting fixtures,' said Teresa Ho Sau-kuen, senior lecturer, at the Hong Kong Design Institute.

Here are some considerations to aid your search for the perfect lighting.

First, the living room. Living room lighting is guided by how you use the room. Children's games require bright light, whereas a softer light is better for relaxation. You certainly won't want the light to interfere with TV viewing either. Regardless, the original, dangling pendant lamp that came with the flat is not going to suffice, especially if it has a metallic finish, which Ms Ho said diminished quickly with age. Consider track lighting because you can adjust the heads to point in different directions like tiny spotlights.

'Track lights are linear, slim looking, and quite smart to use in modern interiors,' Ms Ho said.

Another trendy option is modular lighting. Modular lighting can be built up with the help of a lighting shop to whatever size or shape you desire. It is a good option for a large room, or one where you want to make an impact. The living room can also benefit from a popular type of concealed lighting called cove lighting. By placing fluorescent tubes around the perimeter of your ceiling it will give a floating effect and transform your room. The material used and the colour of the lights will determine the feeling, be it modern (using metal, glass bricks or crystal tiles) or traditional (using wood).

The dining room is another place where a lighting plan can help. Pendant lamps that can be adjusted up and down over the table work well here. But again, be wary of short-lived metallic finishes.

Track lighting is a good choice too. There is a connection, though, between the size and shape of the table and the placement of the fixture. You don't want one end too light or the other too dark.

'That's another reason why you need to start planning the lighting layout earlier and not at the end of project,' Ms Ho said.

And don't forget to install a dimmer switch. They are ideal for the whole house. Dimmers are an easy and relatively inexpensive technique for creating ambience.

'Right now we are using an automatic system,' Ms Lung said, 'You can adjust the lights to morning, afternoon or nighttime settings.'

Usually the remote control panel is placed at the front door or master bedroom for easy access, but because it is not wired, you can carry it around.

The bathroom is a personal place. Do we apply makeup or get dressed there? Do we read in the bathtub? The answers to these questions will affect the type of light we need, but fixtures should always be waterproof. Generally, Ms Ho recommends an extendable mirror with adjustable lighting that can be mounted near the mirror frame. Some people may also like proscenium lights that encircle the mirror like backstage lighting at the opera.

However, if you are going to apply makeup in the bathroom, make sure that you combine fluorescent light with a white light bulb. This will ensure that the colours are right.

To bring out architectural details in any room, there are a few options to consider. First, for featuring a textured wall, tapestry or painting, a wall washer is a popular choice. This technique draws attention to the architectural detail by bathing it in a general spectrum of light.

There is a special calculation to determine where to place the lights to ensure that the entire feature is covered in light. You don't want the light to stop at mid-point in the painting, for example. Your lighting provider can help with that.

Secondly, consider backlighting, an indirect light from behind a wall panel, to emphasise that detail. Installing a backlight is easier if you start thinking about lighting before you renovate.

Thirdly, there's the 'big bang for your buck' technique of using an up-light. Generally, an up-light is a small fixture that sits on the floor in a corner, with the beam splaying towards the ceiling, but it can take on different forms, and is sometimes called a spike.

'If you put a spike in the planter, the pattern of the foliage will project on the ceiling and create a comfortable feeling,' Ms Ho said.

Of course, in the end, individual taste will guide your selections. But, if you do it yourself, try to avoid some common mistakes. Don't buy a fixture seen everywhere, like the ubiquitous black or red monastic, crystal chandelier. You will likely tire of it quickly. 'People are using them in their homes without thinking,' said Ms Ho.

Also, avoid buying lamps in a set. Just because the table lamp matches the floor lamp which matches the pendant lamp, doesn't make them right for the different areas of your home. Find your own style and you and your lighting will shine.