A ceiling lamp with chrome metal arms and transparent glass shades (Courtesy of Theodores.com)

It’s amazing what good lighting can do. Besides making you look more attractive, and dare we say sexier, it can be energizing, relaxing or simply illuminating — accentuating a room’s best features, minimizing the unsavory and making your home a more enjoyable living and entertaining space.

With the plethora of lighting gadgets and gizmos available everywhere from Ikea to Home Depot to Restoration Hardware, just about any effect is possible, and can be done with minimal expense.

Judith Capen, an architect at Architrave Architects in Washington, said there are plenty of inexpensive sources of light that are plenty effective.

Fluorescent fixtures, which can be harsh, are great when used indirectly. “Put them on top of cabinets where you don’t see the fixture,” she said.

This is not just a kitchen trick. Consider fluorescents on top of
an armoire, or a tall bookcase, ­anywhere the source is unseen. Puck lights, little round battery-
powered LED disks that require no wiring, are also handy for inside cabinets, under shelves and in dark corners. “It’s not about an expensive fixture, but what you can do with it to shape a space,” Capen said.

It is possible to have it all — an ambiance that invites pleasure, relaxation, stimulation and charm — and even disguise a few of a home’s flaws by redirecting the eye to something more pleasing.

“What you want to do is layer the light,” said San Francisco lighting designer Randall Whitehead. “People try to do everything with one fixture, but you want different types of light to successfully illuminate the room. The best rooms use various sources of illumination to create a subtle design.”


A crystal chandelier (Courtesy of Theodores.com)

A floor lamp with clear blown glass and frame in Canaletto walnut (Courtesy of Theodores.com)

The language of light is pretty straightforward. Whitehead, who is also a columnist and author of seven books on residential lighting, said there are four lighting terms everyone should know:

Task lighting can brightly illuminate your desk, your closet, your kitchen counter, or your bathroom mirror so you don’t slice your throat shaving.

Decorative lighting includes chandeliers, hanging fixtures in the foyer, and table lamps. “Architectural jewelry,” he calls these. “They are the supermodels of light; they just need to look pretty.”

Accent or directed lighting highlights objects in a room. “Museums traditionally use a directed light on each piece of art and statuary,” he said. “It’s spotty, but dramatic.” However, when overused in a residential setting, “accent lighting can imply that what you own is more important than the people in the room.”

●That’s where ambient lighting comes in. We might call it the umami of illumination that bounces light around, blending all of the effects together and making the eye do a happy dance. This type of indirect illumination is the least understood and implemented but potentially the most bewitching element in any lighting scheme. “Add it and you become the star of your own home — as important as the objects in the space,” Whitehead said.

Ambient light is indirect, and the light source is either invisible or insignificant. Examples are cove lighting at the top of a wall, or matte-black metal torchiers that simply throw light into a space, or uplights that sit on the floor behind large plants and create shadow patterns across a ceiling.


A ceiling lamp with steel frame (Courtesy of Theodores.com)

Just be cautious with the light you select. LEDs are becoming more attractive in design and quality of illumination, “but a lot of what’s out there is too cool a light, a color not neat on skin tones. People look ghostly,” he said. “Look for warmer bulbs, particularly those called ‘dimmed incandescent.’ ”

To put it all together, “start with the people and then add art and architecture,” said Whitehead. The living room of an apartment Whitehead designed in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill demonstrates the interplay.

“The first thing you see is the beautiful, subtle leaf pattern projected on the ceiling,” he said. Shooting light upward from an LED fixture fitted with a dramatic stencil pattern makes the space feel larger and a rather bland, low ceiling seem more interesting.

An unearthly lantern that resembles a stainless-steel pod dangles at one side of the room. This is the architectural jewelry — “it’s not really providing illumination, just an illusion,” Whitehead said.

Recessed lights highlight the coffee table, the fireplace and artwork. “Recessed fixtures should not be directed over seating, it’s harsh — an uncomfortable light to be under,” he said.

Fading into the far left corner of the room is a black shaded lamp “that throws light up for ambiance and down for reading on the sofa. It functions like a torchier,” providing light without calling attention to itself.

The lights mounted outside and above the sliding glass doors to the terrace visually expand the space so the room feels as large as it does during the day. Without them, he said, “you create a black-mirror effect; you can’t see out and are closing off the room.”

The result is a room shaped by layers of light, easily adjusting to the needs of the homeowners, whether they are chilling in front of the fire or entertaining a roomful of guests.

Too often, however, our homes look their best only when they’re put on the market for sale.

“Lighting is an easy, cheap and simple way of updating the look of virtually any room in your house,” said real estate agent Ryall Smith of Coldwell Banker in Washington, who shared a few quick and inexpensive tricks he uses when staging homes.

“Dark corners suck the energy out of a room,” said Smith. “Take a look at your living room and dining room and put in uplights.”

Little lamps can make for big transformations. “Most kitchens, for example, have only overhead lighting,” he said. “Buy two small lamps and put them in corners, or maybe one in the dark triangle behind the sink, or on a stretch of granite counter. You won’t need the overheads, and it creates a homey, warm feeling.”

Like moths, humans gravitate toward the brightest light. If you don’t want your guests to congregate in the kitchen during a party, turn on those little lamps and turn off the overhead.

“We put lamps in rooms where you wouldn’t think of putting in lighting,” said Smith. “Plug in an attractive lamp in the bathroom and it becomes part of the living space.”

Stephanie Cavanaugh is a freelance writer.