Decorative lighting adds 'eye candy' to the architectural space. Here's how to do it.

BY James Benya

In the modern practice of architectural lighting, sooner or later one discovers that lighting design is best described by layers of light, an approach in which principal lighting requirements are addressed separately before being coordinated into a unified composition. Depending on the designer, the number of layers may be as many as eight, but for most practitioners, four will suffice.

The ambient layer, also called 'fill light,' is non-focal, general illumination. The amount and type of ambient lighting helps establish the basic mood or 'ambience' of a space. It does not usually create visual interest. The task layer is dedicated to the principal activities of a space. In rooms where tasks, such as reading or manufacturing predominate, this layer provides visual interest. The focal layer, also called 'key light,' is dedicated to illuminating displays in a space. In rooms where displays dominate, this layer creates visual interest. The decorative layer's primary role is to attract the eye in order to establish or reinforce the architectural design or theme. But decorative lighting may also provide ambient, task, or focal lighting in the process.

Sometimes a fifth layer is considered: 'light as art.' Because of the unique tools available to create this layer-notably LEDs and theatrical equipment-and their creative potential, lighting effects have been increasingly substituted for conventional art. In most cases, these effects cannot be considered 'architectural lighting,' since they cross the point at which architecture becomes just a structure to support the light show. It is helpful to separate lighting approaches into two major categories: 'classical,' in which lighting is an integral part of using and appreciating architecture; and 'architainment,' in which modern controls, gobos, and color-changing capabilities seem to dominate. This report is aimed at classical design, although its ideas can be used in more contemporary approaches.

Lighting has evolved over time, in particular as part of the architectural details of a given period. For practical reasons involving the use of flame as a light source, most historic luminaires included some type of transparent, translucent, or perforated enclosure and venting. To this day, traditional luminaire styles tend to embody these characteristics, since their original purpose also suits electric lighting. We use historic lighting terminology today to also describe decorative lighting.

Chandelier: A French word meaning literally 'holder of candles,' chandeliers illuminated large and grand spaces, often employing elaborate lowering mechanisms so that dozens of candles could be lit from the floor. We tend to associate chandeliers today with suspended decorative lighting that plays a formal ornamental role.

Pendant: A word meaning 'hanging ornament,' primarily applying to jewelry and lighting. A broader classification of lumnaires in which chandeliers could also be included, though generally describing a decorative class that is less formal and, often, less expensive.

Sconce: From the French word esconce, literally meaning 'holder of light,' this term is only used today to describe an ornamental wall fixture.

Lantern: A traditional word suggesting a more utilitarian light mounted to a post, wall, or arm, lantern is associated almost exclusively with ornamental and themed lighting.

Lamp: A historic word still associated with portable lighting of classic construction, lamp often takes an adjective like 'floor' or 'table.'

We also use more practically rooted terminology, based on: how the luminaire is mounted - track, wall bracket, or string light; where the luminaire is seated - pier light or post light; or where the luminaire is located - ceiling light or street light.

The industrial era of the twentieth century, coinciding with the evolution of the electric lamp, produced a number of appealing products that have become favorites for adaptive reuse and edgy loft products. For instance, some fixtures take their names from the original manufacturer, like Holophane (ribbed glass) or Abolite (industrial shades). In other cases, the function of the luminaire, such as vaportight, has become handy language to describe a specific class and style. Finally, a more generic phrase, industrial style, is also used.

Most designs tend to fall into the above categories, but there are a few important new terms, too.

Clouds and structures: clusters of lights (usually accent lights) mounted to an independent aesthetic supporting element.

Themed lighting: a specific classification of luminaires used to emphasize the theme of a project, such as in a casino.

Cable lights and monorails: flexible lighting systems designed for aesthetic as well as functional impact.

Architectural decorative lighting: understated and often simple shapes, rather than ornamental styles.

Vanity light and bath bar: classes of luminaires designed specifically for use in conjunction with a sink and a mirror.

Think of decorative lighting as the 'jewelry of architecture.' The principal role of jewelry is to ornament and 'catch the eye'; in modern lighting, it is no different. Like jewelry, the style and design of decorative lighting sends many messages about a project. For instance, a crystal chandelier is traditional, formal, and elegant; an onyx or alabaster bowl chandelier is transitional, semi-formal, and tasteful; a deer antler chandelier is themed, semi-informal, and playful; and a glass and metal Italian wall sconce is modern, formal, and hip. In other words, when it comes to making an architectural statement, lighting is to architecture as jewelry is to dress-it stands out and begs to be looked at first. But like jewelry, there are some conventions and well-learned design concepts that work best. Consider the following:

Locating Decorative Lighting: The use and location of decorative lighting is often driven by aesthetic expectations. It helps to use tradition as a starting point: Assume there will be a chandelier over the dining room table, a pendant light over the breakfast table, a table lamp by the bed, and sconces in a hotel corridor. While it is acceptable to design a dining room without a chandelier, for instance, there is a cultural expectation for such a piece; its absence would give the space a different feeling. The visitor's eye will be forced to seek other visual interest, such as architectural details, artwork, silverware, or stemware.

Common mistakes generally involving decorative lighting include placing fixtures in inappropriate locations, often in conflict with other decorative elements; or simply using too many or too few sources. For instance, sconces generally look best mounted at the 'third points,' meaning one-third of the height of the wall from either the ceiling or the floor. Along the wall, be careful, since too many sconces can look overdone. Remember, the essence of good design is restraint (unless you are designing a casino, and then all bets are off).

Use of Sparkle and Glow: Two especially important aspects of decorative lighting are sparkle and glow. Sparkle usually refers to small areas of relatively high brightness. If the source becomes too large, sparkle quickly becomes glare. Take, for instance, lamps in a crystal chandelier. As long as the wattage is low, or the chandelier hung high enough, the result will be pleasant. But increase the size of the lamp or proximity to it, and glare will occur.

Glow is a large area of brightness that is not glare. To prevent glare, the brightness of the luminaire must be balanced with the luminance of the room, and especially, with the surface against which it is seen. Many lighting designers favor hanging a chandelier within a ceiling coffer that is uplighted from a cove or from concealed lighting atop the chandelier. This reveals the beauty of the chandelier while creating an effective indirect light source that casts more light than that radiating from the apparent luminaire.

Eye-level glow'-using a glowing luminaire at or below the horizon line-is a clever design technique. In this approach, a table or floor lamp draws the eye down to where the visual tasks and interest occur. The coziness and warmth of a living room or bar is often the result of carefully placed luminaires below six feet. A shade prevents glare, allowing for a high-wattage lamp suitable as a reading light, without ruining the effect.

Use in Layering: Decorative fixtures can also provide ambient lighting. A favorite 'bargain' ballroom design involves fitting a chandelier with concealed fluorescent or HID uplights, and separately circuited low-wattage incandescent lamps visible through a (seemingly) high-end diffuser, such as real (or faux) alabaster. The uplights can provide as much as 20 to 30 footcandles of general illumination, and when these are turned off, the glowing incandescent lamps might provide 2 to 5 footcandles that can be inexpensively dimmed. Use step-level switching or dimming for the uplights to create a space that is well illuminated, flexible, and when needed, elegant.

Decorative lighting can also enhance corridors and other spaces that usually employ only one lighting system. Too often these spaces are illuminated solely by downlights, or worse, troffers. Ceiling decoratives or sconces, mixed with a few downlights or other 'architectural' lighting (to prevent the overuse of ornamental luminaires), can easily improve the appearance and perception of quality in even the most ordinary space.

The larger the decorative luminaire, the more likely a custom design will need to be considered. This is particularly true in important hospitality projects, like restaurants, hotels, and casinos, as well as for major civic projects, houses of worship, and the occasional corporate or office project. (See 'Customizing Light,' May/June, 2005). However, keep in mind that custom lighting is expensive, complicated, and can be surprisingly difficult, so proceed with caution. Working with a company that specializes in this type of product is necessary. Before designing your own luminaire from scratch, make sure you have completely evaluated standard lines and products from companies that are accustomed to making custom variations of their offerings, as these are often the best value. And of course, avoid 'knocking off' existing designs: it is illegal and unfair to those who have invested their resources in developing the original product.

Finally, as with jewelry, remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the choice should please the wearer first and foremost. In my practice, I encourage architects and interior designers, or in residential work, the homeowner or decorator, to play a significant role in the choice of decorative lighting. Use your knowledge of design and illumination to take their choice and add the layers to create the desired composition. That's good lighting design.

James Benya is a professional lighting designer and principal of Benya Lighting Design in Tigard, Oregon. He serves on the editorial advisory board of A|L.

Note: This article was inspired by a column written by James in the early 1990s, and by Tom Scott of Winona Lighting, who encouraged an update of the original article.