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A guide to interior lighting

Foolproof tips from a veteran lighting designer

Designer Michelle Steinback was in the middle of remodeling her Eichler-style ranch in Portland in 2013 when she needed some lighting that worked with the existing architecture. "I wanted globe lights, in glass and brass, and no one made them," Steinback says.

Having spent the ten years prior in production and design for a large lighting manufacturer, it wasn’t hard for Steinback to make her vision a reality. She recalls: "I was like, ‘Oh, I know how to make these. Why don’t I just design what I want and make them myself, because I can’t find what I want?’"

This became the start of her bespoke lighting company, Cedar & Moss, which now offers a range of modern and midcentury-style fixtures. As far as her own decor goes, at last count Steinback had somewhere around 58 sconces in her house.

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"Of course, I love lights so I push it too far sometimes," Steinback says with a laugh. "But lighting can just be so beautiful." Here, she offers her tips for navigating the lighting market to find the perfect fixtures.

1. Function first

First and foremost, your lighting purchases will depend on the practical illumination needs of the room. A few questions to ask yourself: What tasks and activities will you be doing there? How much light do you personally prefer? Do you like it bright or more moody? How much natural light does your house already get?

A good way to get the answer to these questions is to observe the space, much like you might observe a potential garden plot, and how you tend to use each room. "Any time that you can understand the space, you’re going to be wiser and more practical about the choices you make," Steinback says.

Cedar and Moss, Ridge Sconce, $225

2. Layer

For Steinback, once she has an idea of the room’s practical needs, the next step is to think in terms of layering. "The mistake people sometimes make is that they expect one light, or a few lights, to do all the work in a room," she says. "I think that those end up being harsh rooms to be in."

Layering light sources, especially when wired to dimmers, creates versatility and can accommodate different activities in the same space. Steinback uses the example of her own family room, where she utilizes floor lamps, table lamps, and sconces, all on dimmers. Turning the sconces down low makes the room ideal for movie screenings, while turning up everything at once brightens the table for family game nights. "Having that flexibility is so nice," Steinback says.

3. The free agents: table and floor lamps

Table and floor lamps can provide both ambient and task lighting. As decor goes, they are very flexible because they’re not hard-wired. They can be moved to wherever light is needed and there’s available table or floor space.

When choosing a table or floor lamp, consider the room’s scale and the relationship of the lamp with the furniture around it. "If you have a bigger room, you can do a bigger lamp," Steinback says.

Stylistically, the choices are pretty much endless. "In terms of style, I think it has everything to do with your personal style and what you like," says Steinback. "I don’t think there’s a right or wrong." She recommends asking yourself: "What do you love and what do you want to look at everyday?"

4. For walls: sconces

Traditionally, sconces have been used for accent lighting, such as highlighting bookshelves, framing a fireplace, or lining a hallway. And while these are still terrific spots for them, Steinback thinks sconces have the potential for even more creative placement.

Cedar and Moss, Tilt Cone sconce in modern black, $189

"I have rooms in my house, like my family room and bedroom, where there’s a sconce every four feet all the way down a wall," she says. "You don’t see that very often but it looks great and offers tons of light. Instead of a big light in the center of the room, there’s all this light on the side, which really almost replicates a big window."

An ideal space for such a treatment would be a darker basement that’s been converted to living space, or in a home where the ceiling is too high for traditional overheads.

Additionally, sconces are great space-savers. "I found that in smaller spaces, you may not have the surface area for table lamps so sconces make more sense," Steinback says. For this reason, we’re seeing more and more sconces used as bedside lights and stylish kitchen task lighting.

Sconces also add architectural interest. When placing them, look to other architectural elements in the room for a guide, such as window heights, door openings, or casework. "You just want to make sure that you’re continuing lines that already exist in the architecture," Steinback says. Don’t forget practicality either; for instance, avoid installing where it’s so low that you might walk into it.

5. For ceilings: chandeliers, pendants, and flush mounts

Both chandeliers and pendants are suspended from the ceiling, but they have their differences. A pendant is typically used for commercial applications. It has a single bulb socket, a more modern silhouette, and might hang from a rod, string, or chain.

The chandelier harks from pre-electrical times, when candles were used as a main lighting source. It has multiple sockets (or branches) and is often more ornate in style. "Typically people would put a single chandelier over a dining table or in the entry," Steinback says. "Although in the past couple decades it’s become more popular to, for instance, put multiple pendants over a table in lieu of a chandelier."

Hang these pieces wherever you want to make a style statement and bring light down into a space. Just remember to factor in ceiling height if anyone will be walking beneath them. For kitchen islands and counters, 72 to 76 inches from the floor is comfortable. For tables, 36 inches above the surface is a good rule of thumb.

Flush mounts are fixtures affixed to the ceiling that do not have rods or branches leading to the sockets. "Usually you just need these up and out of the way," Steinback says. In recent years, flush mounts have been used as a more stylish alternative to cans or recessed lighting.

7. Don’t forget wattage

Just any bulb won’t fit every situation. Steinback loves to use multiple low wattage bulbs throughout her home, almost like she’s recreating candlelight. "I don’t burn a lot of candles in my house but I have a lot of really pretty atmospheric lights that are just like sculptures," she says. "They’re more about mood."

She also recommends buying bulbs at the hardware store. "When you can, buy 130-volt bulbs," says Steinback. "Those are commercial grade. They last longer and are better quality." If buying LED or compact fluorescent, look for warm light or a Kelvin range of 2700-3000.