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Design 101: Lights Fantastic

With a little know-how and an oh-so-brilliant design plan in place, any space can shine.

assorted light fixtures against blue background

Clockwise from top left: Lunar Pendant ($225)Rota Round Wicker Table Lamp ($119)Antique-Brass Sculptural Ring Hayley Pendant Lamp ($45)Dusty Peach Kanisa Pendant($60)Leap Floor Lamp ($129)Color Icon 2 Sconce ($399)URI Portable Table Lamp ($55)Angelo Rattan Table Lamp ($89).

1. Fixture Types

Let’s shed some light on the most common types of lighting.


Any light with arms or branches. It’s often as important to the room decoratively as it is practically.

Flush Mount

A fixture that directly abuts the ceiling and shines downward. That could mean anything from a plain old ceiling-fan light to an elaborate crystal teardrop style.


Just as the name suggests, it provides light for your fancy artwork. Although it’s a supporting player, there are plenty of attractive options.


They’ve been around forever, and back in the day, they held candles. The modern version (currently trending) attaches to the wall with a bracket and can shine light up, down, or out. Great for bathrooms or bedside, or mixed in with art on a gallery wall.


A stick-on LED light that you can place anywhere. They’re far more practical than pretty, so put them to work as a night-light or to brighten a dim work space.


Light sources that help you get down to business. Think: desk lamps, swing-arm lamps, reading lights, floor lamps.


Also called “can lights,” they’re lights in tubes or, yes, cans built into the ceiling, so you may have to drop it 4 to 6 inches to accommodate the fixtures.


These lights are suspended from the ceiling and hang straight down from a chain, cord, or metal rod. “They’re what should be hanging above your kitchen island,” says Natchez, Mississippi–based decorator Page Mullins. “They provide task lighting, but they’re also a great way to complement the style of your kitchen and make a decorative statement.”


Just as the name implies, these are attached to a track, enabling you to spotlight all the right areas by mounting the heads of the lights strategically along the railing. Hugely popular in the 1980s, they were actually invented in the ’60s.

2. Materials Basics

Before you invest in a new fixture, it’s worth considering the pros and cons of some commonly used materials.


The golden-colored alloy of copper and zinc was everywhere in the ’80s, went away for a bit, and is now back with a vengeance.


Polished, brushed, and even matte-black finishes are having a moment; it lasts forever.


It can get pricey. 


A shiny silver-look finish laid on top of steel.


It’s becoming more popular in the design world; it’s super strong; it’s reasonably priced.


If it gets bent or scratched, it may rust.


The transparent material is a mainstay in lighting.


It never goes out of style; pieces can be simple or intricate; you can’t beat the reflection and refraction from a good old-fashioned crystal (a.k.a. lead glass) chandelier.


You’ll have to handle and install these fragile pieces with care.


Silvery metal that comes in polished and matte finishes.


The material is long-lasting and has been trending for the last seven or eight years; available at all price points; not terribly expensive.


It may tarnish.


Try alabaster or marble.


When these pieces are turned on, the light diffuses nicely. When they’re off during the day, sunlight makes them look like they’re glowing from within.


These fixtures can get very pricey.


Woven natural palm.


Very trendy; a great way to add a natural element to a space; can be used indoors and out; available at a number of price points.


It may not last long enough to become a family heirloom.


A nice word for plastic.


Fixtures are often inexpensive, which means you can change your mind, and it won’t cost a fortune for you to replace.


It’s plastic.

light bulb

3. A (Quick) Lesson in LED

Chances are, you’re familiar with the benefits of LED bulbs: They last longer, they’re more efficient, and they produce zero UV emissions. They’re also becoming more stylish. Charles Camacho of Circa Lighting says the majority of lights he works with are LED. “With demand, economy of scale, and increases in production technology, the price continues to drop, while the quality just gets better and better. It’s past the early adopters stage, and now it’s made the leap to the mainstream market.”

Clockwise from top left: lighting by Apparatus Studio; Electron Table Lamp by Bohinc Studio; design by Candace Mary Interiors; design by Tori Rubinson.

4. Lighting trends

Four interior designers weigh in on what they’re loving right now.

Make a Statement

“My current obsession in lighting trends toward the modern,” says designer Lisa Wester, who’s based in Oneonta, Alabama. “Apparatus Studio has some lights that are nothing short of a work of art.”

Go Bold

Brooklyn-based designer Jami Supsic is in love with unique statement fixtures. “Lara Bohinc’s lighting is stunning and emits these cool patterns when they’re turned on. I especially love the Electron Table Light. It’s so unique and has really interesting mesh shades,” she says.

Material World

“I always encourage my clients to mix metals and materials in their lighting, plumbing fixtures, hardware, and furnishings,” says Fort Worth, Texas–based designer Tori Rubinson. “I think it adds more character and interest and also is much more trend-proof, which provides more longevity to a home.”

Wall Lit

“I’m all about incorporating sconces into my designs these days,” says Chicago-based designer Candace Griffin. “It’s the perfect way to create that hotel feel and a great option for small spaces. Not to mention it’s another opportunity to bring in some personality above a nightstand.”

“I love a light fixture that’s also a piece of art!”


glowing light fixture

5. Get the Glow You Want

With a little planning, you can perfect the balance of glamour and glow in any room. Here, we share designers’ hard-won brilliance on the topic.

Focus on function.

There are four basic lighting effects: ambient (general), task (focused), accent (highlight), and decorative (adds sparkle). Think about the primary purpose of the space, then layer in the combination you need. For example, a living room might have some recessed cans (ambient), a chandelier (decorative), table lamps (highlight), and maybe a reading light (task).

Size matters.

When in doubt, go bigger, says Birmingham, Alabama, designer Zoe Gowen: “Sometimes, more is more when you want to create a moment. And there’s nothing sadder than a chandelier that’s way too small for a space.” She also advises measuring before making a move. “Tape out sconces on the wall and tape chandeliers out on the floor. Measure the side table and think about how much space the lamp sitting on it will take up.”

Experience a light bulb moment.

Natural light means different things to different people. “LEDs that mimic natural daylight may feel very harsh and unnatural to people who prefer the very warm filament bulbs they grew up with,” says David Kitts, vice president of design and product strategy for Hubbardton Forge. “People want more control over the color of their lighting. That doesn’t necessarily mean complicated controls. It’s as simple as wanting to change your bulb to a warmer or cooler color temperature if your mood desires.”

Embrace dimmers!

From common areas to more intimate spaces like bedrooms, it makes sense to have the option to turn up the brightness when you need to get down to business, and dial it down when you want to create a mood. And that goes double for your main bath, where lighting should be both handsome and hardworking. Brooklyn designer Supsic says, “Always make sure your vanity light is dimmable. Even if the light is crazy expensive and super beautiful, when you’re putting on makeup, the inability to dim is going to be a deal breaker.”

6. Lights Out

Now more than ever, homeowners want every square inch of their property to pop. Backyards are becoming extensions of what’s inside—and that’s reflected in the lighting. “The popularity of outdoor chandeliers has increased steeply in the past four years,” says Camacho. Not only do they add romantic ambience, but if you hang them in a space with a wood ceiling—either flat or vaulted—it can provide upward light to illuminate and really show off the action above.

Hulu Lamp in Celadon

Hulu Lamp in Celadon, $250, oka.com

7. Throwing Shades

To pick a lamp topper that’s tops, here are some things to keep in mind:

It’s All About That Base

Break out the measuring tape, because the dimensions of your lamp base will determine the height and width of your shade. You’ll have to make some judgment calls, but shades should generally be between one-third and one-half the height of the lamp and completely cover the harp (the metal piece holding the shade) and switch. The width of the shade should be about equal to the height of the base.

Express Yourself

There’s nothing wrong with a crisp white or beige shade, but there are other options. Patterned shades are available ready-made or custom, or try your hand at DIY, with a pleated paper shade in an unexpected color!

Shape Matters

Again, the base is all-important. If it’s curvy or rounded, go with a rounded cone or empire-shaped shade. If it’s more linear, opt for an angular shade like a square or rectangle.

8. A Few Faves

Fancy up an ordinary lamp with one of these anything-but-average shades.

Green Plumbago Vine Lampshade

Green Plumbago Vine Lampshade ($48)

Natural Rattan Table Lampshade

Natural Rattan Table Lampshade ($27)

Isla Block Print Pleated Lampshade

Isla Block Print Pleated Lampshade (from $79)

Petra Velvet Lampshade

Petra Velvet Lampshade (from $98)

Handmade Paper Lampshade

Handmade Paper Lampshade ($93)

Scalloped Raffia Lampshade

Scalloped Raffia Lampshade ($150)

Palais Loïs Moss Lampshade

Palais Loïs Moss Lampshade (from $87)

By Laura Kostelny | Light bulb and glow light fixture images by Getty Images | Lighting trends interior photographs courtesy of Apparatus Studio, courtesy of Bohinc Studio, Jackie Blair, Stephen Karlisch | Lampshade images courtesy of the brands | All other photographs by Ted & Chelsea Cavanaugh

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