I live in a pretty, coastal area of County Dublin. During lockdown this has meant that a lot of people have flocked here to use the amenities of the area so during the day the pavements are pretty busy with people walking and jogging. In order to maintain social distance, you quite frequently find yourself having to hop off the pavements and walk in the cycle lanes. It doesn’t make for a very relaxing experience. As a result, therefore, I have been going out very late at night for a long walk instead. It’s lovely and peaceful, there is virtually no traffic, no bicycles and you can walk along the pavements without constantly side-stepping other pedestrians, checking for cyclists etc.
Anyway, one of the other benefits of this late-night walking is that I am able to concentrate better on my surroundings without all the other distractions and obstacles. Being night-time and with many of the areas quite dimly lit, I am drawn towards the lights of houses and it has struck me just what a difference good lighting makes to both a house and indeed to a garden.
I’ve studied most of the houses on my route at this point and specifically their lighting arrangements. I wrote recently about the fact that the composition of certain houses really affects me and I am similarly affected by lighting. The houses that really disturb me are those whose lighting is like a throwback from the last world war (I wasn’t around but I’m basing this on movies and photographs I’ve seen). You know the sort - dim lighting, not moody, just dim - the dim light that is emitted from a central light fitting where the bulb wattage is too low so that only the area directly beneath the light is properly lit and the rest of the room sits in eerie shadows. It has resonances of Halloween except all year round. Shudder.
Then we have the harsh, central, strong, bare bulb effect. I’m not entirely sure how this effect is achieved, perhaps it is literally a bare central bulb in a room or perhaps a light shade that is too flat and wide, so it doesn’t encase the bulb at all and therefore doesn’t temper the bare light. Either way, the effect is utterly depressing, and I honestly don’t know how anyone could feel cheerful in such a space. It throws a white light around that makes everything look stark and makes the space resemble an interrogation room.
There’s a particular house on my route, an attractive structure in day-time, apart from truly hideous windows (that’s for another post!) but at night with that horrible, stark central light on, well, I hurry by because, quite honestly, I feel like a murder is about to be committed there. The other curious thing about this house is that, despite it being roadside, with its large living room window looking out to the pavement that I walk along, the occupants have no curtains or blinds and seem quite content to sit on their leather sofa (I know because I’ve seen it… and them), watching TV in their harshly lit room, with the world - every passing pedestrian, car and bus - able to watch them. It feels like Googlebox and it’s quite bizarre how anyone could find this conducive to relaxation.
Moving on swiftly to the good ones.
There are a few houses that have lovely, gentle light in their gardens and they really please me. There’s something so warm and welcoming about lighting dispersed among foliage. I love sitting in my own small garden on a summer’s night when the sun has set and I turn on the outdoor lights and light a couple of candles (we have a couple of wall lights and also some lights set within the planting). It’s magical watching the lights flickering in the breeze, the shadows created by the leaves dancing in front of the light. But even a simple warm light over a front door or a couple of lights either side and you feel that the occupants are saying “you’re welcome here”. These houses generally also have a lovely warm glow coming from behind closed curtains and you can imagine them being happy homes.
Sometimes you get a glimpse inside, where a house is a little distant from the roadside and the curtains aren’t yet drawn but the lights are on. You can tell that the lighting is coming from standard lamps and table lamps set in different areas in a room, at different heights, because of the different tones and shadows. Those arrangements of ambient lighting create my favourite atmosphere. The mood is dreamy, romantic and warm. It’s the atmosphere that I have cultivated in my own living room, in which I have eight different lights. That sounds like an awful lot for one room but trust me, it really isn’t.
Firstly, there’s the central, ceiling light that I rarely turn on and dim when I do. Then there's a globe, floor light that sits behind the curtain covering the French doors that open into the front garden. It bathes the sheer curtain in a glorious warm light. Another floor globe sits on a low chest in a corner, again giving a warm glow to that area. Then there are two standard lamps in another two corners, one which throws light both upwards and downwards from beneath its large shade (see main photo) and the other that throws light up in several directions from conical-shaped shades. Behind a long, low unit, that the TV, speakers and a few ornaments sit on, we’ve attached a strip of LED lights that disperse warm light up the wall behind the unit and finally we’ve two art deco table lamps at either end of our piano that emit a very gentle light. All these lights complement each other beautifully, giving interest to different areas of the room and yet blending so well together because none is competing with the others. They all perform different functions.
For me, lighting is the single most important consideration when designing or re-organising a room. It can quite literally make or break it. Get it wrong and regardless of what furniture or artwork you put in the room, you will struggle to fully relax in it. Get it right and the result will be a space that people gravitate towards and feel comfortable in. There’s no quick guide because every room is different, with different accents, and performs a different function. The kitchen for example requires stronger, brighter lighting because it is a working area, although if you have a kitchen/diner, the lighting above the table should be gentler and warmer. Likewise, you need bright light in an office space. But a living room requires a different treatment entirely – and I believe that the ambient lighting in this room should in fact be achieved from a variety of different lights and lamps that create warmth and interest. The same is true of a bedroom. It should be a haven of relaxation. Lights with orange rather than blue tones are important here.
Put in simple terms, think of a laboratory with its bright, white, blue-hued lighting. That’s not the sort of look you want in your living room. Equally, you wouldn’t want moody, ambient lighting in your kitchen, that means you struggle to see what you’re cutting and cooking. Bright, white light equals efficiency, work, energy. Moody, low, orange-toned light equals relaxation, warmth, comfort. But whatever your lighting requirements, just make sure they are the best they can be because where lighting is concerned, there should be no half measures and it really is worth taking the time to think about what the different lighting requirements are and what sort of atmosphere you are trying to create before starting to drill holes in walls or buying fittings.
One of my particular lighting bugbears is Christmas lights. I cannot bear when villages or towns or even gardens have certain areas decorated with lovely, warm-toned, twinkling lights and other parts decorated with bright white lights. You can certainly mix in some coloured lights, if done tastefully, but mixing warm and cold toned lights just doesn’t work. It looks messy. It upsets me when I see a lovely village street, that a traders’ association has clearly spent a lot of money to decorate, where most of the buildings are tastefully festooned with warm-hued fairy lights only for cold, bright lights or worse still garish flashing icons like Santa Clause or reindeers or a big fat Merry Christmas message to be draped across the street. It really bothers me. In this case consistency is so important. The same is true of Christmas tree lights. Make your choice – warm or cold and stick to it. Don’t mix.