There are two rules of thumb: You should have a mix of light sources at different levels to create a flattering ambiance, and you need appropriate task lighting for whatever you do in that space (reading, sautéing, getting dressed). Here are tips for five key spots.
Living room: Light three of the four corners, using one to highlight an object (a piece of art, a plant, a striking chair). Choose a mix of lighting: floor lamps and table lamps, some that shine downward and some upward. Make sure any overhead lights have a dimmer, and that down-glowing lamps have three-way switches.
Dining room: The table should be the brightest spot in the room. For a chandelier or pendant above the table, don't go any brighter than 100 watts. Indirect lighting is ideal for anywhere else in the room; for a subtle glow, try matching sconces or a pair of small table lamps on a console.
Bedroom: For a cozy and welcoming atmosphere, place reading lamps or sconces on either side of the bed. Recessed or track lighting should be angled away from the bed and toward the dressing area.
Kitchen: Focus on overhead lighting (on a dimmer that you can crank up when cooking). Supplement it with lower sources of light to illuminate work surfaces, such as pendants above an island, under-cabinet lights, or a table lamp (keep it away from the sink).
Bathroom: The most flattering light in a bathroom, especially for applying makeup, is sidelights on either side of the vanity or mirror. An overhead light will fill in any shadows on your face and provide extra illumination (important for cleaning). If the bathroom is large, consider a light directly over the shower.
Flush-Mount: These fixtures are attached directly to the ceiling to provide whole-room illumination. For a less harsh overhead light, put in low-wattage bulbs adding up to around 60 watts.
Semiflush: These lights, with a bit more style than standard flush-mounts, usually hang down about a foot from the ceiling.
Pendant: The term "pendant" applies to any fixture that hangs from a chain or cord. Pendant lights are ideal for hanging over tables and counters or in rooms with ceilings nine feet or taller. To find the best size pendant for your space, add up the length and width of the room in feet and then use the same number in inches for the fixture's diameter.
Recessed Lights: These lights (aka high hats or can lights) are embedded into the ceiling for a modern but subtle look—smaller ones, about three inches in diameter, are sleekest. Recessed lights are a great option for low ceilings, and directional recessed lights can be beamed to accent certain areas in a space.
Track Lights: These adaptable features provide flexibility in terms of where you want the lighting. Slide the fixtures to concentrate light on a certain area, or angle the lights to accent an object or artwork. Choose small track lights in a finish that matches other metals in the space.
Light Sizing and placement
Bedside: For bedside lamps, the bottom of the shade should be slightly below your line of sight, or around 16 to 18 inches from the top of the mattress. A table lamp that's 26 to 28 inches tall in total works best.
Kitchen: Kitchen pendants should clear the head of the tallest member of the family (36 to 48 inches from the countertop should do it). Space multiple pendants evenly, starting 12 to 15 inches from either end of the island or table.
Dining area: Choose a chandelier that's one-half to three-quarters the width of the table. A good guideline is to hang it 36 to 48 inches above the table, but it's fine to go a little lower or higher.
Bathroom: Sconces on either side of the bathroom mirror should be 36 to 40 inches apart, and approximately 60 inches from the floor. (Aim for the bottom edges of the shades to be slightly below eye level).
Bulbs to consider
Silver Bowl: This bulb has a metallic finish on the top half for a softer light, which makes it a great pick for overheads with exposed bulbs, especially if the fixtures don't have dimmers.
Soft Pink: This bulb type emits a soft, rosy light that's ideal for mood lighting in any space, and particularly in a bedroom, living room, or dining area.
Round Candelabra: These bulbs are ideal in a modern chandelier or as a surprising alternative to flame-shaped bulbs in a traditional chandelier.
Edison: This vintage-style bulb has a rustic glow and visible filaments; because it's pricey, it's worthwhile only in fixtures where the bulb is exposed.
Dimmers not only allow you to effortlessly adjust the feel of a room to match the mood or activity, but they also save energy and extend the life of the bulbs. They work well on lamps in addition to overhead lights.