I've been umming and ahhing about whether to do a post on lighting.. it's not the most interesting topic to write about in a lot of ways. But I think it's one of the most important aspects of a renovation to consider - if you work outside of your home, you'll be spending most of the time you actually spend in your home experiencing it with lights on at night. Getting the lighting right will enhance the mood and atmosphere of your home, make it easier to 'work' in, and really, it's a pretty vital part of any renovation.

But it's also the one thing that is most frequently cut from a budget (or not allowed a sufficient amount for in the first place). Or it's the afterthought to a project, usually directed by an electrician and builder who cover a ceiling in little holes for down lights. Good lighting in some ways goes unnoticed - it instead gives a good feel to a space, a glow, a warmth. Unless it's a showy pendant light, you probably won't notice why you're enjoying being in that space so much.



I think I first became really aware of the importance of lighting when I was studying in London. On my first week in my Interiors course at The Inchbald School of Design, some 14 years ago, the students were taken to Michael Inchbald's house in Chelsea. Michael Inchbald was a very well known Interior Decorator (he had been retired for a long time when we met him), and he lived in an inherited family home, a large double fronted house a stones throw from Harrod's. The interiors were absolutely astonishing. Truly beautiful and innovative, and a total eye opener to me - so many museum quality pieces, proper art and beautiful things used in clever ways (his grandmother's fur carriage rug he'd turned into a rug in his library for instance). He showed us through the main reception rooms talking us through his decorative schemes and the approach he'd used throughout. The Drawing Room was particularly interesting as he discussed the importance of the lighting in the room - he had used wall washes as well as lamps and other more conventional light sources. In one instance he told us how amusing it was to tell the electrician to hide a wall wash "I told him to stick it up the bum" of a large bronze deer statue in a corner - the electrician duly bored a hole into the deer's rear end and inserted the wall washer. You certainly couldn't see the light fitting, but the lighting effect was quite brilliant, it threw light up the wall behind the deer, putting the deer into shadow in front. He told us that Princess Margaret had gone to a party there in the early 1970's and that she reportedly said it was the best digs she'd seen. Much of that would have been from the quite theatrical and atmospheric lighting that he had used in his interiors.


I don't think that the average house needs to aim to achieve theatrical light, but some more thought to the lighting will really make a big difference.

There are two types of light - ambient and task.

Ambient lighting is general room lighting, and could be also called mood lighting. Most people like having lighting at their level, ie not from the ceiling overhead. Lamps are perfect for creating good ambient lighting. Psychologically it relates back to the hearth and fire and maybe cavemen... we're hard wired to prefer a gentle glow around human level. It's much more flattering to have this type of lighting as well.... no one looks good under harsh overhead lighting.



Task lighting can mean two things - it's the lamp next to the chair so that you can see the book you want to read clearly, or the lamp on the desk you work at, but it's also the overhead lighting so that you can see when you're cleaning, or that floods your kitchen with light while you're cooking (you don't want romantic lighting in a kitchen... you'll never see the dirt).

So really, you need both. As I said previously, most people approach their lighting in a modern home extension in Australia by putting a mass of downlights in a ceiling, which creates a uniform overhead light source. This means that there is no intimacy or mood created with the lighting. Lamps are by far the easiest way to create a warmer and more intimate feel, and I personally prefer to light rooms by lamp light - lots of them. As I have previously stated, we are having floor boxes in the living area that will have power for the lamps in our sitting area, something that is easy to do if you are pouring a new slab (or if you have an old house with timber floors, easy to retrofit). I've had the electrician wire them up to a switch, so I'll flick a light switch and the lamps will all come on at once. Aside from that, it's a good idea to have lighting on the perimeter of a room, either by lamps again, or wall lights. I've chosen a very simple wall sconce that looks like it's been scooped out of the plaster walls... a bit minimalist. We don't have overhead lighting - with the raked ceiling, and very high ceilings in general throughout the extension, I didn't want holes in it with downlights, and I know that I wouldn't put them on at any rate based on how I currently use our living areas.


In the dining area, we have a large painting that is going opposite the windows on our largest area of blank wall. I've bought an LED picture light to highlight the painting, and give some ambient light in this area. I highly recommend art lighting - it doesn't really matter if you have some spectacularly expensive piece of art...it will just make it look better, and give you that extra lighting dimension. If you're not renovating, you can get art lights that are not hard wired or fixed into the walls. We'll have a console table underneath the painting that will have lamps on it, adding more light to the area. There will be an overhead pendant light over the dining table, which will be a feature (still a work in progress... I haven't managed to find a light fitting I like under $10K yet, which as you can imagine is not making Mr AV happy... who knew that light fittings could cost so much when they didn't have crystal in them??). I think we'll likely move into the room with a bulb...



The kitchen has been tricky - you really do need task lighting in a kitchen, but with our very high ceilings, the downlights won't give great overhead light. The solution I've come up with is to hide a strip LED in a concealed bulkhead above the window. This is the main bench space - the cooktop has lighting in the range hood, and the island will have a cluster of three pendant lights (like these below - the bolla light) which will provide plenty of light.


The stairs down to the cellar and Mr AV's home office has also been a little tricky due to the high ceilings. I've ended up putting a wall washer on every second step down, which will provide plenty of light for navigating the stairs (plus as the stair enclosure is glass it will borrow light from the kitchen and dining area).



Outdoors, I've chosen a modern up /down wall washer at various points in the outdoor dining and around the verandahs. I've also found a micro spotlight that will wash up each of the veranda posts. These are all LED so can be on for the evening without using much electricity at all. There'll be a bit of lighting in the garden, but that hasn't been decided on yet.



Lighting has been quite a chunk of our budget. I do think it's quite an important part of it though. I think if you really analyse how you enjoy using your spaces, and then put appropriate lighting in for that, you'll be happy -  and you don't have to stick uplights in bronze deer bottoms to achieve good lighting for the average home (although feel free to replicate that idea if you like...!). If you go with the blanket LED downlight approach, it will lead to you rarely using the lights, or if you do, you'll feel like you're in an operating theatre. Fine if you're cleaning, but not great if you're entertaining friends... it will have the McDonald's effect (they'll want to leave after 15 minutes.... it's an actual design feature in McDonald's to ensure customer turnover). So with a little thought to the lighting, you can add a lot more to your home to make it feel welcoming and interesting without studding your ceilings like swiss cheese with a million downlight holes.

All images unless noted via

42 comments:

  1. Lighting is hugely important. Neon lights should convince anyone right? But I also think geography is a huge thing. In London downlighters are a necessary evil. I can't handle the lack of light and I crank up downlighters up. Ok they are a nice softer hue of bulb but without it I would feel like I am in the scene of the day after...But I do position them no less than a meter from the wall edges so there are no wierd shadows and they are rotatable...But I am going to add some art lights. My ideal is focused lighting for art like they have in museums but costs a bomb!! I also think the UK needs to invent Vitamin D lamp...xx

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    1. Very funny! You're talking about having the lights on during the day? I can understand that, as it is a fairly gloomy light most of the time in London... especially as it's rare to have a large bank of windows to let in natural light. Good lighting is fairly expensive.. which is why I think it becomes something that is cut pretty quickly from most budgets - but it is worth it! I guess you just have to balance it out somewhere. Yesterday I ok'd the laminate benchtop in the laundry - the cost difference between it and the stone (using leftover from the kitchen slabs) was still $800! I'm fine with laminate in the laundry, so it seemed to be the sensible thing to instead put that money into something else - like lights. Get the art lights! xx

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  2. Heidi,
    Have fallen in love with the first picture and all those romantic candle lights. Guessing it's a hotel? If so, do you know what and where? I could never be a minimalist - that picture is what sets my heart beating faster. But of course rarely possible in a normal home environment. Afraid my house has lots of the horrible builders' downlights. Though the dining room has a Murano chandelier with a dimmer and the main living room lights are different too and on dimmers. But in the family room as well as the kitchen I like plenty of light as well as task lighting as I'm always busy doing practical things there, or reading or doing tapestry and need the full business, specially as my eyesight is getting a bit dodgy.
    Your extension/reno lighting is going to be just fabulous. Good luck with finding the perfect lighting for your dining table.

    Along similar lines to deterrent lighting in McDonalds, did you know that at lots of bus interchanges, they play music that appeals to seniors as a deterrent to the young kids who would otherwise tend to hang around - they hate it and move on faster. Best wishes, Pamela

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    1. Hi Pamela - I'm actually not sure what it is... unfortunately the website is in Spanish, and it seems to be in Sao Paul. I think it's some sort of restaurant/ function room from the look of it. Maybe your spanish is better than mine? http://www.bothanicapaulista.com.br/abertura_paulista It's got some other images of the space.
      I love that bus stop technique, and I use it in our car... music to sooth the savage beasts (aka my children after school) works a treat, they all go into a bit of a stupor! xx

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    2. Many tks Heidi for the address. Absolutely fabulous pictures that I'm sure FF would love too. Fabulous use of flowers/plants to decorate rooms, wedding receptions etc. Also the lighting! Unfortunately website is in Portuguese (have a tiny tiny amount of Spanish but it didn't help much). It looks as though it might be people who do flowers and plants - with great flair - for special occasions like weddings etc. Absolutely over the top and gorgeous non-traditional arrangements, fabulous colours. Even not understanding it much or at all - it's worth opening and looking at the pics. When I was teaching English as a foreign language many years ago had a Brazilian student from Sao Paolo. She said it's a very big city (if I remember correctly) industrial with lots of problems. But there are obviously some very well heeled people there too.
      I drooled over most of these pictures. Sad but true! Pamela xx

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    3. It is lovely - it's just a pity I can't understand a word! You're obviously just slightly more fluent than I if you worked out it was Portuguese at least! I guess that's the case with a lot of South America (and Asia is the same really) - huge extremes in wealth. xx

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  3. The deer in your place must be very happy you're going another route ;)

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    1. Ha Liene, I'm sure they would be (if I had any!) xx

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  4. I think it's so important too, my favourite job ever was with a interior designer here, had I been able to draw and understand those blue prints I would have loved to study to be one. I have sat uncomfortably in many a house here with no curtains in dark winter and just one 90 watt BARE bulb illuminating cockatils - quite harrowing.

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    1. That sounds very austere Tabitha! I always thought that things would be a bit cozier in Scotland. That does sound a little... unfriendly. As an opposite problem to the gloom you've endured, we went to a dinner a few weeks ago in a Gallery space - all the lights were very bright for illuminating the items they usually displayed, and they couldn't dim them for some reason for the dinner. All the women felt very uncomfortably 'on show'. I'm pretty sure I would've looked very haggard under the glare! xx

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  5. Coulda shoulda woulda raises an interesting point about the geography. It has always fascinated me to discover the different ways that people prefer residential spaces to be illuminated, depending on which country they are in. Different aspects, different type of light (thinking of the variation between northern and souther hemisphere sunlight) I guess plays a part, as well of course as different house layouts and even the way we actually use our houses being so very different in different countries.

    I think the Americans get the "light the room with lamps" notion well, and have done for eons. Your approach sounds like it will create a very atmospheric room. I always try to steer clients away from the banks of downlights, but some people really do prefer that even light across the room...a reflection, perhaps, of our bright sunlight in Australia...I do use LED downlights, but rarely in even spacings, rather they will be clustered in groups around the walls or around areas that I want to spotlight, creating pools of shadow and pools of light.

    Love the idea of having the lamps hardwired. Have done that for clients, but would LOVE to have that in my own home, rather than having to run around and turn a million lamps on each evening! x

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    1. I've borrowed the lamp on switch idea from the Hotel concept! Downlights definitely have a place, but I hate it when I see them all sort of geometrically arranged in a room without thought of how much light is actually needed. There are a lot of people who think that you just space them evenly across a ceiling, but I'm not that fond of that approach as I find that most people don't actually use them in the end (they might turn on one or two banks in an open plan area, and leave the rest off). You're right about the American's - their lamp use is superior... they get the idea of comfort though, while the rest of us are trying to catch up still xx

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    2. Also Virginia - I'm having trouble getting onto your blog... not sure if something has gone wrong, but it says "access to this server is denied". I've tried going through google as well as through my side bar, but it won't let me (not having this problem with other blogs/ websites). xx

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  6. I agree regarding the importance of lighting. Very important lighting is chosen to hide wrinkles and figure flaws!

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    1. Yes! It's most important function. Dim lighting at night it key xx

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  7. Love this post Heidi. My husband and I have completely differing views on lighting. I like soft lighting such wall lights and lamps, he likes bright overhead lights, down lights, etc. He is currently overseas and not one overhead light had been turned on during his absence! Still laughing about the deer's bum. It must be all systems go at your house this week with the nicer weather. Have a great day. Jo xx

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    1. It's funny how often a couple disagree on light levels. I have a friend whose husband is a bit like you - she laughs that he rushes around at night dimming lights and turning on lamps and lighting candles. But she's grown to like it so much that she's changed her ways.... maybe you might have the same effect on your husband one day? All action here at the moment, I'm struggling to keep up with the progress. xx

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  8. We built our house and my husband was adamant he wanted downlights in the living area, I gave in (except over the dining table) but we also have lamps. Initially I was turning the downlights off that he'd switched on and lamps on, but he's come round to the lamps now :) Next house I'm going to lobby for less downlights! I find them so harsh.

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    1. They are quite harsh I think. I think most people tend to put too many of them in - a fear that there won't be enough light maybe? At least he's come around to your way of doing things Gabrielle! xx

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    2. Yes, it's tough being right all the time ;) I think I traded them off for something else, but I can't remember what!

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  9. I know what ever you come up with will be Perfect!

    I like lamp light. Kinder on the wrinkles. xxx

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    1. It is! Candle light is even better too.. xx

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  10. Laughing up the lighting post as there is currently an electrician crawling around our roof as I have finally got around to replacing the bright gold brass light in our bedroom and the bare bulb in Farmboy's room.... We have some areas with down lights which were here when we came and some with pendants (am gradually going through and improving the lighting cos, as you said, it is expensive.) More than the odd lamp around too.

    Incidentally have been super impressed with my lights for the shearers' quarters from Recollections. They look great for the price. I will post pics soon - just waiting for some furniture to arrive!!

    Your lighting plan sounds brilliant and I am sure it will be stunning.

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    1. Ha - we're in psychic synch! I must say that Recollection has some good lighting, and it is reasonably priced. Quite a bit of it I've seen in overseas lighting shops, like Pottery Barn or West Elm, and it's in Recollections and cheaper (so unusual).
      It's such a pity it is expensive in general, because I think a lot of people prefer to make do, or not prioritise, but it does really change how a room feels. Looking forward to seeing your pics! xx

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  11. I love this post Heidi! Agree with everything you have written. (Swiss cheese studding ceiling LAUGH OUT LOUD)
    I tried to make my husband read it but he says he is fine and he already agrees with you and me.
    I made him change. He much prefers to put lamps on and the wall lights that are on our fireplace. He gets 'ambient light' and is conscious of the effect on his mood. Another thing he has come around too is the cost of lights. He's not happy about it but willing to accept it. But having said that. We only own 3 lamps (all cheapies - less then $200 each) and 3 light fittings (Cheapies again) We will get there.

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    1. Ah Laura, you'll get there with the lights! Don't overspend on the fittings if it's not your permanent home.... invest in the bits you take with you. But we've had a mix of lamps and still do - I have a $20 Isis Ceramics blue and white handpainted light via eBay (retails for $400), I've had IKEA lamps (terrible quality), and I've still got Bunnings lamps as our bedside table lamps. It's a mixed bag, and I'm slowly getting better quality lamps. But these things take time xx

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    2. The light fitting will be coming with me. I will just replace with $20 drum shades or something when we sell. I have a bunnings lamp for my bedside too!!

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  12. Such a timely and interesting post for me as I contemplate the lighting for our renovation. I instinctively despise those ceiling down lights, so we will probably steal your idea for hiding lights in a bulkhead and having adjustable pendants over the table.
    J & I have a total lamp fetish, and are aware that we could seriously blow our budget on them.... There are some amazing ones in the very $$$ shops in Surry Hills.
    Thanks for this post, Heidi!

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    1. Oh yes - temptation would be all around you in Surrey Hills. I saw one recently in a magazine from Great Dane furniture. Looked it up on the website, nice simple lines - $1,500. Sigh. xx

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  13. Thanks for this informative post! I love lamps and pendant lights, and the ones you have featured are stunning, especially in the first photo. I have been trying to convince my husband to get rid of the glaring panel lights in the bathroom (very popular in North America), and replace with wall sconces - they would be so much easier on the eyes first thing in the morning!

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    1. I know what you mean with the panel lights - yes they are an American thing! Sconces would definitely give you a more flattering glow Louise, essential in the morning! xx

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  14. Spot on Heidi! I concur with all of your sentiments . I loathe and detest downlights everywhere... and begrudgingly will have them in the kitchen!. I love wall brackets, and lamps of course. Oh how I wish I could buy all of my fittings from the US or the UK. It costs SO much to have lights re=wired for AUS... that it's just not worth it. Since the beginning of the project, I have been hunting for fittings... trawling the internet, magazines, shops etc. I couldnt agree more about lighting being given high priority in the budget... but as it is almost the last thing to pay attention to.. it somehow ends up having to be cut back because the budget has already overshot itself!!! xx

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    1. Some of the overseas companies will wire for Australia. But it is a pain to have things done here. And yes, I think as it's the last thing in the house (and you can live with a bare bulb) that it's always the thing to suffer with the budget crunch. I'm looking forward to seeing what you choose xx

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  15. I love the subject of lighting! I think it's one of the most exciting things about any space. I adore the chandelier in the first photo! Lights, candles, things that illuminate make me excited. Thanks for the post. I am your newest follower!
    -Khammany

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    1. Thanks for following Khammany! I'll pop past your blog to have a look. Good lighting definitely improves any space, glad you enjoyed the post. xx

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  16. I think this is a very interesting post Heidi, so thank you for sharing and I am glad that you decided to write. Can you get Villaverde in Australia? They are stunning. I love looking into the windows of the different shops on the new kings road in winter time and seeing all the stunning lights. I am saving up for a lovely villaverde lamp.
    x

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    1. I haven't heard of Villaverde... shall have to go and google to see. We're pretty limited in Australia with our lighting options. Our wiring standards are different from other countries (this happens with everything, which ends up limiting what is brought into the country). We can get Vaughan, which I do love here. But aside from that, most of the lighting comes from the US or China. Although we do have quite a lot designed here, but it's very modern in general. Shall go and check out your lamp! xx

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    2. Oh! They are so lovely.... now I'm lusting after a pair of the beautiful crystal or Murano glass lamps too. Thanks for that! They're kind of expensive!! xx

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  17. Oh I love your posts, you always have such complex and well formed opinions on everything. I am still chortling with horror over the poor deer (I imagine the horror of the original sculptor as well as the deer) as well as interesting comments from your readers. We have got downlights in our living area as we both like really bright light and dim lighting for us tends to equate with the very substandard lighting we both grew up with ( and what we have had had with Betsy for the last 3 years- in the kitchen all the dodgy 80's rods were corroded and I was down to a buntings cage light clipped to an overhead cupboard). I do wonder if like one of your readers it is because we both grew up in Queensland we are both used to very vivid bright sunlight most of the year as well. We did sensibly choose gimballed so we can highlight artwork and also dimmers in the living rooms and bedrooms. We also had the issue of fans in every room which we rely on much of the year which makes pendant lighting difficult and frankly we are just happy to have been able to bin every disgusting fan- light combo in the house. mel x

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    1. I did think about how much that deer probably would have been worth before the electrician took to it with a drill - it was quite large! I do like the gimballed lights to give a little less direct light - I've used them a lot in bathrooms to angle off a mirror (reflects light into your face from the mirror which is good for putting on makeup) or for highlighting art or washing walls in other rooms. The fan thing is a bit of a problem.. but you can't get by without fans in QLD. xx

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  18. Re geography lighting it's an interesting observation. My Canadian mother was always very into lamps placed in strategic places rather than the one harsh light from the ceiling that many people had.

    Admittedly this was 1960s/70s and things have changed somewhat

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    1. I think the internet has made the world a bit smaller, design wise. Your mother was definitely a pioneer in Australia to prefer lamps, most rooms back then would've been lucky to have more than one or two in a room. xx

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Architect & Interior Designer. Mother of three. A sometimes Cook, Baker, Reader, Gardener, Fashion Lover, Renovator, Writer of random things in South Australia email me on anadelaidevilla@bigpond.com
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