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The home lighting guide

Patterns of daylight have governed humans for millennia, but the discovery of electricity, followed by the invention of light globes and domestic lighting, shifted that relationship with light. Fast forward to the 21st century and brightly backlit screens dominate our days and deep into the night when our bodies should be preparing for rest.

Lighting affects human circadian rhythms, regulating sleeping cycles and bodily functions and behaviours such as immune responses and appetite. Light can also have acute effects on alertness, attention and mood. The importance of light on health is demonstrated through its therapeutic properties, as reported in the January 2021 edition of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Both natural and artificial light therapy effectively reduce symptoms of seasonal affective disorder and other types of depression.

The lighting in your home impacts your mental and physiological state. As an essential design element, lighting also shapes the look and feel of a space. The next time you are sitting in the dentist’s chair, pay attention to the lighting in the room. No doubt it will be fluorescent and harsh with blue overtones and not at all relaxing. Now think about the lighting at your favourite restaurant. Is it warm and cosy, with soft pools of light dotted throughout? In which atmosphere would you prefer to spend time? Lighting plays a crucial role in the overall finished effect of your home.

Selena Mohr, an interior designer at Your Beautiful Home in Sydney, is noticing a shift in attitude toward the value of thoughtful lighting design. “Clients are really appreciating lighting more and thinking beyond just throwing a few downlights in. They are considering how integral it is to the overall design concept and the feel of the home,” she says. Clayton Driessen, a buyer and designer for Beacon Lighting, concurs. “People are starting to realise how much the lighting affects day-to-day life, especially as homes are becoming multipurpose hubs,” he says.

From a light globe’s colour temperature to the style and position of the light fittings, the decisions you make about your home’s lighting can significantly influence your emotional response to a room and your feelings of wellbeing. A lighting scheme is not a one-size-fits-all solution, so we’ve compiled the following guide to shed some light on the matter.

Choosing globes

Recent developments in energy-efficient LED technology have shifted the way we shop for light globes. Today, it’s all about lumens, not watts. Lumens measure the amount of light emitted from a globe, “whereas wattage is purely an indicator of how much energy that light fitting is using,” Driessen explains. As a guide, a regular 42-watt halogen bulb will have approximately the same brightness as an LED bulb with 800 lumens.

Light temperature, referring to how cool or warm the light appears, is measured in kelvins. A lower kelvin rating of 2700–3300K indicates warmer and more yellow light, while a higher rating of 3300–5300K gives you cooler and bluer light. Warm lights make an environment feel more welcoming and relaxing, while cooler lights stimulate, creating a sense of alertness and productivity. “Warm light is better for a home, generally,” says Mohr, “but cooler light can be great when you need to concentrate with focused task lighting.”

Layering the light

Design experts agree that a well-lit, balanced space will contain three layers of light: general, task and accent lighting. Rows of downlights may provide some purpose, but adding alternative light sources — such as lamps, wall lights and statement pendants — gives you the ability to control the ambience and add alluring visual depth to a room.

“General light is the first layer and typically has a wide distribution of light that doesn’t focus on a particular area,” Driessen explains. Ambient light filters through an entire space, reducing shadows and allowing you to see everything in the room. Overhead lights, whether pendant fittings or downlights, will achieve this effect. Dimmer switches allow you to play with illumination levels to match your needs and the time of day.

Task lighting, however, is directed to a specific area, with the light source positioned close to the workspace. “This form of lighting provides the right kind of lumen output for the work you are doing, whether cooking in the kitchen or reading in bed,” Driessen says. Directional lamps, wall lights and lighting integrated into custom joinery provide the right level of illumination for detailed work, helping to reduce eye strain and headaches.

Accent lighting is the third and final layer, directing the eye to points of interest and contouring a space. “Most people get excited about this type of lighting!” Driessen exclaims. “This is where you play with the contrast of light and shadow and use a narrow light beam to highlight certain decorative features like artwork or architectural elements.” While the practical applications of accent lighting are limited, this layer of light plays a key role in creating an inviting and unique home.

Selecting light fittings

With an endless selection of fittings on the market, shopping for lights can be daunting. We now know the importance of layering your light and the value of thinking beyond downlights or one central overhead light, so how do you select lights that enhance your spaces and time at home? And what practical and safety considerations should you address?

Mixing it up

Lighting design trends come and go, but choosing functional, stylish fittings that you love will ensure your investment endures. Take inspiration from your home’s existing architectural details and the decorating style you are naturally drawn to.

Mohr says you gain decorative wins by taking a curated approach to your lighting. The repetition of the same light fitting throughout the home cuts the decisionmaking process, but it won’t always result in spaces with visual depth and character. “It’s important to include a variety of materials, shapes and sizes in a space. I like to really mix it up, but so the lights still all talk to each other in a considered way,” Mohr explains. She gives the example of adding a lamp with a highly textured fabric shade to a room that features a statement glass pendant light. If the two lights are similar in another way — for example, in their shape — that thread of consistency will tie them together. “It’s about creating a cohesive story as you navigate from one end of the house to the other,” says Driessen.

Fit to size

A room tends to look unbalanced and incomplete if a light is too small for the space. Conversely, a too-large light will have an overwhelming effect; scale is everything. When selecting fittings for clients, Mohr always considers the existing furniture and the room’s proportions. “If you have high ceilings, one little pendant isn’t really going to do much for the space — you may need something big and bold or a cluster of pendants.”

Fine finishes

A light fitting’s material can also influence the perception of its size and the amount of light released. Glass and other transparent materials hold less visual weight and allow the bulbs to emit their full radiance. Metal shades are an excellent choice for task lighting, as they will focus the light according to the span and shape of the shade. Whether knitted tightly or loosely, natural woven shades will add visual warmth to a space when the light is on or off. Paper and linen shades cast soft, diffused light through their semiopaque surfaces. Ceramic, porcelain and alabaster styles have a similar effect, especially if they feature beautiful organic imperfections. “When they are illuminated, you see all the natural veining and detail and it adds a dramatic textural look to a room,” Driessen says.

Suitable selections

Aesthetics aside, it’s important to consider the light fitting materials and their suitability to your home’s climate. Corrosion or warping looks unsightly and can be costly to fix, not to mention the potential hazards of a light that isn’t functioning correctly. “Certain metals or some natural materials may not be suitable for a house by the ocean, as they soak up too much salt and just don’t last,” says Mohr. The interior designer also suggests keeping lampshades in natural,porous materials out of wet areas.  “People love rattan pendants in the bathroom, but they don’t always keep their shape in the steam, so it ends up being a real waste of money,” Mohr cautions. Brass, chrome, stainless steel and glass finishes are your best choice for damp, steamy zones.

Safety first

Electricity and water are a dangerous combination, so it’s vital to pay attention to the ingress protection (IP) rating of light fixtures for wet areas. The international standard rates the degree of protection or sealing effectiveness in light fittings against the intrusion of water and solid objects, such as dust or dirt. Not all lights can be used in bathrooms or outdoors, so choosing suitable IP-rated light fittings will keep you and your family safe. “You want to go with fittings with an IP rating of 44 or 67 for a bathroom,” Mohr cautions.

Positioning light fittings

The lighting layout will make or break a space, regardless of how beautiful the fittings are. If you are in renovation mode and working on electrical plans, now is the time to consider the position of your hardwired lights. It must be noted that a certified electrician should complete all electrical work in your home.


As a busy work zone that doubles as a natural gathering spot in a home, the kitchen requires a balance of task lighting and general lighting to create a welcoming setting. For maximum functionality, lights should highlight benchtops, food preparation areas and storage spaces such as pantries. Pendant lights can form a striking design feature hanging above a kitchen bench or island, providing general or focused light depending on the fitting style. When it comes to working out how high the pendant should sit, the industry standard is approximately 80cm between the benchtop and the bottom of the pendant.


Bathrooms often lack natural light, and design elements such as opaque or frosted shower screens can further downgrade the low-light conditions. A layered lighting approach ensures stress-free functionality and your safety. Shadow-free task lighting is vital at the vanity, where lights positioned on either side of the mirror will evenly illuminate your face. Wall lights and pendants are popular for the basin area, while general ambient light via ceiling fittings is vital for complete visibility.


A soothing lighting scheme in a bedroom encourages restorative relaxation and sleep. Avoid globes that emit cool-toned light, which can disrupt your natural sleep patterns. “Cooler light can start suppressing melatonin production in the brain, making it hard for you to fall asleep. Wind yourself down from the busy day with warmer light,” Driessen suggests. Directional light by the bedside is essential if you read in bed. Keep in mind that dark lamp shades can subdue a globe’s radiance, resulting in a moodier lighting look, while pendant lights with bare bulbs will provide plenty of brightness but may be too harsh on your eyes.

Don’t forget that lamps are easily installed without an electrician. Interior designers attest to their transformative powers and ability to instantly highlight a room’s dark spots and vertical dimensions. “Decorative lamps give soft, low lighting that can illuminate a corner and bring it alive without spotlighting it,” says Mohr. Driessen agrees, reaffirming the importance of layering up the lighting in a home. “So many people get hung up on having lights on their ceiling,” he says. “Lights that push down on us have a purpose, but it’s also great to have light in the lower plane of space. It adds a sense of warmth and comfort.”


Jessica Bellef

Jessica Bellef

Jessica Bellef is a Sydney-based author and freelance interior stylist. Find her at jessicabellef.com or on Instagram @jessicabellef.

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