Few things make the indoors less delightful than harsh, overhead light. The cold months combined with the raging pandemic spell more time than ever in our homes and making them cozier and more relaxing can be as easy as flipping a switch. If you’re in a room with multiple types of light right now, try it: turn on the overhead light and take a look around. Then turn it off and light a wall sconce, table lamp, floor lamp, or some candles. Compare how your kitchen feels when lit only by overhead light with the vibe of using under-counter lighting, if you have it. The mood of the space will change in an instant.
Overhead light that points straight down—especially in the form of exposed “bright white” or “daylight” bulbs—lights the floor, rather than the walls, faces, and other vertical surfaces we tend to look at while indoors, explains Nancy Clanton, founder and CEO of Clanton & Associates, a Colorado-based lighting design firm. Overhead lighting creates shadows, glare, and can provoke anxiety because it irritates the eyes. “Get rid of the overhead light, it’s so unnatural,” she advises. “You should not use your ceiling for lighting.”
To experience comfortable lighting, our eyes should never be exposed directly to the source. Track lighting on the ceiling can be soothing when the individual fixtures are pointed toward the walls or the ceiling instead of down. Make sure your lamp is positioned at a height that allows its shade to hide the bulb. If using an open-top lantern on the floor, hide it behind a piece of furniture so only the beam is visible. Fixtures that fully enclose the bulb cast the kind of diffuse light that instantly mellows a space. Once you’ve opted for your non-ceiling light sources, pick the right bulbs.
“Warm white” or “soft white” bulbs are the pro-coziness choice. Clanton recommends paying attention to the Kelvin color temperature (or KCT) of the light bulb. The warmest light sources, candles, have a KCT of 2,000. Incandescent lights are typically around 2,700 and many LED light bulbs are designed to match that. The higher the KCT, the more blue wavelengths in the light—blue light is antithetical to a restful atmosphere for the eyes.
“We have a circadian rhythm regulation where at night we should minimize our exposure to blue light,” Clanton explains. As bluer light naturally disappears toward nightfall, our brains begin to produce melatonin, which is critical for quality, restful sleep. Night mode on our electronics is designed to eliminate the cold, blue light that keeps the brain awake and alert. But this digital help is useless if the lightbulbs in our home are emitting the light that will keep us awake. Clanton adds that if we have outdoor lighting we should extend the same care to the natural world as we do to ourselves—never have lighting pointing to the open sky and turn it off when not in use to give animals and plants the darkness they too need to thrive.
Another indicator you might see on light bulb boxes is the color rendering index, or CRI. When that number is closer to 100, the light will render the colors in our homes more faithfully—something to keep in mind if you’d like to properly light an artwork, for example. But lower CRI numbers indicate a more yellow light, which is the sort of mood lighting that’ll help the brain prepare for a good night’s sleep.
Changing how you light your home doesn’t have to be a big expensive project, and in fact it can be one of the simplest and cheapest ways to renovate. Clanton tells all her clients to install dimmers wherever possible. “Because people are going to LED lighting, the dimmers need to be designed for electronic loads,” she cautions. “You can’t use the old-fashioned dimmers for incandescents because the lights will start flickering.”
When you do need your space brightly lit and daylight from windows is scarce, opt for tall floor lamps that point their bulbs at the ceiling. With a bright bulb they’ll accomplish the same effect as the ceiling light without any added harshness. To help set the mood for work rather than relaxation, Clanton recommends tabletop task lighting. It can be brighter and cooler without interfering with the overall comfort of the space. v