Turn on the Lights

Often overlooked, a carefully thought-out lighting plan can make or break the ambience of your home


Interior designer Barbara Hawthorn infused this modern living space with multiple layers of light, from cable wires to pendant lights and sconces. Photo by Kenneth M. Wyner. Though its name should put it in the proverbial spotlight, illumination as a design concept is in need of an image boost. Many homeowners fail to realize the power of illumination. The reality is that lighting has a dramatic, exotic, pervasive effect on a room.

“Illumination is the difference between night and day,” says McLean, Virginia-based interior designer Barbara Hawthorn of Barbara Hawthorn Interiors. Hawthorn has placed an emphasis on lighting in her residential and commercial designs for years. While many designers realize the importance of lighting, their ideas are often brought in too late. Hawthorn says that illumination should come up for discussion earlier in the process when contractors and architects are still talking about which wall to tear down, which stone to use and which faucet to select.

“Illumination should never be an afterthought,” says Quinn Murph of illuminations, a showroom in Georgetown’s Cady’s Alley that specializes in lighting design and fixtures. “Think of lighting as a building material. I approach light as a support for architecture or space rather than seeing architecture as a support for the fixture.”

To position illumination in its rightful place in the design timeline, the difference between “lighting” and “illumination” must first be understood. As Murph explains, lighting is the fixture; illumination is where the light is thrown by the fixture.

Illumination is all about giving definition to architecture and interior design. While people take into consideration lighting fixtures, 95 percent don’t take illumination as a design into consideration,” says Murph. He points out that often homeowners invest in fancy tile, stone or other materials but then fail to show them off with the proper lighting. All too often, the intricate details of the design a homeowner has labored over disappear after the sun goes down because the lighting wasn’t an early priority or even considered as a design concept.

For example, if you’ve spent thousands of dollars on a polished nickel faucet, make sure the lighting highlights the piece. “If the lighting fixture is put right in the middle of the shower stall, it highlights only the floor of the stall. But if you’ve spent $5,000 on the shower system, the trims, the valves and the expensive rain shower head, it’s so you can see it,” says Murph. The same goes for lighting something such as marble, which can look like concrete if not properly lit.

“Too many times contractors put lighting in, in a generic way,” says Murph. “They don’t take into consideration illumination that is both practical as well as beautiful, calming and relaxing. Try and re-create the way the showroom highlighted a fixture or tile,” he suggests.

Take, for example, the installation of recessed lighting in a typical room. A contractor will install four recessed lights, one in each corner. By placing two of those lights together in one corner and two in another corner, the homeowner will get a more dynamic look.

“We need to instill a better appreciation for lighting,” says Bill Shott, CEO of Hammerton, a Utah-based lighting manufacturer that designs a unique collection of high-end light fixtures. “Lighting can enhance the decorative style of a home.” Though frustrated that it’s taken so long to get the word out, Shott sees the industry moving in a positive direction. “Architectural firms are hiring interior design groups and bringing the process of lighting much more forward in the process. It’s a fantastic trend that’s taking place…we want the lighting to complement the architect’s overall vision of the house. A lot of architects aren’t even aware of what lighting is available.”

One look to avoid is what designers have dubbed “the cave effect.” If a fixture is placed too far from the wall, the illumination (the lighting effect) will show on the lower third of the wall, creating a design that looks like a cave. This is not a good plan. In a typical home with nine-foot ceilings, lights should be placed no more than 18 or 24 inches from the wall. Most of the time, contractors install lights four to five feet from the wall or right in the middle of the ceiling.

Additionally, suggests Murph, lighting should be installed to avoid glare. “That’s the big problem with recessed lighting. When it’s right to overtop it makes many people uncomfortable because they feel the light on their head,” he says, suggesting that a good lighting design take its cue from nature. “A good lighting plan can’t imitate daylight, but we can learn from natural light” and find a way to mimic the level of light movement on the walls.

With the help of a lighting-savvy designer or architect, consumers can create a well-lit environment that shows off their home’s best assets.


In the dining area of Bezu, Hawthorn created four layers of light including recessed, pendants and ceiling lights. Photo by Kenneth M. WynerWriter Cari Shane Parven is based in Potomac, Maryland. HOW TO LIGHT A SPACE
Barbara Hawthorn is a big believer in automating lighting as much as possible. “If you put everything on dimmers and set the dimmers for different moods, with one switch the homeowner can change the effect of a room,” she says. When choosing to light, Hawthorn suggests incorporating five different types of illumination into a room design:

• General: ambient light for seeing.

• Accent/Art Lighting: lighting that contributes a sense of drama to a room, accentuating a wall or painting.

• Task Lighting: Pinpoint lighting for doing work or functional tasks.

• Atmospheric Lighting: Lighting that creates the excitement in a space and lends a particular mood to a room. This lighting can be LED lighting, colored lighting, lighting that comes from a ceiling or crown molding.

• Focal Point Lighting: Lighting from a chandelier, where the light itself is what draws the spectator in.


Barbara Hawthorn also focused heavily on lighting in Bezu, a new restaurant she designed in Potomac. She incorporated six layers of light in the overall space. Photo by Kenneth M. Wyner

Marc Houston of Illuminations in Georgetown designed the interiors and the lighting plan for a residence in Arlington. He achieved a romantic atmosphere in the dining room with suspension light and wall sconces.

In the master bathroom, Houston combined several types of recessed lighting with a pair of suspension lights.

Illuminations’ Quinn Murph recommends that homeowners integrate light sources with architecture.