When decorating the interior of a space, lighting – one of the most important elements of interior design – is often neglected. Having stylish furniture in a room that’s been feng shui-ed to your heart’s desire won’t have nearly the same effect if the only illumination you’re using is a single table lamp or wall sconce. Just as an interior designer would layer colors or fabric, lighting designers use three layers of light – ambient, accent, and task lighting – to enhance a room’s visual appeal.
Why is Layered Lighting Important?
Have you ever been inside a department store dressing room or a dim restaurant bathroom and wondered why the reflection you’re looking at seems less than appealing? It may be because these locations tend to lack multiple layers of lighting, causing unflattering shadows instead of even washes of light. While having all three layers of lighting in public restrooms and dressing rooms isn’t always considered a priority, it should be when it comes to your own home and any other area where a balanced and comfortable ambiance is desired.
The Three Lighting Layers
So that you can get a good idea of how to use ambient, accent, and task lighting in your own home, we’ll break each of these layers down by explaining their function and what kind of light source or fixtures can be used to create them:
The ambient lighting layer could also be referred to as the “general lighting” layer. Ambient lighting should give your room overall illumination that provides an adequate visual of the entire area. Typically, ambient lighting is created by ceiling light fixtures such as recessed lights, troffers and panels commonly used in commercial lighting, or large overhead fixtures like pendants or chandeliers. This type of general lighting is typically uniform and, dare we say, boring. That’s why the next two layers of light are crucial in lighting design.
2. Accent Lighting
The second layer of light is known as the accent lighting layer. This layer can also be referred to as the “decorative” layer because it allows you to highlight points of interest in your interiors such as architecture, artwork, or anything other features that can’t be made more prominent just with ambient lighting. Types of fixtures typically used for accent lighting include wall sconces, track lighting, uplighting, and even LED tape lighting installed in coves and under counters for toe-kick lighting.
3. Task Lighting
As you might have guessed, task lighting, the final layer of lighting design, provides illumination for specific tasks performed in an area. When choosing light for this particular layer, you should first evaluate what is done in that designated area. For example, if you typically read in your favorite chair near the bookshelf, you may want a floor lamp or swing arm sconce for better reading light. Commonly used task lights are table and floor lamps, desk lamps, under cabinet lighting, bathroom vanity lighting, and pendant lighting above smaller areas such as a kitchen island, the one shown in the picture to the right
Now that we’ve explained the three layers of lighting design, this doesn’t mean that you have to use separate fixtures for each layer when choosing your own lighting. Some fixtures can function as two layers of lighting at the same time. For instance, downlights can be used as both general illumination and accent lighting. Similarly, a wall sconce can be used as both accent and task lighting.