Lighting & Layering: shades and texture variations to experience environments built for life

Natural light is both physically and psychologically rewarding to people, contributing to our health, productivity and wellbeing, at home, work, or school.

In a built environment, thresholds, portals, doors, bridges and windows, are transitional spaces, providing access from one area to another. From a biophilic design perspective, these areas provide a connection to the exterior, important passageways to the surroundings, often fostering a sense of comfort.

An effective design occurs in complementary relation to this idea of connection to nature and feelings of shelter and protected refuges. Bring the natural and the built environment as complementary within open areas to recreate an element of spaciousness. There is a visual hierarchy of textures, colors, materials, shapes, decorative objects, all elements competing for attention, and light is a powerful medium to establish the most adequate setting to a scene.

Our visual system is naturally drawn to the brightest objects in our field of view. Focus can be created not just with increased light levels, but with changes in the direction or color of light. From minimally decorated architectural spaces to highly contrasted objects within a lighting scheme, layering should recreate three-dimensional depth, a factor of daylight exposure.

  • Downlights, a narrow-beam from above to create a glow of reflected light.
  • Low-level light, a floating effect to soften, for instance, an evening setting. Warm white LED strips can be used to achieve this effect.
  • Task lighting provides a pool of light that is bright enough to read by, originated from table or floor standing lamps.
  • Side lighting, provides good contrast for small objects. Ideally, it injects infill and removes shadows.
  • Concealed lighting, within boxing for linear displays, under kitchen cabinets, in shelving units, or cove ceilings to highlight unusual architectural details; these luminaires create a diffuse glow of light, in the form of background lighting

Finding the best lighting solution requires planning and skill;  consider natural and artificial sources for a well-balanced space and a pleasant environment.

The use of natural colors in these areas not only is aimed at creating visual accessibility and acuity, but, also, it brings out the benefits of an innate human connection to the natural world. Likewise, organic materials, makes us reflect on a flow of nature;  sustainability has been a topic of consideration for interior designers in the age of post-industrial revolution. Today, as users of spaces, we are all involved in a conversation about energy savings and a socially responsible investment towards our community.



Creating visual interest with accent lighting

Ambient lighting plays a very important role in an overall lighting design for residential just as it does for commercial lighting schemes. It is the soft fill of non-directional light provided by chandeliers and pendants, that helps humanize the space.

Accent lighting, however, will provide a focus of light on furniture, works of art, plants, etc., effectively drawing an area together. It is the layering of various light sources that creates a comfortable and flexible lighting design, and there is no single luminaire that can perform all the required functions of lighting for a space.


Since track lighting casts shadows onto work surfaces, it is not the best choice to be the source of task light. Some interesting effects that can be created with accent light fixtures:

  • adding focus
  • highlighting architectural details
  • backlighting sculptural shapes
  • shining narrow beam uplights against a wall

Track lighting is best used as a source of accent lighting for a number of reasons. It is portable, readily available, and will work in temporary, low-budget, spaces. Even though these light sources aren´t as low-profile as recessed spots, they add a wonderful texture to a space. Like in artists´ studios, where lighting must be highly flexible, thanks to its directional quality, track lighting is more than appropriate when objects and displays need to be moved around.

It is a great solution in situations where there is not enough ceiling depth for recessed units and, in rental spaces, when portability and flexibility are required by changing exhibitors.

Colored lights

Colored lights can be used within the home as a fun feature in a home theater, or child’s  room, to introduce an accent color, or perhaps to backlight a glass panel in a bathroom.

The most popular source is LED, which are made up of primary colors of light: red, green, and blue. An infinite palette of colors can be achieved by changing the balance of the three colors.


Creating effects with color allows to visualize the behavior of color, since there is a magic quality associated with mixing, according to Josef Albers, a pioneer in the understanding of color as a creative visual concept, who wrote the Interaction of Color.

“Our response to color is emotional, irrational, and highly personal” for Rob Forbes, best known as the founder of Design Within Reach and Public Bikes. His book See for yourself. A visual guide to everyday beauty, provides an stimulating approach to the simplicity of seeing patterns and color in urban and rural landscapes from diverse cities and places around the world.

The emotions that come associated to color are felt individually, but, additionally, reflecting on the use of color reveals some cultural preferences; for instance, rural France may indulge in multicolored sheds, just like color screams at you from every angle in Mexican cities like Oaxaca, or in Cartagena (Colombia), while bright colors in North America are reserved to attention signs, vehicles, such as for cabs and fire truck engines, and, even, power ties, as it is captured by Forbes’ polychromatic photographs.

For fun ideas, highlight art and accessories;  or, reflect a color uplight on a bare wall for impact and ambient lighting. Adding a chromatic design will display some of the magic of light.

Create ambient light for your space

Modern open interiors are designed around thresholds where the exterior and interior become less distinct. As buildings are opened to the outside, natural light is used as a design feature as well. In addition to framing spaces by natural light, the functionality of a given space should be taken into consideration in order to select a light bulb with extended life cycle, as well as with an adequate level of lumens, the right tonality, warmth or coolness.

To create areas with subtly differing qualities of light, the directional quality of ceiling-recessed downlights can be used for variety,  adding visual richness to the experience of being within a space.

Layering light sources in indoor spaces, such as kitchen and living room areas, allows to either highlight or flow freely with the architectural elements of the building, like windows, beams, fireplaces and counter-tops. Non directional light sources will naturally produce a wide spread of light, creating a diffuse effect for ambient lighting.


Vintage: a trend in lighting design

Pendants, clustered lights, and mini-pendants, like the CB2 one-of-a-kind Utility graphite Ode to Edison, are a cool trend used in accent highlighting for a chic retro look in restoration, homes and commercial lighting.

Interior design turned to green design and sustainability in the 1990’s, with a taste for loft-converted spaces and a post-industrial concern revolving around toxicity, disposable levels, and the life-cycle of materials in the global economy.  An early, wry comment on the world of consumerism by Dutch designers Bakker and Renn, is illustrated by the Milkbottle hanging light, created in 1991.

Already in the early 20th century, an austere approach to lighting was embodied by the utilitarian arc lights designed by Peter Behrens and W. Wagenfeld. Functionalism and a pragmatic approach to lighting work spaces were behind the production of the metal workshops at Dessau Bauhaus, like the hanging light Model no. ME 78b created in 1926.

A minimalist vision where design tries to defy gravity, is exemplified by the Saturno hanging light, a creation by Kazuo Motozawa that reflects a scattered light through a spun metal construction.

1000 Lights, Taschen.
In Retrospect: pendants and hanging lights, 1926 and 1972.

The new vintage LED-filament bulbs are crafted for a nostalgic style that brings attention to the source of light. Their incandescent-like appearance is close to that of the industrious 1800’s Menlo Park shops, where the feasibility of different materials, for a longer lasting incandescent light, was first researched.

A trend to refit and refurbish existing buildings increased the interest in sustanaibility and in the historic past. Cooper, aluminum, brass-finished, and prismatic glass, are some materials for a vintage, electric look, that combines with different light sources. Practicality joins a sustainable outlook on lighting, vintage lightbulbs and lighting fixtures, for a design that blends classic functionality and minimalism into this modern trend.

Illumination and wellbeing

Nowadays you can choose different color temperatures for both your CFL’s and LED’s, depending on the environment you want to create: warm light (low color temperatures with a lower number in the Kelvin scale) for cozy spaces, or a cooler light (high color temperatures, a higher K number) for working spaces. An optimum lighting design allows to enjoy the benefits of natural light, and to mimic the changing quality of sunlight, which fluctuates from pink-tinged in the morning to bright midday light to the warm orange of sunset.

Sustainable building design and adequate interior lighting have a positive impact on our health, productivity, and emotional wellbeing. Since the 1990’s lighting technology has shifted towards an efficient streaming of the intensity of light sources that not only takes into account the carbon footprint but also incorporates an environmental approach to lighting, attending at visual acuity, mood, and health. New mini-fluorescent light bulbs give a diffuse light, come in a range of color temperatures, and dimmers, allowing to better maximize the effects of full spectrum energy efficient-artificial lighting.

Energy Star fluorescent lightbulbs are designed to provide natural looking light. In the lower K scale between 2,700-3000, these light sources match the softer color tones of traditional incandescent bulbs. With a Color Rendering Index (CRI) of at least 80 in a scale to 100, they show colors realistically or naturally, as compared to daylight or incandescent light.

While the watts in a lightbulb tell us the the energy consumption, the amount of energy required to light the product, illuminance is a measurement of the brightness and intensity. From a softer white color appearance of warmer 2,500-3,000 K bulbs to a brighter white of medium K 5,000 for kitchens, and good for reading and closer to natural daylight 6,000 K. The Kelvin scale measures the shade of light in a bulb. The gradients of light color given off by bulbs range from yellow to blue, low K for yellow and high K for blue.

Full Spectrum lighting has some energy in all visible wavelengths, a correlated color temperature of 5000 Kelvin, and some UV emission. These lamps provide a more even distribution of lighting throughout the visible spectrum, similar to the way light energy is distributed in daylight. The higher color Kelvin +5000 helps improve visual acuity and accuracy, providing a very good color-rendering, an increase in brightness for the same luminance, and ensuring good color discrimination.

In order to judge the proper level of lumens when selecting a light bulb or lighting an area of your home, the Lighting Research Center offers a general guide that considers the different tasks and light levels needed for the job. It ranges from a minimum 98 lumens in your living room or reading area, to a level of 360-381 lumens over kitchen counters and closets, up to 1,680 lumens in vanities and dressing rooms. Lumens measure the amount of light produced: the more lumens in a lightbulb, the brighter the light.

Newly develop synthetic materials and technologies continue to transform the possibilities for lighting design. With the flexibility that lighting fixtures provide for a broad selection of low-energy fluorescent lamps, exploring the possibilities of feel-good lighting and the variable degrees of brightness and hues of light will allow you to create the atmosphere that suits your mood and that is best for the task.