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.

LED’s versus CFL’s

If you are considering a renovation, lighting can make a huge different in how a space is perceived. Since energy efficiency is a given, thanks to the Star Energy certificate in pretty much any available product, the key to redesign should be based on the level of illumination.

LED’s (Light Emitting Diodes) as a source of illumination for residential and commercial projects, have come to all facets of lighting. Fluorescent sources have a much more limited lamp life than LEDs, have little flexibility, and don’t work well in cold temperatures. One product first introduced for residential projects in 2010, the versatile Progress Lighting Step Lights, performs indoor and outdoor even in extreme weather.

Panel lighting and fixtures that are enclosed around the lamp, like the reflectors commonly used in recessed lighting, provide an excellent source for ambient and task lighting. One advantage to retrofitted LEDs, is the spread beam of directed light, versus a relative broad beam spread by fluorescents. Additionally, LEDs equivalent lumen efficacy (Lumen/watt) make them a great choice for recessed fixtures.

Optionally, CFL’s light output, long life, color variety, and energy efficiency make them well worth considering on any project, since they can be incorporated into wall sconces, pendants, and wall-wash luminaries. The many alluring “peachy hues” or colors available in fluorescent, work well in the home, although they are not the best at color rendering, provided that you need a higher UV rendition to be used in the work space, for improved visual acuity and accuracy.

product-comparativeFinally, even though LED’s and CFL alike transfer almost all of the energy directly to light, resulting in very little heat loss, consider the higher lumen output from LED: around 90 lm/w from a LED lamp versus a typical 60 lm/w from a compact fluorescent.

When it comes to efficacy (the ratio of the lumens emitted by a light source to the electrical power supplied, lumens/W), lifespan, and the ability to show colors accurately or color rendering, LED bulbs continue to present a unique and rapid pace in development for general lighting applications.

Spaces built for life

Natural light is both, physically and psychologically, rewarding to people, contributing to our health, productivity, and well-being.  Most artificially lit environments have uniform lighting. Light in the natural world, however, is about the layering of light from multiple directions: strong directional light mingling with softer diffuse light, white light with subtle tints picked up from the sky, and reflecting surfaces.

The sensation of brightness is subjective, a relative assessment based on the surrounding light conditions and the conditions we have recently experienced. Our built-in assessment of this perception is an ongoing evaluation, as it is constantly adjusting to suit our surroundings.inclusive_spacesA person who has spent a lunch hour in a dimly lit restaurant may perceive some areas of the space as being quite bright. Meanwhile, another person walking in from the sunny street outside will see the whole restaurant as being dark. An adequate lighting design should take into consideration a level of illuminance that allows for particular tasks, such as mobility and orientation, to be performed safely. A flow of luminance springing from several sources -being reflected on different surfaces- is what will allow the eye to accurately see and detect. 

With true daylight, contrast is what displays a three-dimensional scene, that is, a sense of depth, texture, tone, and dramatic shadows. A well-balanced environment requires filling any dark spots with directional luminaries and building up layers starting from a basic background light.

Creating areas with subtly different qualities of light, provides visual richness to the experience of being in the space, along with the benefits of natural light.

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.