• Wei Shen

About residential interior lighting design (1)

"When, in the evening, from the top of a tram car, you look into all the homes on the first floor, you shudder at how dismal people's homes are. Furniture, style carpets, everything in the home is unimportant compared to the positioning of the lighting. It doesn't cost money to light a room correctly, but it does require culture."

-Poul Henningsen

Interior pendant light PH5

Images from

PH5 pendant lamp designed by Poul Henningsen. The lamp design is based on the principle of a reflective three-shade system, which directs the majority of the light downwards without revealing the light source so it's 100% glare-free.

In the residential interior design field, lighting design is the most specific area that requires a high level of expertise. It encompasses both manipulations of light as well as the design of the light fixture's aesthetics which is perfectly exemplified in the design of PH5.

Non-professionals can easily get lost in overwhelming technical terms such as color temperature, CRI, efficacy, beam angle, downlights & spotlights, just to name a few. Lighting designers also believe that lighting design should be highly personalized therefore each residence requires a specific lighting design team.

As an interior designer, I cannot claim that I am able to do the job of a professional lighting designer, but I have some different opinions on residential lighting design. By acquiring certain knowledge and principles, most people will be able to understand how to get their home well-lit, as long as they are passionate to pursue a pleasant living experience with artificial lighting. Because unlike commercial lighting, residential lighting is something that has simpler rules to follow and that eventually can create a comfortable lighting environment. It's not as hard as one may assume.

Generally speaking, a well-functioning interior lighting system should accommodate different activities by providing a full hierarchy of different layers of lighting. There are 3 basic types of lighting methods: ambient/general lighting, task lighting, and decorative lighting. Today we are going to talk about the first type-ambient lighting and how to apply it in your home properly.

Ambient/general lighting

As its name suggests, ambient lighting is to provide general and basic light to supplement the lack of natural light. Ambient lighting needs to be well planned prior to the construction or renovation because the main light source is in the ceiling, otherwise, it would be troublesome adding it after the construction has finished. Without sufficient ambient lighting, most likely your place won't be bright enough at night or during the day when lacking natural light, even if you add wall scones, floor lamp or table lamp, trying to compensate for it, the result won't be ideal.

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In the images above, what immediately draws our attention are those suspended lamps which have strong visual characters, but what provides ambient light are those downlights in the ceiling. When not having any specific activities like dining or reading to light up the corresponding area, ambient lighting creates a relaxing vibe that makes you feel well accompanied.

Nowadays, the most commonly used ambient lights are downlights, spotlights, and cove lighting.

1. Downlight

Downlights are usually recessed in the ceiling to accomplish a sleek and holistic architectural appearance. They are actually spotlighting with a diffuser to make light softer.

Image from the internet

Compared to the spotlights, the light that downlights emit is less sharp and more diffused, which lights up space more evenly. They are not used for lighting up specific operating surfaces which require a certain level of brightness, like the ceiling pendant as task lighting in the image below in which the general lighting of the kitchen is provided by those downlights recessed in the ceiling:

Downlight as ambient/general lighting. Image from

If your home doesn't have the luxury of a high ceiling, e.g. higher than 9 ft, using surface mounted downlights would save you the height of a dropped ceiling. When choosing surface mounted downlights, the aesthetics of the form are important factors to consider because they are now playing a big role in decorating the room when exposed. They mostly come in a cylinder or a square/rectangular tube.

Surface-mounted downlighting. Images from

When used in bathrooms, downlights provide a soft light ambient which also avoids unpleasant shadows.

Surface-mounted downlighting used in bathrooms as ambient/general lighting. Images from

2. Spotlight

Compared to the downlights mentioned above, traditional spotlights have a narrower beam angle which is intended to highlight specific items like artwork and add contrast to space, and the head angle can be adjusted toward the targetted area. They are also more energy-efficient when it comes to light loss due to the diffuser used in the downlights. In other words, you probably need to get downlights with a little higher wattage in order to get the same level of brightness provided by the spotlights.

When used as ambient lighting, spotlights may have some unpleasant gare from a certain distance and angle. If you prefer the more accentuated light beam and sharper shadow cast by spotlights, try to select lamps in which the light source is at least 5cm deep from the lampshade edge. This can help avoid most of the glare.

Certain depth from the edge of the lamp to the light source can provide anti-glare functions, which is why spotlights of high quality are usually bigger and deeper. Image from the internet.

Spotlights are used as ambient lighting in houses that have traditional architectural features. images from

It also applies to track lights if you like the decorative aspect of them since the light source of track lights are also spotlights. Track lights add straight lines and contrast to space if these qualities are desired. They make an empty flat ceiling more interesting and sometimes can visually define the space by how they are located. They also avoid reducing precious ceiling height and make the electrical work easier when the ceiling was not prewired properly for individual spotlights.

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Same as downlights, the geometry of track lights is very versatile for different types of interiors. In my opinion, their decorative function is no less than that of a chandelier. Pictures below give us an idea of how they decorate rooms that are featured in a great number of classic moldings.

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When your ceiling is very high, e.g. in a loft, track lighting brings the light source down and closer to where you actually need them. This simply reduces power wastage because the lamps are not ceiling mounted and lighting up where you don't need light.

Track lighting applications on high ceilings. Images from

When you have special items like artwork or other personalized items that you want to highlight, spotlights enhance the texture as well as the color of the object. Some high-end hotels use spotlights for exhibiting their luxury bedding. They are also functioning as task lighting in those cases, bringing additional layers of sensation to the ambiance.

bedroom ambient lighting

A skilfully illuminated bedroom creates a luxurious atmosphere. Numptia Super Yacht

Spotlights highlight wall arts while illuminating the adjacent space. Images from

3. Cove lighting

Another commonly used ambient lighting is cove lighting.

Interior design-bedroom cove lighting

Images from

The most comfortable and sophisticated lighting is always an indirect light. You feel the ambiance created by the light source but don't see it directly. Cove lighting is a typical reflected lighting method and in residential projects, is mostly hidden in a false ceiling or a false wall. The light in this type of lighting is reflected either by the ceiling or by the wall, to provide a diffused brightness.

LED stripe cove lighting illustration. Images from

An ambient lighting system creates an atmosphere that makes you feel at home. Everyone has their own experience and expectation of feeling at home. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. You may also combine more than one type of lighting to create a specific lighting environment. They don't need to be on at the same time. You need to plan the way of controlling them according to your activities and mood. Just make sure that at full power, the room is bright enough for you to feel comfortable. Images below show the combination of downlighting and cove lighting.

Combination of cove lighting and downlighting as ambient lighting. Images from

A critical feature that you need to choose carefully is color temperature. Long story short, color temperature is a description of the warmth or coolness of a light source. For residential interior design, light bulbs usually come in cool white, daylight white and warm white. It's measured by the unit of Kelvin (K). A little anti-intuitive, the lower the number is, the warmer the light appears. Color temperatures higher than 4000K are typically used for commercial and hospital applications, as the light is bright and has a bluish daylight cast that can be harsh for home interiors. Therefore it doesn't serve the purpose of making occupants feel comfortable and relaxed. Warm white (color temperature you can find on the product spec ranges between 2700k and 3300k) is great for general lighting purposes and gives off an inviting and relaxing atmosphere. In the bedroom, if you want to fall asleep easily without closing all the light, light bulbs with a color temperature no more than 2700k will work.

light bulb color temperature

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One thing important but overlooked by many to take into account when you’re deciding on light bulb color temperature is that it can change how you see interior colors when the light is turned on. Warm white light can add a yellow hue to white paint or make other colors look muted in comparison to daylight white light and natural light.

In other words, if the lighting fixtures are already installed, it's best to make the final color selections (paint, fabric, cabinet finishes, etc.) under the exact lighting condition which is your home. In this way, you will be able to avoid a great amount of disappointment in sense of color after items have been delivered to your home.

light source color temperature

Impact that light bulbs in different color temperatures have on colors from first to last: warm white, daylight white, and cool white. Images from

When your space is open, it's better to make sure that all lights have the same color temperature. Or, for instance, your bedroom is part of a loft but you want extra coziness while reading in bed, you just need to use a table lamp with a warmer color temperature while all other ambient lights are off.


Nothing can compete with the beauty of being hit by natural light on a sunny day, but when evening falls, what determines your spatial quality, is your lighting system. Lighting design is both scientific and artistic. If you are pursuing a perfect lighting environment, look for help from lighting expertise. But most importantly, you need to be able to recognize your own needs and be able to sense the magic created by light.

Shenwei Design is thriving to accommodate everyone who is passionate about life, who embraces details in the day-to-day living experience, and who loves challenges. Share your thoughts in the comment area below and let me know how your dream home looks like.


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