Should you install recessed lighting in your next renovation or new build? I’m suggesting you skip recessed lighting altogether. Lighting at eye level is always way more flattering than harsh lighting coming from the ceiling in can or pot lights. Read on to find out more.
Last week on my Insta-stories, I got on a small rant about lamps AGAIN. Long-time readers of this blog will not be shocked to hear this, haha.
This was because, I recently received a few comments on my How to Brighten a Dark Room post that suggested I was somehow trying to trick people into buying lamps.
And I’m here to tell you that I’m fine with going down in history as a lamp swindler.
If something I say about lamps (with a shade) influences you to buy one, well that’s okay with me.
Light equals happiness, therefore lamps equal happiness, period.
Any Surface Looks Better with a Lamp
Now that the days are getting longer, you won’t notice the lack of lighting in your home as much as you do in the winter. Yet even if you have a dresser or sideboard in your house with a lamp on it that you NEVER turn on, it’s still considered a decor item.
>> See 5 Lamps Everyone Should Have in Their Home
It’s a rare table in your home that wouldn’t look better with a lamp sitting on it, just sayin.
Styled by Maria Killam | Lilly pads
Should you install recessed lighting?
So then, a few of my followers asked about recessed lighting since I mentioned it on my stories and here’s my take on them from years of being in this business:
Why Recessed Lighting is Mostly Unnecessary (and sometimes just plain bad)
Some designers call them swiss cheese for the ceiling. When two of my sisters, along with my Mom arrived in India last year for a 3 week trip, Elizabeth (who has heard my lamp rant many times) reported, “You wouldn’t like it here, this hotel only has cheese lights.”
You’ll never want to have them on at night anyway. In fact, if you do currently use them, it might be because you simply don’t have any lamps to turn on instead.
You can see that in this great room (below) there’s an enormous amount of recessed lighting but only one lamp with an opaque shade (which doesn’t really count).
Notice how these lights cast harsh, unflattering downward shadows on this room? Well, they will do this to your face too, and those of your guests.
Flattering light is always on eye level (with lamps) and filtered (with shades).
Have you ever seen a professional photographer set up lights directly overhead to highlight your imperfections?
I know this is a somewhat controversial stance, and some of you are committed to the idea of recessed lights. But before you start posting comments about how yours are on a dimmer, etc. I am not saying there’s NEVER a place for recessed lights. But, if you’re going to install them in your next new build, read this article first. Kitchens yes, and spotlighting art on a wall is a great way to incorporate them.
And yes, sometimes they are just a practical way to light a busy room that is particularly task oriented. Like the home gym perhaps?
When I wrote this post last year in Finland after helping one of my relatives add some more lamps to her home, I received an email from a reader who shared that when her husband had his hunting lodge built (she stayed out of it) the builder said, “Don’t worry, I’ll put in enough pot lights so you won’t need a single lamp.” She laughed as she declared she would not be spending any time there.
What about recessed (can or pot) lighting in kitchens?
Recessed lights are particularly common in kitchen lighting. And yes, it’s important to get enough light in the right places in a kitchen. I highly recommend that you hire a good lighting designer.
But I do maintain that recessed lights are still not imperative in kitchens. Although a combination of surface mount lighting and recessed lighting is also a good option.
While this type of light is still from above, it will cast light all around the sides, not just in a concentrated spotlight like beam. It’s softer, and the fixture adds interest too.
So with regards to kitchen lighting, it is possible to go with all surface mount and sconce lighting in lieu of recessed lighting, but coordinating attractive lighting is usually best done by someone with experience and a great eye.
Some Rooms Don’t Need Overhead Lighting at All
Ever wondered why the master bedroom in most apartments or homes often don’t even come with an overhead light smack in the middle of the ceiling?
Because you don’t need an overhead light if you have lamps.
The master bedroom in our house did come with an overhead light but it’s purely decorative and I only turn it on if I’m packing and need more light. Otherwise, I literally have five lamps in there. And because our master is in the North corner of the home (which is also typical) I have the lamp in the sitting area on all day long. Doesn’t matter whether I’m home or not because when I walk in at any time, there’s always an inviting glow.
Notice there’s one decorative overhead light in this library, the picture lights and two swing arm lamps make up all the rest of the lighting (below):
If you must install recessed lights, layer in other lighting sources as well.
Every room needs a combination of sconces and lamps, as well as the occasional well-placed recessed light to fill in dark corners.
The point is, aside from dimmers, relying solely on overhead recessed light gives you little control over the mood or ambiance of a room in the evening.
Layered lighting from several sources including lamps with shades, sconces and task lights, will give you several options to light the room just right. Whether you want to wind down, entertain or have a family game night.
A lack of lamps and mood lighting is a common pitfall for modern contemporary, minimal and modern farmhouse looks. I get that the point is to create a pared down look, but skipping mood lighting is a mistake.
If you look for it, you’ll notice that many trendy rooms that are popular on Pinterest lack lighting. They are fresh and appealing in blown out daylight, but what happens in those rooms in the evening when you want to cozy up to a conversation or a good book?
Light is such an important element in interiors. It’s arguable that good lighting is even more important than having something to sit on because there is always the floor, haha.
Debbie Eagan, a character in GLOW, after selling all her possessions
And, whenever someone asks me truly what they should do to brighten up a dark interior, I still direct them to the honeymoon cottage in the twilight series. It’s full of perfectly placed wall sconces (with a shade–not bare bulbs that hurt your eyeballs) and lamps.
Speaking of movies, (I know I’ve said this before too but I can’t leave it out in THIS post) you’ll notice that in most shows, there is so OFTEN a sconce light in the background of any scene. Now that I’ve mentioned it you won’t help but notice them EVERYWHERE.
It Comes Down to Mood and Ambiance
And in the evening, or if your rooms aren’t flooded with natural light, then you need to compensate with mood lighting. That is, lamps with shades to create a glow.
Ever notice how beautiful everything looks at “the golden hour” when the sun is heavily filtered and low to the horizon in the evening and casts this charming glow on everything?
When you hire a photographer to shoot people (not interiors), they will usually recommend within two hours of sunrise or two hours of sunset, just like this photoshoot (below) of my Sisters, Mom and I last April. Our photographer insisted on meeting at 6:30 pm and no earlier.
Elizabeth Jacobs, Lea Junttila, Hellen Junttila and Maria Killam
Consider the effect and how it compares to the overhead sunlight of noon harshly beating down. It’s pretty much the same difference with overhead pot lights and shaded lamps.
But if you suspect I have some self serving interest in selling you lamps don’t take my word for it, haha. Try it out! Put a lamp or two or more in your room and play around with how it effects the “mood” of your room.
I think you’ll find the exercise illuminating! (I’m so funny today).
I received this comment recently from one of my Instagram followers on the subject of my devotion to lamps:
Preach. It. Maria!! I think the solution seems too simple for some. I added a lamp to my kitchen counter 4 years ago, after one of your posts on lamps and it made all the difference. It’s been dubbed “the eternal flame” by my family because it stays on 24/7! Yes, I still need to paint my cabinets, but boy that was a way cheaper short term fix that made a huge impact. Don’t knock it till you try it, folks!
How many lamps do you have in your living room? Your bedroom? Your kitchen? Do you have space to add more? I have 40, including the pairs of sconces in my bathrooms and kitchen. And I have a three bedroom, 2000 square foot house.
Let me know how many you have in the comments below?
Truly, what else do we have to do right now? Count your lamps and get some more, and I promise you, your evenings will suddenly feel happier.
How am I doing so far? I’m definitely a lamp tramp and proud of it. There is almost always room for one more! Whose with me?
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I totally agree that lamps are the way to go. Could you address how to use lamps with floating furniture when there are no electric outlets nearby? (In the Ashley Whittaker photo there are no electric cords showing.)
Right on, Maria! I used to think “I have recessed lighting so I really don’t need extra lamps”. Wrong! You have convinced me otherwise. Now, I only wish I could convince other family members why they need more lamps around the house.
Must play devils advocate on this one… I LOVE lamps, and all kinds of ambient lighting. That said, I travel a lot for work (probably 100 nights per year) and my biggest pet peeve is that hotels often have inadequate lighting. Lamps alone (even if there are many of them) just don’t always do the trick. I love my recessed lights as one layer of my lighting strategy.
To me that is because of the #1 lie about lamps which is that bedside lamps actually help anybody see in bed. For general lighting sure, but if you want to be able to read (or work in the case of a hotel), you need lights over you not to the side of you. That said my last house had can lights above the head of the bed and that felt like being interrogated. I believe the answer is positionable wall sconces.
Totally with you! I have 19 in six rooms. I have always loved a lamp on the kitchen counter. We grew up with that. It was like our night light coming home. I hate overhead lights though I understand the need. Rarely turn mine on in the bedrooms. Keep preaching lamps. They make all the difference. I am just sorry the local shade place stopped stocking interesting beautiful shades for my thrift finds. Everything is online now putting brick and mortar out of business. Ugh.
Overhead lights are so jarring. I want them off the minute I come into a room where they are on.
I love standing lamps. We have two that we inherited from my husband’s grandmother. Both art nouveau style. One with an amber glass “shade” and one with a pearlescent glass bowl. I keep them on timers so they come on every evening.
I install recessed lights with different rows on different switches so you can light one side of a room or the other to prevent glaring on the big screen TV. Some pendant lights are nice mixed. I even dare say track lights can also can allow you to direct lighting to different parts of a room.
I have 2 lamps, both floor daylight lamps one in the living room and one beside my bed. Our house is too small 1500 square feet the people(5 of us, 3 are teens and our large dog) and stuff in it but I do like lamps very much. it’s also very much a dust trap, we removed our ceiling insulation by vacuum and added batts thinking it might help but the house is just permanently dusty and more lamps equals more dust trapped. If I could figure it out and add lamps that work then I would as I really like them. In the meantime when I wan’t more mood, I light candles.
We bought an old house and had the wiring redone. I had ALL of the ceiling light fixtures taken out, except the dining and entry chandeliers. Always have loved lamps!!
Overhead lighting has always been a pet peeve!
Right now I have a client who I am redesigning her home’s kitchen, great room, game room and entry. She has relied on can lights for every single room! I have been slowly adding lamps in every room including swing arm where it is tight space as well as many standing, table and sconce lighting. I am sending her this article as I could not agree with you more Maria! The can lights cast a terrible shadow and should NEVER be turned on unless you are packing your home to move out! If I had my way, I would have the electrician cut the electric and take them all out, patch the holes and paint.
Thank you for this article as so many new builds just take it for granted that people want overhead lighting, which is not true.
You’re singing my song! I love lamps and I have most of mine on timers to come on at different times in the evening – it makes my house warm and inviting.
I love lamps. But I don’t know how to have necessary lamps for reading at my floating loveseat. Also, bright light at the corner of my eye while seated is very irritating. It is really hard to figure out what kind of lamp to use, how tall for both a floor lamp and table lamp+table, measuring to the bulb or the bottom of the shade, etc. Would love some guidance!
As an interior designer, I would not want to do away with recessed lights completely. In a living room or dining room setting, they are great in the perimeter ceiling of the rooms, and aimed at wall areas where art is hung. They also define and make the room look larger. Of course, recessed lights need always to be on dimmers. I use lamps as well, in the same locations and for the same purposes, as recommended by Maria. But I do believe you need recessed lights, in a strategic placement, to add ambience to the rooms, just as the lamps do.
Which is why I said exactly this AND linked to an article that also talks about illuminating artwork (above) 🙂 Thanks for your comment, if you missed that, others may have as well! Maria
I agree about inadequate lighting in hotel rooms. It is usually abominable for both work and for getting dressed or putting on makeup.
Hahahaha ‘lamp swindler’
I’d say that you’re just passionate about what works. For mebmy ceiling and worknlampnis functional but would agree that lamps definitely bring a mood and an ambience. I had a portable vanity mirror that has a light, in my dressing room that made me realize that. I rarely use it and one day left it on. The level of lighting compared to the ceiling light had such a dramatic effect that I have ‘find a lamp for the dressing roombon my to do list.’ will share a photo sometime. The ceiling light makes the room look horrifying
Hi there “Lamp Swindler”! lol
I call recessed lighting “Cleaning lighting” as that’s the only time to put them all on full blast, so you can see where the dirt is!
Recessed lights are a godsend when you or guests need to see really well. But they’re too harsh alone and often aren’t needed. My challenge is two-fold: (1) finding right-sized table lamps with a mid-century vibe; most vintage MCM table lamps are too large/heavy, and (2) figuring out how to use them in an open concept room where the main tables are low coffee tables and as Alisa said, outlets aren’t nearby.
You are spot on! Our builder tried to convince me to put “cheese” lighting in the family room but I refused. They told me that I was making a mistake. That was 4 years ago and I’ve never looked back.
I have a small house (roughly 1400 square feet), and have 15 lamps, plus 2 chandeliers, as well as the hated recessed lighting (totally agree with your views), and ugly ceiling fixtures that came with the house. I want to add a few more lovely lamps, but we have two young cats, who have already broken one, so I’m waiting until they’re older and, hopefully, settled down a bit.
I have a swiss cheese sloped ceiling in my great room (kitchen+living). Any way to replace the recessed lighting in this situation?
I know this comment was a year ago but lately I’ve seen some bloggers replace the can lights with a more modern version.
The lights are still there but they look much better and are very easy lot retrofit.
Thank you so much for the lamp refresher. When I designed my downstairs lighting, I took your advice on pot lights and am so happy.
To avoid a floating lamp situation in our small living room, I included lovely Chapman wall picture lights, and a pretty sconce, as well as an overhead alabaster bowl light, which softly glows like the moon on a dimmer.
5 lamps in the living room of my downsized house, along with 3 dimmable ceiling wall washer pot lights on the fireplace/bookcase wall to highlight art and accessories, and a ceiling light (which I turn on only when I’m cleaning). Cannot imagine life without lamps!
I Love lamps but dislike the cords. I have the pot lights and they are always on dimmers and I have to say they are annoying at times. 13 to 15 yrs ago they were a thing or I was out of touch. My bonus room reminds me of an airport runway. My next house will not be lit this way if it is a new build.
Preach it, Maria! I have little lamps tucked all over the house that are on 24/7. My issue is how to find lamps that aren’t “50 shades of ugly”! Good sources, anyone?
Every situation is different. I would love to have a kitchen without recessed lighting, but I moved from a house with a kitchen on the south/west corner with lots of windows to my retirement house with an interior kitchen. With my aging eyes, it is getting harder for me to see and keep things clean without recessed lighting. I took down a wall to the dining room so that I could have a little natural light, but it is not much. I also have undercabinet lighting to help. Both LED sets of lights are on dimmers so I can have them on high when cooking and cleaning and dim them at other times. The undercabinet lighting dimmed makes a nice guest night light. When remodeling my kitchen, pendant lighting interfered with the “focal point” of the room which was more important to me than the pendants. My ceiling has lots of recessed lighting, but I can see to keep my white kitchen clean. One advantage of the LED recessed lighting for me is that I no longer have to use a ladder to take down and wash light fixtures which creates a fall hazard as I age in place. I do have a pretty lamp on my counter. Oh, and don’t forget the bathroom! As your blog suggested, I placed a lamp in our windowless guest bath. My husband shocked me by stating that he loves the look of the lamp in the bathroom. We both like that the lamp helps guest find their way to/in the bathroom. Thanks for all of your tips to make a house a home. My home is better because of your ideas.
Too many lamps create visual clutter. Better to have several layers of lighting, especially can lights on dimmers, along with a few lamps.
In our master bedroom we have four can lights on a dimmer plus two bedside lamps and love the ambience so much that we’re doing the same in our new build! New build living room will have “half switched” outlets so it easy to turn lamps on and off from one switch. I do love lamps and have several both in and out of rotation, at least fifteen set up to use at any one time.
Absolutely correct! The more lamps the better!
My friend counted my lamps once and I had 48 total. I had a very large house 4K square feet and needed every single one of them. On her birthday I gave her one that was outdated. She loved it/still at her house. I love how my rooms look with my lamps and the correct light bulbs on! Romance, soft lighting makes us all look greater than at high noon outside or the harsh light on the ceilings! Right On Maria!
I hate pot lights! They only give light directly straight down – so annoying when you are a few inches away. I agree bring on the lamps! Another thing about lights is I like to have good light so I can see what I need to see. Trilight is my favourite. Don’t laugh but we have a fluorescent light in our kitchen chosen 15 years ago. Agree it’s not pretty or fashionable but I can see in the kitchen. I also have a hidden light above the sink and above the cupboards this is more for ambiance as it is kitchen, front room dining room together.
The reason beautuful professionally designed spaces use recessed and directional lights is because they are professional tools. Have a plan with lighting and use it to illuminate surfaces, art, walls, that beautiful range hood, etc. They can expand and layer a space. Dont randomly aim them at the floor. Lamps are a great accent but iften too dim.
As an interior decorator I disagree. Ceiling lights on dimmers are important because you need to spread the light throughout the room horizontally and vertically. The newer smaller can lights, 2-3 inches in diameter are beautiful and give a nice glow.
I had to laugh at your comment about sconces in movies. My husband is watching Total Recall while I read this, and when I glanced up, sure enough there, in the middle of an 80’s era gun battle on Mars, were sconces.
I love light from lamps and I still need to add a few more to my renovated home. One thing I have found is that a lot of end tables right now are a little skimpy in scale for a nice lamp. Still searching for a perfect end table (I don’t want a floor lamp because I want a table by the sofa).
Question. Do you suggest lighting for inside a cabinet with a glass door?
PS – one thing I learned from a decorator more than 40 years ago was that people often purchase outdoor lights that are too small. To this day I will often pass a lovely home that would be better served with larger lights. Don’t skimp!
If you are in cahoots, Maria, then so are all the other decorators/designers. ALL of them advise people to have more lamps.
Overhead lighting is the most unflattering lighting known to man.
675 sq.ft. 1BR apt…8 lamps. And more in the attic that I don’t have a place for but won’t get rid of. And that’s after major downsizing!
Nothing screams a cheap flip more than gray laminate flooring and a grid of recessed lights.
In most high-end designer photographed spaces featured in magazines (besides spec built modern homes) you won’t see any recessed lights – even in kitchens.
I agree with you, Maria. Lamps and layering light are the way to go.
Here’s something else to consider. When we had our ranch house built in 2003, our builder had a policy NOT to install recessed lights because he said they’re a fire hazard. Recessed lights aren’t really in your ceiling, they’re ABOVE your ceiling, and in a ranch home or in a cathedral ceiling or on the upper floor, the lights are surrounded by attic insulation. And some builders use cellulose insulation, which is flammable.
Regardless of what type of insulation is used, there’s less of it over a recessed light so cold air can enter via the light fixture in the winter.
I never even considered recessed lights anyway, but I did have ceiling lights installed in the kitchen and in all the bedrooms. They are valuable when sorting laundry (“Is that sock black or navy?”), when getting dressed (“Oh no, I’m wearing navy shoes with a black outfit!”), or as other people already mentioned, when cleaning or packing.
When we later added a ceiling fan to our living room, I chose one with a light fixture. We don’t use it often, but when we occasionally need it to find something small that fell on the plush carpet, we’re glad to have it.
those are old pot lights, the newer recessed lighting LEDs are wafer thin and IC rated for safe placement against insulation. LED lights also don’t get hot and these ‘wafer’ style LEDs can be dimmable AND have switchable color temperatures. These LED recessed fixtures are super easy to install too they clip in to the ceiling, and they even have gaskets around them so you can install them in bathrooms or prevent cold air from getting in/out.
Yes, yes, yes! I have been saying this to anyone who will listen for years. We lived overseas many years ago and I was shocked to find rooms lit by a single overhead florescent light! Horrifying. I’m in my small, 8×10 office right now with one floor lamp and 3 table lamps – perfect!
Zero. Zilch. Not a single one. This reminded me of exactly why I don’t have any. Just another thing to constantly be cleaning.
I love lamps too. I find it difficult to buy floor lamps though. I’m looking for a contemporary floor lamp for my living room but can’t find anything other than a million tripod lamps.
I love lamps too but hate ugly cords. How do you manage the trip hazards and eye irritating cords as most rooms don’t put sockets where we want them?
5 lamps in my kitchen. So far.
Would have more, not enough electrical outlets yet. Ca. 1900 house, they’re On-The-List !
Every room, same story.
Finally about to build my conservatory this season, a few plants, lots of antiques, lamps, books, art, friends, lunch…..and fabulous chandelier, better to reflect the metal roof, on dimmer naturally. Loved having chandelier on 24/7 in Conservatory at my previous home. Pure delight seeing it at nite, from the house.
Garden & Be Well, XOT
Meant to ask you, earlier post……if a kitchen lamp was ‘virtual’. Ha ha. Couldn’t tell.
Ha! I’m on the other end of the spectrum. I think Google put your article in my news feed because I just finished installing 20 recessed lights between our living room, family room, and breakfast nook.
The living room has three floor lamps, no ceiling light whatsoever, and never enough light for the table in the middle of the room where the big kids do homework. Now there’s a nice even light wherever your working in there.
The other two rooms are blocked off for the three little ones to play in. Lamps wouldn’t last a day in there. The ceiling fan in the family room was just awful for light. Being 6′ 2″, any light that hangs down shines right in my eyes. The breakfast area had a 5k led light that would be a perfect shop light. Four 4″ cans now match the others in the family room.
As for casting shadows, there are enough lights and enough diffusion that it’s not a problem.
I love lamps! I took your advice about the kitchen lamp and it looks so nice in the corner. The kitchen has tons of light during the day but the lamp comes on at night. I should put it on a timer.
Our living room has 4 and needs at least two more. I fell in love with the floor lamps in the Ashley Whittaker photo. Do you have any idea where they might be found?
Great post! I can’t stand canned lights, except maybe in the kitchen and in limited quantity. I love the photo of you and your family and your color-coordinated outfits (perfectly done . . . not too much, but just right!). Hope you and yours are healthy and safe.
Living room 0
master bedroom 2
guest room 1
theatre room 3
2nd guest room 0
display room 0
I guess I need more lamps! I always thought they were for more light only, not as a decoration. Thanks for the tips Maria!
WOW, 40!!! I have a severe lamp shortage, obviously. 😊 I love lamps, my husband pokes fun of them all… “ALL”, ha! Only 6 in my living room. It needs another 1-2, but it’s hard to fit them in, what with also needing seating for 11. Oh well, we’ll get there! Thanks for once again confirming that I do indeed need more lamps. 😊
I have just 6 in a 3.5 bdrm 2400 sq ft house. I’m sure I could use more but lack surfaces in our open plan and hate seeing the cords …
I can agree w ur sentiment in general but I am one who built new w swiss cheese and we both like it. I don’t like the look of ‘pimples’ all over the ceiling, which is what multiple surface mounts looks like to me.
I do also have chandeliers etc and actually have the hardest time w my kitchen island pendant lights. The glass is clear on them so it has to be the bulbs; have tried many, I want cleaner brighter lighting fm them and just can’t get it!
Swindle us away, Maria – we know it’s just one of the many ways u illuminate our lives! 😉 💕
I also wonder about cord management? I would have more lamps if I could figure out cords!
Love lamps but also like the choice of overhead lighting for games nights, puzzles, crafting, etc.
I love lamps. I have an open great room: 3 lamps in the living area (2 standing, 1 table) and a chandelier over the DR table.
In the kitchen part their are 2 island pendants, under cabinet lighting and a small lamp in the corner on the counter.
Only 35 not counting those in storage and my SIL still teases me for our (over) abundance of lamps, haha! (When building our house, I had all bedrooms wired so that first switch turned on lamps vs. an overhead.) Speaking of SIL, my daughter and he are buying a house TEN cheese lights in the den & SIX in the kitchen! They are scattered throughout the house with 3 in the hall bath (2 over vanity in place of sconces.) Any suggestions for minimizing the swiss cheese in the den? Removing not an option. I thought about shallow beams between lights to break up the runway effect, kinda like this | : | : | : |
Recessed lighting with adjustable lamps used to “wash” the walls is a great way to add light without the harsh affect of a downlight. I use them in almost all of my projects and clients love them. Also, kitchens and bathrooms NEED great lighting as they are serious task areas. Recessed lights, done properly, are a great way (though not the only way) to get adequate lighting for these tasks. Indirect lighting using a drop ceiling can help to accomplish the same thing, but is quite a bit more expensive to execute.
I am all about the lamps and especially leaving some on for keeping any darkened corners aglow. I live in an older home that was refitted with recessed lights (big 80’s pot lights) before we bought the place. We never (and I mean never) put them on even though they are on dimmers – it goes from operating room bright to gloomy prison cell with nothing in between. We are currently redoing our basement and my husband is just like the hunting lodge husband in having the contractor recommend the number and placement of grids of recessed lights! We will, however confusing it will be for hubby, be planning the spaces in order to plan the lighting to work well. I will have to give in on some recessed lighting – but this helps me feel confident on how and why to use it well.
Please repost the photo of Sarah Richardson’s kitchen that you posted on 2/18/19 in “Less is More for Kitchen or Bath Hardware”. It is another PERFECT example of beautiful and practical kitchen lighting without the use of recessed lights.
Also, I’m kind of obsessed with the particular semi flush mount fixtures that she used. I think I’ve found a similar fixture – Alabax ( Large) from schoolhouse.com.
I’m afraid you’re builder didn’t give you accurate information.
There are two main types of recessed lighting fixtures: Insulation Contact (IC) and non Insulation Contact (non-IC). UL also mandates recessed lights be equipped with a safety override switch within the fixture to prevent fire hazards. As a result, the switch is equipped with a sensor that senses if the light fixture traps too much heat – this generally happens when too high a wattage bulb is used than the fixture is rated for. The safety switch automatically turns off the light, and once the fixture had cooled, the light would turn itself back on.
Most IC fixtures are also air sealed, so by the very nature of their construction, heat (and AC) doesn’t leak out of the IC fixtures, and they don’t let cold (or warm attic) air come into the house.
Finally, newer LED offerings are completely canless. They are known as ultra thin (about 1/5″ in thickness).
Residential electrician here.
Having done hundreds of remodels at this point, I would argue that cans are a necessity. I know people will say I’m just trying to sell them, but that is untrue. I try to sell whatever I think will make people happiest.
If your argument is harsh light from a can, try a bulb with a lower k rating. Try a different trim.
Before you add cans, decide what it is you are looking to accomplish. You can accomplish the same lighting with a 5″ can that you can with a 6. You can do 4″ cans. You can do smaller dot lights that cast a different style light.
Lamps are great for mood lighting. What happens when you want to do a thorough cleaning? You’re going to rely on lights that are no higher than 6 feet up? Surface mount lights can be nice, but unless you are getting the gaudy led ones they don’t cast a good all purpose light either.
Of your complaint about a can light is too bright, try adding a dimmer. You can always dim lighting down, but you can never brighten it up.
I’ve seen way too many designers get in to a house and make a lighting plan that o domt think the homeowner will like in the long run, but because the designer has been paid for their job, we go with that plan.
Fast forward to the end of the trim phase the homeowners will be asking why it’s so dim in their new kitchen or dining or whatever room was done and suddenly it’s my fault. That’s annoying to say the least.
I get everyone has their own likes and dislikes, but before you pull the trigger on whatever lighting plan you and your designer are trying to come up with, talk to am electrician and ask their honest opinion.
24 lamps with shades. I find joy in decorating with all kinds of lighting, interior and exterior. Plus, I have salt lamps, lava lamps and other novelty lights tucked into every room of my home. Some are legitimate pieces of art, others are just tacky conversation starters.
Like many others here, I do think pot lights have their place. I like them in the kitchen, but I also use a small accent lamp when I’m not working in there and I love it. I have two vintage bridge lamps that I love and would like to use, but they don’t work in my living room or bedroom and I’m out of ideas on how and where they could fit in. You’ve never addressed this and I’d be interested in your thoughts if it fits into a future post.
So i like lamps very much BUT in my living room i have less lamps than i want. The d**n cats broke my irreplaceable italian vase last month, knocked down our mid century lamp last year (luckily into a chair so it did not break), and one likes to knock stuff off the occasional tables while lying down. So i have given up for the moment!
Very good points! I have had clients that won’t hesitate to spend a small fortune on recessed lighting but pinch pennies on fixtures. Next time I will use the vanity angle to argue.
Don’t know if I’m counting right, but I think 26 in 1500 square feet. I’m counting decorative pendants in the kitchen that double as workspace lighting (6 total) but nothing else, however decorative (such as chandeliers) that is ceiling mounted. I’m also not counting bathroom sconces (4, with no overhead lighting except in the shower), under or inside cabinet lighting in the kitchen, or a picture light mounted on a painting, even though all contribute to ambience. All the visible bulbs (in the kitchen or in candle sconces) are either low-wattage frosted or Edison bulbs so nothing assaults the eye.
There are two can lights over the island but I’m thinking of replacing them with flush mounts. Four 1920s pendants hang over the kitchen sink, and between them and the decorative range hood there is too much going on in my medium sized kitchen to allow for pendants over the island.
I’ve always preferred lamplight to overhead lighting; I love the pools it creates. My new living room (8 lamps and sconces) has no overhead lighting. I’ve retained it in the bedrooms but seldom turn it on.
That’s so funny being accused of having a lamp agenda! But I totally agree. I have tons of lamps too, and most have 50-100-150 incandescent bulbs. I hoard the old-fashioned bulbs because I don’t like the newer types. I’m 66, my life has been viewed in a soft, golden light that feels like home to me. — Years ago, I traveled with a friend to visit her daughter in a new custom-built home. I was totally shocked to discover there were ZERO lamps in the house. I felt uncomfortable and slightly nauseous. As a reader and knitter, I could barely see what I was doing. The house was in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming. It was a bit scary to be in the dark countryside without cozy lighting.
The more the better! I’m a lamp believer, for sure. I have four in my small den (and one of them has four lamps on it!), and have six in my living room. My tiny office has three, and I think it needs one more task light. Lamps are HUGE for mood! they are also so pretty and enhance decor. Thank you! Keep preaching.
I agree with you that recess lighting should be kept to a minimal and confined to the kitchen. My 2-year old builder grade home has 9 recessed lights in the open-concept kitchen and living room. Too many for a small space! Seeing your post, I feel inspired to replace a couple of them with pendant or surface mount lightIng. But I have to bid my time and persuade my significant other to agree to the change (and many other changes on my wishlist).
I think the title of this blog post is very misleading. Judging from many of the comments being posted, it appears many did not to read the article that Maria linked to. For those that haven’t, here’s an introductory excerpt:
“The goal for recessed lighting is to add not only visibility but also interest and ambiance to your environment. Toward that end, layering your lighting is critical: Combine recessed lights with a variety of other types (such as decorative pendants, table lamps, sconces, and candles) to make rooms feel balanced and inviting. This applies to modern spaces, where recessed lighting is most often used, and to traditional settings, such as old townhouses, where strategically placed recessed lights can work wonders.”
The author stresses that recessed lights can and should play a strategic role in your overall lighting plan. And this goes beyond just kitchens and lighting artwork. I think better titles for this post might have been “Use Recessed Lights Strategically” or “Don’t Rely Exclusively on Recessed Lights.”
Banishing recessed lighting completely from your overall lighting plan makes no sense. The introduction of LED lighting has opened up a world of design opportunities and lighting possibilities unheard of even at the time the article linked to was written. Applying a pejorative term like “swiss cheese” to all recessed lighting ignores modern recess lighting offerings and design possibilities. In addition, Aaron’s comments above (the residential electrician) raised many excellent points to consider as well.
Of course personal preference and design aesthetics come into play as well. Many might consider that a ceiling dotted with small, multiple surface mounted fixtures (like in the 4th and 5th pictures in the post) isn’t a good look either.
I’ll add one more comment. I love lamps and have many myself. Turning them off and on can get cumbersome.
For rooms with multiple lamps plugged into non-switched outlets, I’d recommend considering using smart plugs. I have multiple rooms with lamps plugged into smart plugs and use my smart speaker (Alexa) to turn them off and on with my voice. Some I have as stand alone and some I have grouped together, for example “Living Room”. In addition, I no longer have to rely on timers when I travel, I can use the Alexa app (or the app for my smart plugs of choice) to set a schedule to turn the lights off and on. Even better, I can check to see if they’re on or off (and turn them on or off) from anywhere in the world via my smartphone.
Just installed recessed lights into my teeny tiny condo with low ceilings and small windows and it made a HUGE difference. There weren’t enough lamps in the world and how many lamps can you reasonably put into a 500sq ft apartment? I have no regrets, the new lighting is amazing!
Who do I contact about getting 12 minutes of my life back? What a ridiculously useless piece of writing! I’m ashamed to admit that I spent time simply reading until I got to the end. Obviously a side effect of the Covid-19 virus… who else has time to read this b*******?
Hi Lamp Tramp, love that term, and I will be using it!
With the exception of two over head lights, my apartment is filled with lamps, well carefully selected and placed, I’m not that big of a tramp to the point of hoarding. I love them and everyone who visits comments on how cozy our apartment feels. I tell them it’s because of the lamps. I also tell them that the idea for lamps everywhere came from you!
Thanks for the advice all those years ago, I’ll never go back.
Agreed! Lamps are room jewellery. There’s so much room for creativity with lamps. The challenge is, a) why are outlets never where they make sense and b) the dang ugly cords. I’ve noticed in a lot of decorating magazines that lamps are somehow magically cordless.
Lamp Swindler – ha! I’m getting ready to move into a newly built home that is dark, dreary, and dated despite just being finished. I’ve already been looking at lighting up the place! I think we need to make a mass appeal and plead with builders to STOP, LISTEN, and LOOK at what buyers are wanting. Also, after learning much from your blog since 2011, I kept my home easily and affordably updated through the years and my home sold in less than a week (without an agent). So, thank you!
Great article Maria and I totally agree with you. We have 2 overhead lights and 21 lamps in our two bedroom home. Cozy, comfortable with a bit of mystery and interest is a huge goal of mine when decorating and lamps do the job!
Please, please, please show some good examples of lamps in modern interiors. 🙂
DH likes to light the place up like a surgical suite with a bunch of harsh overhead light. i literally find this painful. I have to have soft light and agree that lamps need real shades. I bought a floor lamp with Edison bulbs and metal cage shades and the light is so glare-y. I keep looking at light fixtures for one to go over our kitchen table and so many are made without real shades
I’ll add a parting thought to this article. Kitchens are hands down the most important room to have adequate lighting. Aside from my 24 shaded table lamps in my home, I have 10 overhead recessed lights in my kitchen that were installed 1 year ago when we updated the kitchen. Now I’m a clean person. And I thought my kitchen was clean. But oh! the hidden dirt my new lights revealed!! You don’t know how clean any surface is until you shine the harsh light of day on it. My dimmable LED bulbs in all 10 overhead lights are 5000 Kelvin, which, when turned up to full power, are pretty darn close to high noon at the Earth’s equator. Light reveals all. The good. The bad. The ugly. Does it make me look my age? Oh hell yes. Does it make my food look amazing? It most certainly does. And I can see every fault, bump, bruise and spoil on ingredients while I’m preparing it…plus the errant dog or cat hair which always seems to make its way to a countertop. Once you’ve cooked your meal and placed it on a clean table, sure, turn down those lights and have a romantic evening. But until then, bright light RULES in the kitchen.
I’ve got 14 lamps in 1400 square feet. I’ve always been a big fan of lamps and I hate overhead lighting!
In a prior life I hired a lighting designer for my new condo (money well spent). Much of the advice I’ve carried with me since.
As mentioned, good lighting is layered, uplights, downlights, wall washes, sconces. This applies whether the room is modern or traditional. Ceiling mounted fixtures should reflect light towards the ceiling. One should never look up to see a bulb hot spot. I place floor uplights in the corners of my rooms, it is not necessary to place behind the sofa. Also, picture lights are most overlooked and do not have to be ceiling mounted. They accent art that might otherwise be overlooked and can be modern or traditional. Lamps aren’t the sole solution.
I like your article. I’m starting a new build and I know lighting is crucial. I have can lights in my home now that virtually never get used except in the den on the lowest dimmer setting. I cook with the range hood light on and the dining area chandelier.
The problem with lamps is this…they are crazy expensive. If you want a sturdy, nice looking lamp with a nice shade it’s hundreds and hundreds of dollars. I was able to find two nice lamps for my living room with vaulted ceilings (no cans) and they were roughly $600 each and that was the sale price. I almost had a heart attack but after lamp shopping for months and finding flimsy, cheap lamps with plastic shades, plus ugly designs, I caved and bought them. I never looked back because they are beautiful and create very nice lighting. However, to equip an entire house with lamps seems way beyond dollars and cents/sense 😉
Most of the lamps I own were under $100 each. Since I’m in Canada and everything that ships up here from the US suddenly doubles in price (therefore that $600 lamp you describe would be around $1000 here) I don’t have access to all the same to-the-trade pricing for designer lamps therefore I don’t own any. But I’m very happy with the lamps I have. Having been a designer for 20 years, whenever I meet a client who says “We looked and looked and couldn’t find the right lamps, or FINALLY found this ONE lamp” that client usually just doesn’t realize when they’ve met the right lamp in the store. There’s nothing like the atmosphere you get from lamps so I would persevere if I were you. Or hire someone to help you with the styling in the end. Do I sound like a lamp swindler here?? Damn right. Hope this helps, Maria
I recently remodeled my Master Bathroom and Guest Bathroom. My contractor insisted I needed recessed ceiling lighting (LED) along with my sconces and over-vanity lighting. I went along with it, (I didn’t know how to argue on the subject, as he said he “knew” this was best.). As a compromise, I had him install dimmer switches for all the lights. It’s helped immensely for toning down the harshness—which the recessed lighting is if on full blast.
You have converted me on lamps. I want my house to be pretty and that requires spending money on it. If that money goes to lamps, so be it. It’s worth it! Having said that, it has hit me that my family room has no lamps! So Maria, can you offer a lamp edesign package? I may need some tables for them as well. Thank you!
What bulbs do you recommend? CFL are terrible as are LED! I’m down to my last few incandescent bulbs that I hoarded a few years ago.
LEDs marked as 3000K – 4000K or Warm White / Soft White will give you the warm glow of incandescent bulbs, with little to no heat and little energy consumption. LEDs have thankfully come way down in price, also. 👍🏻
My viewpoint comes from a technology aspect. I love resealed lighting when it come to incorporating them with a smart home to change mood and ambiance. I also have them connected with the TV to bring a realistic movie watching experience. Lamps are a great way to go in certain situations. Maybe as wall lamps or an elegant table lamp in the study or sitting room. But don’t forget that recessed light casting a hue over some beautiful wall art.
Typo on recessed forgive me
Totally agree. Lighting is everything. I really dislike the trend of popping these recessed lights everywhere-they give homes a sterile, spaceship feel.
Disagree, almost completely.
The small ceiling lights shown in the kitchen picture with the island looks like security domes in a store. Yuck!
We love our dimmable, color temperature adjustable recessed lights in our kitchen.
I’m sorry, but I disagree with you. I think recessed lights are one level/layer of lights that are essential in most areas of a home, and especially important in a basement with limited window access. The key is to have them ALL on dimmers so they can be adjusted properly, as needed. Add to this drop-down lights,, pendants, sconces, table lamps, torchiere lamps, and whatever else you can think of. Together it all works great! As I have gotten older, the need for this sort of layered lighting is more obvious. That said, if a person is designing a home today, I HIGHLY suggest they consider LED “wafer” lights instead of traditional recessed cans. They give off almost zero heat, they work great with high quality dimmers down to 5 or 10% of total brightness, they are relatively inexpensive to purchase and very inexpensive to operate. They also allow the homeowner to choose if they prefer more yellow warmer lights, cooler whiter lights, or even blueish cold daylight lights — the newest ones are adjustable between 2700K and 6000K. (In our home our recessed lights are 3500K and our drop-down lights are generally 4000K or 5000K, with bedrooms being more yellow/warm, the great room and dining room being slightly less warm, and bathrooms and the kitchen averaging about 4000K. (My wife likes a very bright kitchen, but as the 5000K drop lights are dimmed during meals it makes the light mixture warmer.)
Came all the way back here to find this post! I was disappointed in this answer so I left before, but I got to thinking and I distinctly remember hating the lighting in an old apartment when I was younger and I picked up a single lamp that changed my life! It added to the room when the overhead light was on and was perfect for relaxing in the evenings. I told everybody about this lamp. Maybe I need to revise my approach.
Thank you for this! We’re building this year and I was planning on some recessed lights, but now I’m not so sure. I’ve literally been scouring all the photos of living rooms I like and there is not a lighting source to be found!
YES! Lamps = cozy atmosphere. My husband thinks I’ve gone overboard with lamps, but I still want more. We have lots of recessed lighting in our home, but I can’t stand it most of the time. The lamps in my entry, living room, and master bedroom stay on all day—even in the afternoon when our house is flooded with light from 8 west facing windows.
As always, thank you for an interesting article. I live in an older home that did not have can lights in the bedroom. For many years, I got by with two swing arm lights on the wall next to each side of the bed, one ceiling light, one floor lamp and a lamp on a table in the room. As I’ve gotten older, I realized I needed better lighting for certain tasks like packing, cleaning, etc. than I did with younger eyes. I finally broke down and had 4 can lights installed. I don’t use them very often but I’m so happy to have them at certain times. They are the newer type that are solid on the bottom and you replace the entire light by plugging in a new can when the light burns out. Much cleaner and more attractive than the old fashioned can lights.
Lighting can’t be overly discussed or planned. My question is; I have two gorgeous sconces in a wall unit my darling husband built for me. I love sconces and wonder if I can put more in my 11′ x 15′ living room? Opposite side of the room. I’d want to use the same sconce design again.
Btw, don’t limit yourself to just indoor lighting for indoors. My sconces and pendant in the foyer are all outdoor type fixtures.
I have a beautiful copper range hood at one end of my large island. The island also has a large area we use for everything from food prep to dining. I want light over the dining area, but I don’t want it to detract from my gorgeous range hood or look cluttered. It looks unbalanced to me now, but I am at a loss for a solution. Any ideas?
While I agree lamp lighting is wonderful, my two biggest issues with lamps mean I hardly have any:
1) The cords that become tripping hazards for your seating area that isn’t against a wall.
2) The allure lamps have for my cats to snarf and knock over. Any idea how to cat-proof the lamps?
I have a lot of respect for you Maria but I so strongly disagree with your advice that I just had to comment. We purchased a beautiful and very unique home 20 years ago. It has a full atrium with trees, plants and a waterfall in the foyer. The design is an open plan with the kitchen, living, and dining areas surrounding the atrium. There are four huge skylights over the atrium and the house is flooded with natural light during the day. It’s wonderful.
However, they installed very few overhead lights so the situation at night is not good. We have drop lights over the dining tables located off the kitchen and in the dining room. The kitchen has overhead lighting and that’s it. The living area has no overhead lights and it’s a nightmare. Yes, I have lamps everywhere and it looks beautiful and is fine for sitting around watching TV at night or chatting with friends but sometimes you just want and need functional lighting. I’ve spoken with several electricians, and the way our house is constructed makes adding ceiling lights a major construction project so we have just lived with it.
The situation is the same in the bedroom. It’s a huge room with no lighting in the ceiling. Lots of natural light during the day but at night it’s dark evening with bedside lamps and two addition floor lamps in the room. It’s a real pain if you wanted to do something like clean or pack a suitcase after dark. There just wasn’t enough light to comfortably perform tasks. It was easier to add ceiling lights there so we had can lights installed with a dimmer and are thrilled. Do we use them often? No. Are we happy to have them when needed. YES!
So here’s my two cents for whatever it’s worth: If you’re building a house, do not skip ceiling lighting! You can always fill your house with lamps for lighting use only that for most occasions but in those situations where you want task lighting you’ll be very grateful that you have ceiling lights. I’d like to add that I’m 68 years old and you really do need better lighting to see well as you age so keep that in mind too. If you’re lucky, you’ll all live to a ripe old age and need better lighting! 😉
Maria, how do you feel about wall washing downward recessed linear lights. To me they’re a nice way to brighten a room because it reflects across the wall but it shouldn’t really create shadows on people’s faces unless they’re right next to the wall. Also the linear ness, makes it so that you don’t really notice the lighting at all. Which I think is really the goal of recessed lighting: How can I add light without distracting from my gorgeous centerpiece light (say a chandelier).
So agree! Lamps make a home feel so cozy. I can’t stand when my husband turns on the overhead light in our family room. He does it because it is easier than walking around and turning on each lamp. I got a remote now so he can turn them all on without walking over to them. Under cabinet lighting in the kitchen is a great alternative to recessed lights!