Homes are like so many aspects of life. If you choose to not see what you don’t want to see, it’s easier — and often less expensive. Overlooking the peeling paint, the wood rot, the stained carpet and the worn-out appliances is simply more convenient.
So it was with my light fixtures. Since moving into the Happier Yellow House three years ago, my husband and I have had a long to-do list: refinish the wood floors, paint all the walls, add built-ins, get window treatments, replace the roof and re-landscape. As a result, I turned a blind eye to the dated light fixtures overhead, preferring to stay blissfully in the dark.
Then one day last month, I looked up. There they were, a series of brooding, dark, dated, overwrought light fixtures, like something out of the dark ages. My denial vaporized. Once you see, you cannot unsee. I hopped online, got informed, found some design help and made a string of tough choices. I mean extra-strength headache-tablet tough ― What finish? What style? What size? What shape? What will go well together?
This avalanche of decisions is why so many good people are living with bad light fixtures, usually whatever the builder put in.
Let me explain something. Because home builders don’t usually know the décor style of the future homebuyer, they put in generic, generally inexpensive fixtures to satisfy building code and serve as placeholders. The assumption is that the homeowner will switch them out for something better. Except we don’t.
After much measuring, ruminating and consulting with my best friend, I finally picked a new collection of fixtures for the dining room, foyer, kitchen nook, hallway, master bath and powder room. In a few weeks, eight bright new light fixtures will arrive like the cavalry riding over the hill.
Meanwhile, I talked with lighting and design experts to find out how homeowners can elevate their lighting looks without getting overwhelmed.
The selection of fixtures is vast, said Libby Hartman, creative marketing manager for Las Vegas-based Kalco Lighting. To narrow your search, she suggests starting by figuring out the color finish (say, polished nickel, matte black, wood, gold, chrome, etc.) that will work best in your home. That will narrow your options dramatically. Then dial in style and size.
And feel free to break out of your finish rut, adds New York interior designer Gala Magrina. “Some homeowners feel they need to make all the metals in their home match: the faucets, door handles, cabinet hardware and light fixtures,” she said. “I like to think of light fixtures as another layer, a brush stroke that picks up on the surrounding furnishings and doesn’t match all the metal in the house.”
The effort is worth it, they agreed. Updating a home’s light fixtures, and changing out those original builder packages, is one of the best and often overlooked ways to make a standard production house look more custom.
When choosing new light fixtures, here’s what else experts say to consider:
Aim for harmony, not unity. Ideally, the light fixtures in a home shouldn’t all be a matched set. However, Magrina said, “it is important that they all look like they’re going to the same party.”
Scale, scale, scale. The biggest mistake homeowners make is they get the scale wrong, said Hartman. You can’t always go by the size of the fixture you’re replacing. One rule of thumb is to add the length and width of the room in feet, then use that number in inches when selecting a fixture. So, for example, a 10 by 12-foot foyer would call for a 22-inch-wide chandelier. When in doubt, scale up.
Double check measurements. Online, size is deceiving. Fixtures of widely different sizes can look the same. Similarly, just because a fixture looks right in the store, doesn’t mean it’s the right size for your space. Measure all three dimensions: height, width and length, to make sure the fixture has the right proportions.
Allow for clearance. Above a table or kitchen island, a fixture can hang 30 to 36 inches over the surface. Where people will walk beneath a fixture, aim for at least seven feet of clearance.
Get the right bulbs. A fixture is only as good as the quality of its light, and that depends on the bulbs. Magrina cringes when she sees fixtures with mismatched or burned-out bulbs. Light temperatures must match, and the light has to be sufficient enough to light the space. To diffuse and soften light, get fixtures that have domes, globes, shades or, at the very least, frosted bulbs.
Factor in drop. Hanging fixtures come with a set amount of chain or stem (the down rod). Order more if you need it. If you have a 20-foot drop from the ceiling, for instance, you’ll likely need more.
Note the trends. Though classic fixtures that go with your home’s architecture have staying power, incorporating current looks can help your home feel updated and will likely help resale. Hartman sees two primary lighting trends today, “an industrial look, with a dark and stormy color story, and on the other extreme, a throwback to art deco, to warm metals, like champagne gold and a color I call ‘gliver,’ a mix of silver and gold.”