Is there a room in your house that feels chronically, depressingly dim? Perhaps you’ve added lamps, maybe even given it a paint job, but it still feels gloomy every time you enter it.
Professional decorators will tell you that lighting is one of the most complex topics they deal with. In fact, some of them hand it off to lighting specialists because it’s such an art form unto itself. But you’re not looking to get your room into a magazine—you just want to brighten it up. The good news is that you can make significant improvements by following basic principles and easy steps, without spending a lot of money.
Assess the Situation
Before you begin, do some diagnostic work so that you’ll have a plan when you start working. Take a close look at all of the following…
Floors. The floor generally is the first place your eye lands when you enter a room. First impressions matter, so what kind of surface are you looking at? A dark-colored floor is not the end of the world—you don’t need to replace your flooring—but it is something you’ll need to work with. A dull texture, such as a cut-pile wall-to-wall carpet, will feel dimmer than, say, a shiny marble tile. Look at the design of the flooring, and consider its effect on the room’s perceived brightness—complex, tight carpet patterns can feel denser than, for example, a spare, long-planked hardwood. This illustrates an important principle—the brightness of a room isn’t just about the number of lumens put out by its light fixtures. Brightness is just as much about how the design elements of a room make you feel. Lively patterns, lots of space and pleasing things for your eye to roam over give the illusion of brightness.
Walls. Most people understand intuitively that walls are the main event when it comes to brightening a room. Ask yourself a similar set of questions as you did with the flooring—is the paint too dark? Are the paint’s undertones bright or dark…cool (which adds light) or warm (which feels darker)? Is the wall treatment monochrome, or are there patterns that delight the eye? If there are patterns in wallpaper or tile, are they so crowded that they appear solid…or are they sparse, giving the illusion of space and light? Does the trim match the paint, or could you perhaps create some brightness through contrast?
Ceiling. Although ceilings are seldom looked at directly—and thus less important than walls and floors—they can reflect light downward, affecting the brightness of the entire space. Will the current color and texture of your ceiling be a neutral factor, or will it contribute to brightness?
Windows. If you’re lucky enough to have a window in the space you’re trying to brighten, look at the treatment. Oversized curtains or valences can block out light. Heavy fabrics feel dark. And what’s outside the window? Is there a hedge that could be trimmed or an outdoor object that could be moved? Is the room’s furniture blocking the window or otherwise not set up to optimize the sunlight?
Furniture. This is where people most often go wrong. They overcrowd a space with too many pieces…choose furniture that’s too large for the space…block light sources…and select pieces with upholstery styles and coloring that seem to suck the light out of the room.
Lighting. Are there enough light sources in the room? Every space—kitchen, bathroom, living room, bedroom—should have at least three layers of light. A general light source (such as a recessed overhead fixture or chandelier) should illuminate all four walls. Task lighting should shine down on spaces where work gets done, such as kitchen counters and reading chairs. Accent lighting should spruce up the room visually—you should see it from afar highlighting a cabinet or knick-knack.
Accessories. Ask yourself hard questions about the plants, art, throw pillows, blankets and other objects in the room. Does each piece contribute to a feeling of brightness…or detract from it?
What to try
Now that you’ve done your assessment, consider what will mitigate the problems in each of the areas. Remember: You don’t need to address every one of them—each space is different, and maybe all you need is to go a shade brighter on your wall paint, not rip out your flooring. Remember, too, that it’s possible to overdo a quest for brightness. After all, if brightness were your only concern, you’d just whitewash the space, get all-white furniture and place bare lightbulbs all over. You want the room to be tasteful and pleasing to the eye, which means variety and contrast.
Floor. Replacing flooring is probably the most expensive way to brighten a room, and it’s usually unnecessary. If you’ve got a drab wall-to-wall carpet, then, yes, you’ll probably want to replace it. But if you’re otherwise happy with the dark flooring, then just put down a cheerfully hued, sisal throw rug. If you have dark wall-to-wall carpet, you could add a contrasting rug on top to lighten things up a bit. You’ll be amazed at how a rectangle of fabric placed on a dark floor will brighten the space.
Walls. You don’t have to go with white. Grays and blues will do the trick. Don’t worry too much about finish—matte, eggshell, satin etc.—since its payoff in terms of brightness is minimal, but pay attention to undertones. If you’re confused about those terms, just tell the pro at the paint store that you want to brighten a space and are looking for cool colors with bright undertones. Not everything has to be bright—darker trim against lighter walls looks fantastic. If wallpaper is your thing: Use large-scale patterns—they offer the illusion of spaciousness and hence brightness. Mirrors are a great way to brighten a space—try to place them opposite windows so they distribute light throughout the room. Even one of the new TV/art panels can spread light in a room—select a cool piece of art as a screensaver, and let it play when the TV is not being used.
Ceiling. A dark ceiling can look great above bright walls. But if you’re still looking for a brightness boost, consider putting metallic or reflective wallpapers on ceilings to bounce light down into the living space.
Windows. If you’re concerned about privacy, start with sheer fabrics that let in as much light as possible while keeping away prying eyes. If you’re fortunate enough not to have to worry about privacy, dress the window minimally. Hang treatments as high up on the window or wall as possible, and layer fabrics with the darkest tones to the outside of the window frame.
Furniture. Declutter the space. Move couches, high-backed chairs, armoires and cupboards away from windows. When shopping for furniture, pick pieces with light textures and tight patterns—if you’ve got a fat, tufted sofa, use a woven chair of cane or wicker instead of a matching fat, tufted chair. Also: Don’t overdo the matching furniture—your pieces should complement each other.
Lighting. Use cooler lights in kitchens and bathrooms…warmer lights in bedrooms. Layer the lighting (general, task and accent), but try not to create shadows. Common mistake: Installing a general lighting fixture that is too large for the room—it will make the room feel small and darker. Most home-improvement stores will have lighting experts who can help you pick the right size fixtures for your space. If the room is windowless: Consider a light-therapy lamp as part of your task lighting—it will provide the full-spectrum light that you’re deprived of during winter months, so in addition to brightening the room, it may help you stave off seasonal affective disorder (SAD). They’re sold in attractive models as floor lamps, desk lamps and even as decorative items.
Accessories. You’ve already nailed down the more permanent considerations such as lighting and furniture, but accessories change with trends or even with seasons. Avoid large leafy plants—while pleasant in their way, they can be light-traps. If you do opt for plants, try a thin cactus or a small spider plant—or just pick a handful of flowers and set them in a vase. Use other accessories to play off the patterns in your furniture, walls and window treatments. Since you’re looking to please the eye and not blind it with brightness, you want to achieve a lively mix of patterns (try for three complementary yet distinct patterns in the room), and accessories are a great way to achieve that. A set of pillows, a throw blanket on an armchair, a bold abstract painting—these all can crown your achievement.
Think Like a Designer
Before you start replacing stuff, take pictures of the space and experiment with different colors in Photoshop or the online interior design tool Spoak. Also: Paint companies usually offer online mock-ups of rooms so you can see what a specific paint will look like paired with your furniture. What if you went with eggshell walls and yellow trim, left the floor the same but added a cream-colored accent rug? What about blue walls and a light gray trim? Whenever possible, get samples and take them into the space to see their effect. The better able you are to visualize the completed project, the more successful you’ll be.