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lighting guide 31

OK, so you probably know the difference between a floor lamp and a table lamp. But which counts as ambient and which is task? And what the heck is "recessed lighting" anyway? Here, your down and dirty guide to lighting your entire home.

Lighting Types



Ambient lighting is also known as primary lighting and typically comes from an overhead or multiple bulb fixture. It provides the even base of a lighting plan, and a comfortable overall level of brightness.  



Accent lighting either deliberately highlights an object or simply adds visual interest (i.e.: an extra layer of light or strictly decorative element).



Task lighting is used to enhance daily activities like reading, applying makeup or cooking, and as such, it should always be free of glare and/or shadows.

Table Lamps

table1300 Getty  

In addition to layering in light (they’re typically a secondary light source), table lights are a super-easy way to mix up decor (simply moving one from a side table to a dresser can breathe new life into a room). There are no “rules” or limitations here; just play around and buy what you love.

Best for: Task lighting; Accent lighting
Place atop a desk to illuminate a study space. Add to side tables in a living room to create a chic, layered glow.


Target, $47


Jalexander, $170


Jana Bek, from $450

Floor Lamps

floor1300 Imaginima/Getty 

Think of these guys as the “supermodels” of lighting: They mostly need to stand there and look pretty. Practically speaking, they’re also, of course, a great way to illuminate forgotten corners that ambient light doesn’t reach (and that can’t accommodate a piece of furniture).

Best for: Task lighting
Place next to a sofa or favorite easy chair for well-lit reading.


Ikea, $50


Aerin, $496

gubi lamp

Gubi, $898

Ceiling Lights

ceiling1300 hikesterson/Getty  

Flush or semi-flush ceiling fixtures are an especially wise choice for high-trafficked areas given their unobtrusiveness. With flush-mount fixtures, the glass touches the ceiling, making it a more subtle addition. Semi-flush-mount fixtures project slightly from the ceiling, so that the bowl hangs a few inches away and casts a pretty glow.

Best for: Ambient lighting
Hang centrally in a hall, kitchen, bathroom or laundry room for diffuse, easy lighting.


CB2, $60


Cerno, $356


sconce1300 hikesterson/Getty  

Also referred to as wall lights, sconces are typically placed semi-flush against a wall, making them great complementary light sources to an overhead fixture or natural sunshine. There are two types of sconces: hardwired and plug-in. Hardwired sconces are a tough install (wiring is hidden and incorporated into your home’s electrical system), while plug-ins are a more affordable, easy install, assuming you don’t mind the hanging cords. Hang these puppies about 60 inches from the floor.

Best for: Accent lighting; Task lighting  
Flank a large-scale mirror or prized piece of art to draw attention. Hang above bedside tables for space-saving reading lights.


chandelier1300 hikesterson/Getty  

These showstoppers are also referred to (less fancily) as chain-hung or suspension fixtures. Generally large in scale and heavily decorative, a chandelier can truly dictate the style of a room. With their numerous bulbs, they throw off a great deal of light, making them a practical primary lighting source in addition to a decor heavy hitter. A general rule of thumb: For a polished look (and to save your eyeballs while eating), hang your chandelier so that the bulbs are 30 to 36 inches above your dining surface.

Best for: Ambient lighting; Accent lighting
Hang above a formal dining table for a note of drama, or centrally in a foyer to create the illusion of grandeur.


pendants1300 Getty 

The cool, dressed-down sister to the chandelier, pendant lights are a simpler option for stylish focal lighting. Suspended from the ceiling, the bulbs inside pendant lamps direct their glow downward, which makes them a top choice for highlighting work areas (in addition to providing ample general lighting).

Best for: Task lighting
Install either a single statement fixture or a small grouping above a kitchen island for a casual and well-lit eating/work area.

sconce2 640

Jason Home, $48

Sconce1 640

Anglepoise, $132

Sconce3 640

Tom Dixon, $550

Recessed Lighting

recessed1300 hikesterson/Getty  

Otherwise known as can lights or downlights, these discrete fixtures are the way to go if you want a clean and contemporary look—and a blank canvas to decorate around. The actual lamp component is built up into the ceiling (so that only a trim is visible), and they typically require the help of a licensed electrician to plan and install. Visually bulk-free, recessed lights are known for faking width, which makes 'em a great option for rooms with low ceilings or narrow passes. Pro tip: Install recessed lights no closer than two feet from your walls, and seven feet apart from one another for max space illusion.

Best for: Ambient lighting
Install across a ceiling to create a “base layer” of light in a living, dining, kitchen or bedroom.


Lamps Plus, $30


Fabian, from $142

Track Lighting

track1300 Getty 

A sort of cross between recessed and pendant, track lighting is composed of a visible metal bar with a series of small lights either affixed or hung just below. The track itself can be short or long, straight or curved, and flush to the ceiling or suspended. Pendants, spotlights and other fixtures can hang from the track at different heights and point in various directions. 

Best for: Task lighting; Accent lighting
Install above a kitchen island to illuminate the prep space. Highlight a prized bookshelf.


Pro-Track, $230