Let There Be Lights

How to light an open-concept design
Open-concept layouts are popular, but can be tricky to light. A mix of different fixtures will be necessary, but make sure you avoid clashing styles.

Open floor plans tend to be the norm in newer, new-build or renovated homes these days. While we could talk about the pros and cons of an open scheme and how to arrange your interiors for this type of layout until the cows come home, I’m here to talk about just one challenge homeowners will encounter — lighting.

Lighting tends to be the last thing homeowners think of when designing or renovating their homes — an afterthought resulting from decision fatigue. In consequence, I frequently see lighting plans that are either boring or a clashing mishmosh.

Lighting should be considered in tandem with the whole plan. Like the perfect jewelry for an Oscar night outfit, lighting puts the finishing touches on all your hard work.

In any interior, form must follow function in all (or most) things. You first have to tackle the practical aspect of lighting and then harmonize the aesthetics. So, practically speaking, most lighting falls under the following two categories:

Ambient — This is the lighting that instantly illuminates a space with the flick of a switch. In a large open floor plan, this is usually your recessed lighting. I recommend adding dimmer switches to be able to control and soften the intensity of light as desired. The newer 4-inch can lights are a lot less visually invasive than the 6-inch ones that dominated ceilings 10 years ago.

Task — Task lighting allows you to perform specific activities — dining, preparing food, playing games, reading, etc. — without eye strain.

Aesthetically coordinating task lighting is especially important in a spacious, open-concept room.

You can also use task lighting to define different areas in an open layout. This may seem like a no-brainer — i.e., kitchen island, dining area, living area — but don’t overlook your entry, game area, reading corner or bar area.

Task lighting fixtures are where you can get creative, but make sure that you follow a few rules of thumb to ensure that your open floor plan keeps that lovely flow. After all, that is its primary goal.

  1. Choose your focal, or dominant, fixture first. This is mostly likely your dining or living area ceiling light.
  2. Vary the next fixture, but repeat the finish and the shape of your focal fixture.
  3. As you move along, you can change styles, but keep the finish or the shape from one to the next.
  4. Don’t forget your lamps. They should harmonize in shape and style as well.
  5. Not every light will be a focal fixture. Some will play supporting roles. Just like in an opera, you can’t have too many divas sharing the stage or you’ll end up with a screeching mess.

Let’s create a hypothetical open layout that has an entry leading to an open kitchen/dining/living room. I’ll take examples from a couple of popular lighting vendors — Currey & Company and Visual Comfort.  

Let’s say that you fell hard for the Creole chandelier from Currey & Company for the living area of your great room. I absolutely love the antiqued gold finish juxtaposed with the more relaxed cane appliqué. This would be great for a casual but tailored room.

Currey & Company’s Creole chandelier

Working backward, I might then choose something similarly airy and with a gold finish for the dining area. However, I’ll switch it up a bit by choosing a fixture with round shades but in a linear format, like Currey & Company’s Dalby chandelier.

Currey & Company’s Dalby chandelier

Moving on to the island, I want to keep my round shape, maybe go a little smaller in size so as not to compete with the dining and living areas, but bring in a new finish — oil-rubbed bronze. I love how the little brass accents on the Altamont pendant light from Hudson Valley references the gold of the previous two fixtures.

Altamont pendant light from Hudson Valley

Continuing backward into the entry, I want something visually interesting but not overwhelming, and perhaps foreshadowing of what my guests will see in the upcoming open layout. This globe flush mount in an aged brass, with the oil-rubbed bronze mesh feature at the top from Circa Lighting, is just the ticket.

McCarren Medium Flush Mount designed by Ralph Lauren from Circa Lighting

Of course, every situation is different and depends on the architecture of your house and the furnishings. But I hope this helps you to realize the variety you can achieve in lighting for an open layout, while paying tribute to its flow.

About the Author

Decorator and color consultant Amy Mitchell is the owner of Home Glow Design. Each week, she writes for Home Glow’s “Saturday Blog,” focusing on fresh twists on classic style, American craftsmanship and value and quality for dollars spent. The blog also features more photos from this story. She lives in Hopkinton with her husband and two boys.