4 Light Layers In Interior Design And How To Use Them

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The idea of using light layers in interior design was initiated by Richard Kelly. He was an architect, designer and educator. Working beside such great names as Mies Van Der Rohe and Kahn, he pioneered lighting design. It was he who established the 3 principles of light in architecture - focal glow, ambient luminescence, and play of brilliants.

Even though his principles were mostly applied to the architecture of public spaces, like museums for example, we can translate them as well into interior design, on a smaller scale. Although, in interior design, we distinguish 4 layers of light. Let me tell you what they are and how to use them in your design.

Lighting Design in Residential Interiors

We all know that lighting design is not such a piece of cake. It’s not enough, or at least not anymore, to simply put a lamp in the middle of the room and be done with it. Nowadays, the choice of light fixtures is so vast that it would be a crime to use so few. Plus, we need varied lighting for all the activities we carry out at home. If you still need convincing, remember that any design will look flat and dull without proper illumination.

If lighting design keeps you up at night and you dread sitting down to create a lighting scheme, fear no more! I wrote an ebook that contains everything you need to know. In fact, it’s titled “Everything An Interior Designer Should Know About Light”. Click on the banner below and get your copy today!

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Why do we need light layers?

What is more interesting - a one-layered cake or a multi-layered cake? Everything's better with layers. Heck, even Shrek has layers. 

On a more serious note, though, when you’re designing an interior, you should focus on lighting design as much as you do on creating a proper furniture layout for the client’s needs. Designing a well-thought-through illumination will enhance everything you work so hard to create for your clients. It will help you build a unique ambiance or even several of them, to suit the mood, the situation, and the users' needs. After all, you don’t want your project to look flat after dark, do you?

Cue the light layers. With 4 of them, you have endless possibilities to wow your clients. Pair that with the billions of light fixture types to choose from aaaand… here comes the headache. But no worries, I hope this article will help make your overwhelm go away.

First Light Layer - General Lighting

an example of the general light layer in interior design. a ceiling-mounted lamp illuminates the whole scene evenly

Much like Kelly’s ambient luminescence, general light is for uniformly illuminating the whole scene. It’s already there in the name. General light is that ceiling-mount luminaire that makes everything visible. It should be the strongest layer but don’t overdo this one, as you need the room (pun intended) for other light layers to come through.

Remember, that a single ceiling-mount luminaire is not the only way to deal with a general light. You can use track lights, you can use pendants with diffuse shades, and you can use multiple fixtures. Just remember - the aim is to illuminate the scene evenly.

Second Light Layer - Accent Light

an example of the accent light layer in interior design. A directional light illuminates the picture on the wall

Because using only general lighting will make the scene look monotonous, try to break it with accent light. This light layer is the equivalent of Richard Kelly’s focal glow. You’ve probably guessed that it’s the layer used to direct the focus of the viewer to where you want them to look. You know that beautiful picture your clients will have on their walls? Illuminate it. The amazing sculpture they brought from a trip and absolutely love it? Shine some light on it!

Whatever there is that is important, beautiful, or interesting - that’s where the accent light comes to play. It should be stronger than the general light, however, remember to not overuse this one either. After all - if everything is illuminated, is there really anything we should be focusing on? Choose wisely.

BONUS TIP: Don’t use wall sconces to illuminate pictures on the wall. Apart from veeeery few specific luminaires, what they will do is illuminate the frame, and if you’re lucky - the top part of the picture. Instead, place a directional light on the ceiling, at a certain distance (try ⅓ of the height of the wall), and illuminate the picture from there.

Third Light Layer - Task Light

an example of the task light layer in interior design. A floor lamp illuminates the armchair for reading purposes.

This one is a variation of focal glow as its purpose is to illuminate only a particular part of the scene. But it’s so much more than just this. This is the light that enables us to perform certain tasks. We need task lights for reading, cooking, playing board games, putting on makeup, and thousands of other activities we need or want to conduct. It’s almost technical. In fact, when choosing the light fixture for a task light, you should think of function over form. Its performance and parameters are way more important than the way it looks. I mean, you can always marry both features but you should always put the performance first.

Make sure that the light beam is properly distributed according to the task. It should be more focused for more precise tasks like writing or reading, and more diffused for eating at the table or putting on makeup, for example (think about the illuminated mirrors in actors’ changing rooms).

Fourth Light Layer - Decorative Light

an example of the decorative light layer in interior design. An illuminated neon serves as a decoration on the wall.

Kelly called this one a ‘play of brilliants’. For him, this light layer should evoke emotions. Quicken your appetite, excite your optic nerves, awaken curiosity… Basically what it means is that with the decorative light layer, you can forget about performance and focus solely on eye pleasure. Choose something that is beautiful not only when it’s lit. Something that creates a shimmering effect. Or flickers. Or is simply pleasing to watch. Whatever your imagination suggests, whatever you were restricted to not do with other, much more technical layers - here you can indulge.

Keep in mind also that a decorative light, if its parameters permit, might at the same time be quite functional. After all, a light fixture to illuminate a table, even though it’s purely a task light, can also be pretty, right?

Mix And Match

Designing with light layers definitely makes the whole process much easier. You can play around, mix and match - use all 4 light layers in your interior design, or only some of them, to create a more dramatic scene. Have fun with it! 

Knowing the effect you want to achieve, what ambiance you want to create, and what to illuminate in which way is the key to proper lighting design. Don’t forget the person you’re designing for as well, as different ages or different lifestyles have different light requirements.

all the light layers in interior design combined - the general, accent, task, and decorative light layers

If you still feel a bit apprehensive, remember about the ebook I wrote - Everything An Interior Designer Should Know About Light. You’ll read more about light layers in interior design and how to use them, but also about various light sources and how to choose the proper one, you’ll learn how to decipher all the mysterious symbols and drawings that every lighting fixture or lamp comes with and some theory about how light works and affects various people. 

Interested? I sure hope you are! Get your copy now!

or click here

And if you’re looking for information about how to best use natural light in your designs - check out this article.

hi there!

I'm Aleksandra, an interior architect with multinational experience, on a mission to help beginning or self-taught designers gain confidence and create systems that will help them bring their businesses to the next level.




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4 Replies to “4 Light Layers In Interior Design And How To Use Them”

I agree that having light layers is very important to interior decorating. For me, lighting is everything. It can affect our moods and help us to feel more relaxed.

That is true, thank you Zandra 🙂

I really enjoyed reading your post, learned a lot about light layers in interior design. It was very informative, and a great post to read.

I’m glad you found it interesting, Christy! Thank you 🙂

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hi, I'm Aleksandra!

I will help you create an organized interior design business with systems and processes, and to gain confidence to bring your career to the next level.

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