Illuminating options go beyond function

Designers utilize light as art, architecture or both

  • A pendant lamp from the Troy Collection.
A pendant lamp from the Troy Collection. (Troy Lighting, Baltimore…)
February 19, 2011|By Dennis Hockman, Chesapeake Home + Living

When most houses were constructed, the builder installed lighting selected from a fairly limited range of options. Multiplied by millions of houses, such "builder grade" light fixtures have amounted to a fairly banal residential lighting landscape.

One of the first things I notice about homes with real style and personality is the quality of the lighting — particularly the hard-wired ceiling and wall fixtures like chandeliers, sconces and pendants.

In the hands of the right designer, light transcends its practical applications and becomes art, architecture — or both.

As an element of architecture, lighting is designed not to be seen as an object itself but to create an effect that enhances the appearance of a structure and provides a functional light source.

Decorative lighting, on the other hand, is meant to be seen. It serves a practical purpose, to be sure, but the design itself is often beautiful on its own. When unlit, the forms can be sculptural, graceful, organic or whatever other stylistic complement an interior space requires. Illuminated, these fixtures often dazzle, capturing and reflecting light with high-polish finishes and crystals or emulating candlelit sconces.

Out of all the trends in the lighting industry today, eco-friendly, energy-efficient design is probably the biggest. In commercial settings, energy-efficient lighting has become the status quo. In offices, schools and retail spaces, interior lights can be left on anywhere from 12 hours a day to around the clock. In such cases, energy-efficient lighting can result in considerable savings.

In homes, however, lighting is often used only for minutes or hours at a time, and the cost savings are not as evident.

Perhaps that's why, as Susan Dickinson of Dorman's Lighting and Design in Lutherville suggests, the time for widespread use of energy-efficient residential lighting like LED pendants has not yet arrived.

Still, according to Bob Jones with Jones Lighting Specialists in Towson, "a lot of focus in the past couple years has been on energy conservation. Effort has been placed on LEDs (light-emitting diodes) for architectural lighting. Even some decorative fixtures are being made with LEDs. Most new lighting has an awareness of energy conservation. LED lighting and CFLs [compact fluorescent lamps] work well in fixtures or lamps where the light source is concealed with shades or frosted glass."

There has also been some evolution in how lighting is used to create an effect. "Using lighting to define 'spaces' in a room is an emerging trend," says interior designer Lynn Coffland of Coffland Design. "Several years ago, I started suspending pendant lighting over bedside tables in bedrooms to replace bedside lamps. I see that trend emerging more frequently now."

Although functional and technological changes in the lighting industry have been easy to see, stylistic trends have been less apparent. What's happening is a slower change, and the styles in vogue today are simpler, more organic.

The traditional look, suggests Jones, will probably always be in demand, but popular right now is a style he refers to as "soft-edge modern." Inspired most notably by interior designer Barbara Barry, the aesthetic is one of simplicitity, at once classic and modern, subtly juxtaposing clean lines and worn finishes. "It's a warm classic look with a streamlined modern edge," says Jones.

Dickson agrees that in our area, classic styles remain fashionable. "Trends we are seeing include hand- wrought, jeweled, metal-painted finishes, and some midcentury modern."

The ubiquitous suspended "drum" shade also continues to be popular. However, as drum shade ceiling fixtures are now being incorporated with the decor of fast-food restaurants, lighting designers are challenged to reinvent the look for residential use. As such, Dickinson notes more ornamented and "chandelier-like" embellishments being added to the designs.

While popular styles and forms are often simple and subtle, there is also now a wider variety of sizes and shapes than ever before.

"In the past, you either had a sconce, a chandelier or a lantern. There are a lot of new shapes on the market," Dickinson says, explaining that spherical and linear fixtures are being designed to break up the monotony. "You don't want to go through a house and see a chandelier in every space."

Also creating variety in a lighting scheme is the diverse range of finishes available.

"Polished nickel is strong and has been for a while," says Jones, "and bronze sells well. Chalky and crusty finishes are also popular, what we like to call 'tortured finishes,' as well as silver leaf and gold leaf."

Dickinson notes the popularity of matte silver leaf, chrome and dark bronze finishes. "A very versatile finish I love, often called by various names like 'argentum,' is essentially a combination of silver, gold and bronze that reads as a warm silver finish."

From an interior designer's perspective, Coffland suggests, "crystal [clean cut, not faceted] is still very popular … and the mercury glass look has come onto the market in lamps — when paired with a streamlined shade, the effect can be unexpected and quite lovely."

Gone are the days of polished brass, though, at least for now. "Twenty-five years ago, 50 percent of my showroom was polished brass; now it's only 10 percent," says Jones. However, he says, "The trends are all on one big carousel — everything will be back in style."

Dennis Hockman is editor of Chesapeake Home + Living magazine. He can be reached at

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