This is my story of designing our renovation of a century-old lakehouse in Ontario. Each month, I’ll offer a new chapter on the challenges and solutions, and a peek at our progress. You’ll be able to see the actual house come together on new episodes of our video series The Lakehouse.
You’d think that after decades of designing rooms, I would know better. Not so. With this lakehouse reno, I did exactly what I’ve always preached not to do. I jumped on a trend too fast, and now I think I may be “oversconced!”
Decorative lighting has become a huge area with too much choice and not enough information to help ward off mistakes. In my case, having rarely had wall sconces in my homes and after using them in moderation for clients, I was enamoured and certain that I wanted them in every room of our lakehouse.
Of course, I still needed pot lights in must-have areas, as well as ceiling pendants, flush-mounts, and table and floor lamps. Here are my best tips for choosing and mixing your light fixtures. The key, as in most things, is balance.
Choose your fixtures according to style, finish, function, price and what’s feasible for your site conditions.
Style, for me, is always first. Do you want the look of lights dotting your walls, hanging from your ceilings or hovering over a chair? If your goal is clean and minimal, then you should just stick with recessed pot lights, the occasional flush-mount ceiling fixture, plus floor or table lamps. In my case, I wanted the jewel-like quality of dangling wall sconces over the kitchen counters, flanking the bathroom vanities and for the bedside tables and hallways. I chose ones that are cool updates of classic styles, plus a few new designs.
Finish: For the most part, the finishes in our house are aged brass to blend in best with our wood walls. In bathrooms, you would match the finish of light fixtures to your faucets or provide an intentional contrast by choosing black or oiled bronze sconces when the rest of the bathroom is done in nickel, chrome or brass. In general, beware of too much brass everywhere. The pendulum may have swung too far over the last few years. Cool white metals such as silver, nickel, chrome, stainless steel, and especially white, are feeling new and fresh once again. The dark matte look of oiled bronze in light fixtures is a nice muted option that works best in modern country rooms. It grounds the eye and works well with other finishes.
Function — it’s the thing we all tend to forget about when choosing light fixtures. Do you want to see the lightbulb? I find that, most often, I don’t want to see the bulb, and when I do, it has to be good-looking, like a filament-style bulb, discreet and always dimmable. And what about the shades on your sconces? Do you want them to stand out, blend in or be transparent? Our kitchen wall sconces by Thomas O’Brien came with white glass shades (above, left). When they arrived, they were such a bright white, they were glaring against our wood walls. The aged brass fixtures were fabulous, so we searched for clear glass shades coupled with fully dimmable LEDs.
Decide what you want to illuminate with your sconces. In a bathroom, the ones that flank a vanity mirror are usually meant to light your face, so you don’t want the glare of a bare bulb, you want soft light behind a semi-opaque shade. Most good lighting websites will show you the best sconces designed for bathroom vanities that are designated safe for use in a damp area.
Bedside sconces have a very different function. First, they have to move, preferably both up and down and from side to side. The ideal is to give a person using either side of the bed maximum flexibility. Are these sconces only intended to illuminate a book or are they also needed for general lighting? If so, you’ll want fabric or vellum shades that cast a soft light into the room. And then there’s cost. The hidden wiring for bedside sconces means that you have to know the width of the headboard and the height of the bed going into the room to determine the ideal placement of those sconces. You’ll want them centered over your bedside tables and mounted at a height where no one will hit their head, so that reading in bed will be a well-lit pleasure. Plus, you’ll want them controlled separately from each side of the bed. If possible, put them on a three-way switch so you can also turn them on and off from the doorway when you enter or leave the room. These sconces need to be fully dimmable and the shades should hide the bulbs as much as possible.
If you don’t want to start fishing wires through your walls, you can use surface-mounted, plug-in wall sconces with a cord hanging down to reach a nearby outlet. A dangling cord is considered cool-looking, but too many of them is not. You may have noticed that, when we show a room, there’s often a distinct lack of any kind of cord or outlet. Taping those cords in bundles to tuck them out of sight is one of the last things a photographer will do before snapping those shots.
Think about whether you want your bedroom light fixture hanging from the ceiling, either in the center of the room or centered over the bed. You’ll need to lie in bed, look up and figure out what kind of fixture will cast light up at the ceiling, and not down into your eyes. Often, it’s a chandelier with delicate bulbs that works best, or a multiarm modernist fixture with shades mounted below each bulb.
Try the flush-mount light fixture trend. These fixtures can go on either a ceiling or a wall, and usually feature one bulb and a backplate that’s shaped like a bowl, disc or organic shape. I’m using some in our lakehouse on the hall walls, but I had to find ones that would work on beadboard. The first ones I chose didn’t, because I forgot to consider the grooves and raised bits on the panelling. Ditto for any exterior sconces to be mounted on angled siding: you have to add a flat backboard so your sconces can sit level and snug against the walls, with no gaps. In our powder room, I was going to use the
Cast sconce from Casson Hardware. I thought the tiny, black matte shade would look perfect on walls painted a stone color, with the black matte faucet and Carrara marble console sink. But then designer Candace Thompson commented that she thought the best choice would be sconces that lit up the room instead of casting light downward into the bowl of the sink. Of course, she was right. Now the hunt is on for something witty and graceful.
Photographer: Courtesy of Weeth Home (bedroom)
Designer: Jess Weeth (bedroom)
When choosing sconces, measure carefully. It’s obvious until you forget to do it. You need to know the size of the backplate to make certain that it covers the hole in your wall. You need the total drop from the connection point on the wall to the bottom of your shade. And you need the depth of the whole fixture to know how far it will stick out from the wall. Sconces are often hung low enough that someone could walk into it, so depth is important. In my case, the shades on my kitchen sconces hung down a hair too low; they were falling below the window frames. Candace ended up having to hunt for glass shades that were slightly shorter but still the perfect tent shape. She found them!
Less is more. Let’s talk about overkill. Light fixtures should be discreet, for the most part. The exception is that one stunning fixture that is like art in your room. That one should be a knockout! The rest need to fall back and be quiet… think of them as jewelry. Too many fixtures competing for attention is not the idea. Just a few perfect sconces accenting your walls and casting a lovely glow is the goal.
Here’s a final tip, if you went a little crazy planning all those sconces…. You can hang small pieces of framed art, decorative plates or whatever, over a hole, here and there. There’s always that….
Great Lighting Sources