Lighting your living/dining room: Tips from a pro


'The key is not to overdo the lighting just because it's an open space'

The living/dining room has come full circle.

"Before the Victorian era, most Canadians lived in one big room," says Vancouver-based interior designer Gregory Van Sickle. "It's where they ate, slept, bathed and spent their leisure time."

But over time and with increasing affluence, this room was divided up, culminating in the Victorian home's plethora of rooms: front and back parlors, dining rooms, drawing rooms, libraries, and enclosed verandas.

Today, a more casual approach to living means many of us are living and dining in one big room again — the Great Room. Or we live in smaller spaces with combined living/dining rooms.

How do you light these flowing spaces to amp up the design quotient and maximize energy efficiency?

"Because it has such a strong emotional component, lighting is 50 percent of design," says Van Sickle, who has focused on residential design for the past 25 years. "In living/dining rooms, I use it to define functional areas for activities like eating and conversation. Then I create focal points.

"The key is not to overdo the lighting just because it's an open space."

And always remember to use energy efficient, ENERGY STAR®-rated lamps.

Let the light in

In new homes or substantial renos, Van Sickle always starts with a home's windows.

"The right amount of glazing allows you to use natural light to illuminate the space. Less lighting means less electricity."

He advocates adding vertical windows, versus horizontal ones, which had their heyday in the sixties and seventies.

"Vertical glazing gets natural light deeper into a space."

Start at the top

Next, Van Sickle considers the character of a space and how to use light at different "height levels".

"I start with the light from above. You can use it to define spaces, like eating and sitting areas, and create key focal points in a room."

Hanging the right lighting fixture above a dining table can enliven an eating area. It can also create a sculptural focal point and illuminate a centrepiece on the table.

Just don't hang your fixture too low — having out-of-sight dining companions tends to stifle conversation.

"The bottom of your light should be at least five feet from the floor, or 29 to 31 inches from the top of your dining table," Van Stickle advises. "Although it's okay for a few chandelier crystals to hang below that."

Van Sickle is fond of chandeliers because their crystals reflect light around the room. And they're not just for traditional spaces: he also uses them to add a "playful touch" to a contemporary home.

For those who like a cleaner look, but still want some "punch", he recommends installing a recessed multi-head fixture that can be adjusted to reflect a sparkly light around the room.

No matter which fixture or bulb you choose, Van Sickle advocates using dimmers to avoid flooding guests in unflattering pools of light and to save on electricity.

Don't be afraid of the shadows

In living areas, Van Sickle uses light from above to create gathering spots and dramatic focal points.

Recessed or track lighting can illuminate a coffee table, to encourage people to sit around it. It can also be used to emphasize a treasured painting or sculpture.

To more dramatically highlight a client's pièce de résistance, Van Sickle installs recessed framing projectors, which use special lenses to shine a tightly focused beam directly onto a painting. They highlight just the art, with no spill light onto the matte or framing.

"They're a little finicky to set up, but the image just pops."

Van Sickle is also a fan of low-wattage "uplights" — lighting recessed into the floor. The light washes up and out to highlight wall art or pedestal-mounted sculptures.

"They create shadow, which helps enhance the three-dimensional aspect of an art piece."

The fireplace: a hearth-felt space

Here's a great way to save on electricity in your living area, while creating a relaxed place for conversation.

"Put in a gas fireplace. They create heat and light — which saves energy. We all want to gather around a hearth; it's very primitive. Wood fireplaces are great, but you need a wood supply and have to keep the chimney clean, which is too much work for most people."

However, Van Sickle is not a fan of electrical fireplaces, likening them to "plug-in easy-bake ovens" that don't give off much heat.

He also doesn't care for big-screen TVs above the fireplace, although he admits it's a strong trend.

"The fireplace shouldn't compete with a TV, and you don't want a big screen to be the room's focal point, so hide it in a side console."

Best lighting options for TV viewing are sconce lighting, dimmed ceiling light, and table lamps.

"Don't use a light source that's behind you, or it will reflect back into your eyes and cause glare on the screen."

LEDs improving fast

Van Sickle always specifies which bulbs his clients should use for their fixtures.

For recessed and track lighting, he typically opts for the "crisp warm white light" of lower-energy halogen bulbs.

"There is still nothing else on the market that has a similar sparkle and clarity, but LEDs are improving fast."

For floor and table lamps, he uses "deluxe warm white" CFLs, but because fluorescents can over-illuminate, he suggests putting them on a dimmer.

"Today, floor and table lamps are used more for decorative ambient lighting than for tasks like reading or studying. More and more people are using laptops and tablets, which come with their own illumination."

Extend into the exterior

Your lighting scheme shouldn't stop at the back door. One of Van Sickle's signature design techniques is to use lighting to connect living/dining areas with the exterior — a back garden, patio or deck.

"By uplighting a tree or a garden sculpture, and adding some recessed ground lighting, you extend your living/dining space. It takes very little wattage, and at night you won't have that feeling of looking out into the pitch black."

Also in our room-by-room lighting design series:

About Gregory Van Sickle

Gregory Van Sickle has earned his reputation within the design community of British Columbia with over 25 years of experience in the profession.

Van Sickle Design was founded in 2000, on the west coast, with an emphasis on customer-focused residential design. Creating projects that incorporate and reflect the personality and passions of his client's is Gregory's stock in trade.