This is general, all-purpose lighting (the kind you flip on when you enter a room so you don’t bark your shins on the coffee table). Usually, ambient lighting comes from ceiling fixtures that illuminate evenly. For most rooms, equip ambient lighting with soft white bulbs of about 850 lumens. For kitchens and dining rooms, try bright white bulbs to render food colors most accurately.
Flush mounts and semi-flush mounts are reliable all-purpose candidates, as they suit most rooms and provide bright, balanced illumination. Flush mounts have a short profile, so they’re especially useful in spaces with lower ceilings or where you don’t want the light fixture to distract from other décor. Longer semi-flush mounts look a bit grander, but serve the same purpose.
Pendants are appropriate for high-ceilinged rooms or when you need a light closer to eye level (over a dining table or kitchen sink, for example). Rod pendants have been in use since the 1920s and have a streamlined aesthetic; chain varieties have greater flexibility, so they work well on vaulted ceilings. For ambient lighting, choose a pendant with a glass shade, which will diffuse light in all directions. Metal shades are better for task lighting (see below).
Generally defined as having multiple arms or an especially large scale, chandeliers are the most dramatic and eye-catching ambient lighting type. They fit naturally in the dining room and entry, where they cast a broad swath of illumination below, but they can also add lovely personality to a bedroom or dressing room. Wire them with a dimmer switch for greater versatility.
Consider this the personal assistant of lights. Task lights create directed beams of illumination, helping you clearly see the job in front of you. Any kind of light – wall bracket, table lamp, or pendant – can do the job if it casts a focused pool of brightness where you need it, generally 1,500 lumens or more.
If you want to branch out, a multi-armed billiard fixture – originally designed to illuminate pool tables – does a bang-up job of lighting large, flat spans where you need to see clearly, like kitchen islands or library tables.
Downward-facing pendants or sconces can function as task lights, as long as they’re mounted near your work space – for example, a wall bracket situated above a reading chair or a pendant hung over a desk. Metal shades will provide more directed light than a glass shade.
In the simplest terms, these are lights that accent other things and that are accents themselves. When used to draw the eye to a decorative feature in the room, like a painting, bookshelf, or sculpture, an accent light should be about three times brighter than the ambient lighting around it. Alternately, you can use an accent light itself as a decorative feature if it’s more pretty than practical – in which case, reproduction and decorative bulbs will enhance its moody glow.
Sconces are most commonly used to spotlight artwork and bookcases.
Table lamps do double-duty as accent lights: they can be used to light an object or vignette, and to embellish a room. Choose lamps made of colored glass, carved wood, or finely wrought metal to add artful character to your space.