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Blog Post-Lighting Design 101 The Basics with Courtney Cockerham
October 25, 2019

Lighting for the Home: The Basics

If you stalk the home design websites out there, as I often do, then you have heard designers say time and time again how important lighting is. And guess what… they’re right! What good is a fabulously decorated room if you can’t see it? Can you really enjoy your space if the corners are dark or the ceiling fan makes shadows on the floor? I can’t!

Properly lighting your home is easy if you know your “layers”. I always recommend a minimum of three primary layers of lighting in any space.  Let’s talk about those.

Ambient - The general lighting that allows you to see the toy dinosaur that you end up stepping on anyway.

Task - The focused light to help you perform a task; think desk lamp or under-cabinet lights in a kitchen.

Accent - If you are a tween, this is that really cool strand of Christmas lights strewn across your bedroom. If you are an adult, this is the really cool puck light you put at the base of the fiddle leaf fig in the corner. That looks great in your corner, by the way.

When I am doing a lighting plan I like to start with ambient lighting. The best way to distribute light throughout a room is with recessed cans. Unlike a central fixture that concentrates the light in one area, can fixtures illuminate the entire room, even those pesky corners. This makes for less shadows and more evenly lit spaces. 

Ambient Lighting with recessed cans - great room with vaulted ceilings

Recessed lighting isn’t the most decorative thing in the world, though, so if you still like the look of a fancy fixture in the center of the room, guess what… you can do that too! Use that as your accent or mood lighting and the cans become your general lighting. 

I always recommend putting your cans and your center fixture on separate dimming switches.

 This way you can crank them all up when you’re cleaning or reading. Then when you are entertaining you can dim appropriately. As the evening wears on you might even discontinue the recessed and let your decorative fixture set the mood. Fancy timer systems can do the work for you! 

Ambient lighting with cans and center fixture - 2017 Parade of Homes Overbrook great room

Now to delve into the underrated world of task lighting. 

Let’s start in the kitchen where lots of tasks take place. In addition to ambient lighting, I always add under-cabinet lights for prep work and a light over the sink on it’s own switch. Depending on the look of your kitchen this could be a can light or a decorative fixture. 

Task Lighting, kitchen under cabinet lights - 2016 Parade of homes Aerius kitchen

Bathrooms are another workhorse room. Task lighting would be the light in your shower or the lights by the mirror for makeup application and shaving.


Task Lighting, bathroom mirrors - 2015 Parade of Homes Brahmin master bath

Other examples of task lighting would be a lamp on a desk, a swing arm light on a sewing machine, a reading lamp on a side table, etc. Task lighting is a very important element in the functionality of a space and is often overlooked.

Accent lighting is the fun decorative stuff. 

In my living room I added lights to the base of one of my taller house plants which makes really cool shadows on the wall.

Another fun accent would be under-shelf lighting on your built in cabinets, or a spot light on a sculpture or painting. If you have a beautiful stone fireplace consider “wall washing” it with light for some delightful shadowing

Accent Lighting, built in shelves - 2017 Parade of Homes Turtledove great room

In your kitchen think about adding lights inside cabinets with glass doors. In your hallway aim a spot light at your gallery wall. If you have a cove ceiling you can hide rope light in there if you have a soffit to lay it in.


Accent Lighting, glass cabinets - 2015 Parade of Homes Brahmin kitchen

Accent lighting can be a game changer when pulling your decor together and make a real statement. 

Just remember these three layers of lighting when planning your space and you will be amazed by the effect a properly lit room has on you. Just remember to step around the toy dinosaur next time.

Follow Courtney for more Design Tips & Freelance Lighting Projects.

Courtney Cockerham

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About The Author : Courtney Cockerham is a southwest Washington designer with a specialty in lighting design. After receiving a BA in Interior Design from Louisiana State University she worked in southern Louisiana staging furniture showrooms and then had her first job as a lighting designer in 2006. This experience "lit up" her love for the ever changing lighting industry and she thrives on making homes light, bright, and beautiful. In 2010 Courtney packed up her now husband, dog, two cats, and turtle then moved west to Portland, OR.  She is now a happy Vancouver, WA resident with a toddler son keeping her on her toes.

Courtney stays busy doing lighting design for new construction homes and residential renovations. She also commonly stages homes for sale and decorates for private home owners.

All homes built by Cascade West DevelopmentPhotography by ExposioHDRStephen Tamiesie

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