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How to Light a Living Room

Designer Nicole Hollis shares her tricks of the trade

If there were one word to describe the work of San Francisco interior designer Nicole Hollis, it would be drama. Her projects emphasize negative space, and she often anchors this with daring, glamorous lighting. For Hollis, the living room deserves the most attention, since it makes the biggest statement. Yet “more is not always better,” she says. Here, she explains why a restrained approach can be stunning and how a fixture can fill the need for furniture.

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YLighting: The living room is such a focal point of a home. How do you develop an overall lighting plan for it?

Nicole Hollis: It’s important to have three levels of lighting: High, especially if the ceiling is vaulted or has a special material like wood or plaster; medium, which includes wall sconces; and low, which means floor lamps and other small lights. But remember, living rooms don't need much lighting.

I like to up-light the ceiling with a continuous LED lighting strip to create an overall glow that can act as mood lighting. For directional lighting I prefer recessed lights such as WAC’s LED212E to light table surfaces, fireplaces, and art. In the mid-level range, I love wall sconces, since they add a "jewelry effect" to the room and are a chance to introduce another material such as metal, glass, or fabric. I also like wall-mounted art lights in bronze or brass for sparkle. Two favorites are Roll & Hill’s Odds & Ends Teardrop Wall Light and Castor’s Deadstock Jib Light.

Castor's Deadstock Jib Light
Castor’s Deadstock Jib Light

YL: What is one of the biggest mistakes that people make when lighting a living room?

NH: Over-lighting. Nothing is worse than seeing a ceiling with a million holes in it; and too many recessed lights kill a space. It’s better to light specifically and rely more on one central pendant or chandelier and a few sconces. A chandelier in the middle of a room makes a big statement. It’s like wearing a fabulous piece of jewelry with a simple black dress. Typically I start with a jaw-dropping fixture like the Atlantis Suspension Light in Black Nickel and design the room around it. And dimmers are always recommended.

YL: What do you need to keep in mind about the scale of the lighting choices?

NH: I prefer to choose fixtures that are over-scaled for the room. The bold size makes a statement in itself—and a fixture that is too small for the room looks wrong. I love anything by Ingo Maurer. He is my go-to-guy, especially his Floatation Suspension Lamp; it has a nice glow through the paper.

Agnes Sconce
Agnes Sconce

Ideas + Solutions: How to light a living room

YL: How about positioning of fixtures?

NH: This is key. You don't want recessed light throwing light on the top of someone’s head. Light the coffee table instead—not the sofas and chairs. Sconces should be in places that will not be in the way of traffic through the room. I use the Agnes Sconce to flank the fireplace mantel or on walls where there is plenty of room to navigate around them.

YL: Should lighting trace the shape of a room or anchor the room?

NH: Both. Trace a room’s perimeter by using sconces or fixtures, such as the Clothes Hanger Lamp or a continuous light strip such as the Straight Edge Light Strip where the ceiling meets the wall. If you wanted to anchor the room with a central element, my favorite pendant is Piet Boon’s Round Boon.

YL: How much does the size of the space determine the lighting choices?

NH: I like to keep the amount of fixtures to a minimum so I would recommend a large chandelier such as the Paper Chandelier L for a small room paired with a few table or floor lamps like the Colibri Reading Floor Lamp and the Bedside Gun Table Lamp for task lighting.

YL: How would you use modern lighting in a traditional space?

NH: I love mix of traditional and modern; that’s where the real alchemy takes place. The Rudi Single Loop Pendant would be a perfect fixture for this sort of setting.

Piet Boon's Round Boon
Piet Boon's Round Boon

YL: Any final tricks of the trade?

NH: It is important to mock-up lighting fixtures for scale and proportion. We typically print a full-scale photo of the fixture and hold it up in the space to see if the scale is appropriate. But ultimately, there is no perfect way—it's all experimentation and prototyping.

-Heidi Mitchell


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