Brownstone Boys: Lighting Design 101

The gorgeous kitchen pendants that we pieced together. Definitely on a dimmer! Photo by Stephanie Dian

Editor’s note: Welcome to the 73rd installment of Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary about renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at

Now that we have been living in our renovated house for over six months, a lot of people ask us what we would have done differently. One of the things we immediately say is the lighting design. We didn’t make any huge mistakes (well, except for the guest bedroom light switch ending up behind the door swing!) but there’s a lot of little things about how we live and interact with the space that we didn’t think about…and some that we did and are happy about it daily. Although we could not have lived in the space to understand the patterns of how we would use it, we could have made the lighting design more livable with a bit more forethought.

brownstone boys lighting

Can you spot the mistake?

Placement of Switches
As we mentioned, we messed up. A renovation is a whirlwind of decisions, choices and moving parts. Measurements, colors, sheen, door swings and hardware options all come flying at you quickly. There are even 1,000 shades of white to stare at looking for subtle differences. Something was inevitably going to slip by. For us, it happened in our guest bedroom. Once we put in the door we excitedly opened it for the first time only to find ourselves hopelessly searching a blank wall for a light switch. It was behind the door! Fortunately, it’s a guest room that we don’t use often, and we plan to fix it one day, but for now if you want light in that room you need to close the door to turn it on. We could have caught that if we would have been paying closer attention. Although that was a pretty big mistake, there are many small things that can make a big difference if you only spend a few more minutes with your lighting plan envisioning yourself moving around the place. Should the light switches be on the left or right? Should they be on the outside or inside of the room (obviously inside usually but there are certain circumstances that might call for a light switch outside a room) Should they be grouped together or spread apart? Finally, do you want multiple lights on one switch or do you want greater control over which lights are on and which are off with separate switches? Imagine yourself moving through the space, in and out of each room, and think about what would make it easier.

brownstone boys lighting

Three-way switches near the entry

Three-Way Switches
We decided to put in three-way switches on all of the lights in the stairway area. When we go to bed we can turn lights off downstairs from upstairs and vice versa. There may also be places that you might want a switch for a light on two sides of a room. Our parlor level is pretty open. We put the living area light switch near the front entrance to the room, but now that we realize we spend most of our time in the kitchen it would be nice to be able to control that light from the kitchen area in the back as well.

For us, being able to control the level of light is crucial. Fortunately, it is an easy fix if you want to swap out a light switch for a dimmer switch. Do yourself a favor though and put them in everywhere. We are very happy that we put them where we did (almost everywhere) and occasionally wish we put them where we didn’t.

brownstone boys lighting

The under-cabinet lights are nice in the evening although sometimes we forget we have them

Recessed Lighting
We cannot lie to you. We are not fans of recessed lighting. Maybe it’s because we decided to stake our claim on a piece of Brooklyn history, and recessed lighting, in our opinion, just doesn’t fit in. We love our plaster moldings and original woodwork, and scarring any of it with a ceiling full of potholes and channels just wasn’t what we wanted to do. It’s also not the kind of light we prefer. With that said, they have their place. We have a recessed light (one!) in our beautiful master bath double shower, and we put three recessed lights in our kitchen where we were already replacing the ceiling. We like them, but we could have easily installed some over-cabinet articulating sconces and would have been just as happy, or happier! On the plus side, recessed LED lights are made to be very low profile and thin these days so they are easy to install in places where they can be useful, such as in the cellar, in a closet or in a shower.

Smart Lighting
Many of the concerns about three-way switches, switch placement, dimming and more can be solved with smart lighting. You can connect all of your lights to a hub or an app on your phone through WiFi. You can turn off upstairs lights from downstairs or from anywhere in the world. You can even create schedules and settings that change the lighting around the entire house with a tap (or it just happens automatically.) There are lots of options. You can have a hub with a wired or remote connection. You can also just pop out your switch and put in a new one, then connect through WiFi and an app. Or you can even just change the bulb and connect it through WiFi. It’s easy and affordable. One thing to note that you might want to give some thought to is that some smart lighting switches require a neutral wire. Many old homes with replaced electrical end up without it in places because of the difficulty of running wires in existing walls and not trying to open up too many holes. There are some smart light switches that don’t require it but most do. If you are really into the best of the best smart lighting and don’t want to be restricted in your choices, make sure you run a neutral wire to all switches where you want it.

brownstone boys lighting

We probably use the recessed light in the shower more than any other light in the house

Other Interesting Lighting Ideas
Give a lot of thought to the amount of light you want in your space. Are there places you want more light, less light, or more control over lighting levels? Under-cabinet lights (we have them and never use them), closet lights that turn on when you open the door, and sconces to throw light up or down in interesting ways are options to consider. Also remember kitchens and bathrooms need more light sources. There are a lot of fun ways to customize your lighting design.

brownstone boys lighting

One of our favorite lights is one we have just recently added. It’s a simple plug-in sconce

Finally, once you get the lighting design down, it’s time to choose fixtures. Your lighting design might even depend on the type of fixtures your want. Pendants over the kitchen island, upturned or downturned sconces, multiple-bulb fixtures and chandeliers… Even if you don’t choose the actual fixture while you are doing your lighting design, you will want a general idea of what type you plan to use for each location.

Lighting design is the area we think about the most when we are asked, “what would you have done differently.” Ironically, many of the things we would have done differently would not have cost a penny more, or would have been marginally more expensive. It just requires a bit more thought, time and patience to plan. A renovation will throw a lot of decisions at you, many of which you need to make quickly, but this is an area we strongly recommend taking a bit more time to think about.

[Photos by Brownstone Boys unless noted otherwise]

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