Lighting a brownstone or row house presents a unique challenge. Homeowners must figure out how to illuminate a long, narrow space that usually has no natural light coming from either side. There are seemingly endless lighting options, from recessed lights to ceiling fixtures, wall sconces, and table and floor lamps.
So, before you decide on a lighting plan, consider these tips from designers:
Paint colors, reflected light and fixtures all affect the quality of the lighting, said interior designer Glenn Gissler. And the wrong lighting can throw off the color of the furniture and art work in a room.
“I think of lighting as a multi-armed creature,” Gissler said. “So, for example, if you paint a wall dark, the wall recedes. And if you put something light on top of it, it becomes wider. You can think of artwork on the walls as illumination because it reflects light back into the room.”
In his own Brooklyn Heights brownstone, Gissler painted the walls and ceiling of his bedroom a dark brown as a backdrop for his collection of works on paper. Artwork can also be illuminated by picture lights to create a foreground and a background on the walls, he said.
“The other strategy I feel very strongly about, especially with townhouses, is the use of mirrors, because really what we’re dealing with is the challenge of the narrowness,” Gissler said. “Well-placed mirrors — and not too shy in terms of their scale — can relieve that, and also reflect the light that you have further into the room.”
Gissler steers clear of recessed lighting because it casts unflattering shadows and often illuminates uninteresting parts of a room, he said. Instead, he recommends a combination of hanging fixtures and sconces for ambient light, up-lights to highlight plants or furniture and lamp light to distinguish living areas.
“When it gets into the fixture elements I think that having multiple sources is a key piece of the equation,” Gissler said. “You need ambient light that gives the room a glow and multiple light sources that highlight key areas.”
If there’s a ceiling medallion that is not in an ideal location, Gissler suggests draping a wire from the medallion and placing a modern fixture like a George Nelson pendant over the center of the living or dining area.
“If you have a ceiling medallion, and it’s kind of goopy Victorian, then I would go with something that’s really modern and emphasize the wire,” he said. “Let it sweep and be part of the design statement.”
Mother and daughter interior design team Suzanne and Lauren McGrath, of McGrath2, like to use blush-colored light bulbs to cast a subtle, warm light. In brownstones, they use a wide variety of fixtures of different heights and sizes.
“I would say that we like to be purists without being ridiculous, and so we’re not enthusiasts of recessed lighting, particularly on the parlor floors of these houses because the ceilings are so high,” Suzanne McGrath said. “We often work with a center piece in the center of the room and we supplement that with ambient lighting whenever we can.”
In one current brownstone project, the McGraths are hanging a large metal lantern, the French Chateau Lantern by Vaughan Designs, in the front parlor living room to give off undiffused light on all four sides. The lantern will be supplemented by wall sconces and swing arm lamps flanking a sofa. In addition, there are three table lamps, a standing lamp and sconces around the fireplace, Lauren McGrath said.
“I think using different levels and different heights of ambient lights is really helpful in these darker rooms,” she said.
In kitchens, the McGraths like to scatter small cup-shaped fixtures across the ceiling like the Newbury 6-inch surface mount light with glass drum shade by Schoolhouse Electric.
“You can put them in a grid in the same way you would recessed lighting,” Suzanne McGrath said.
Greg Witzman, of Greg David Interiors, prefers to stick with two to three light sources in each room, such as a combination of lamps, a pendant and recessed lighting.
“I wouldn’t do sconces, a hanging chandelier and many lamps all in one room,” Witzman said. “We’re very conscious of it not looking like a lamp showroom.”
In a long, dark hallway with bedrooms off the side, Witzman recently hung four pendants connected to a dimmer. In another project, he used up-light sconces to highlight the crown and ceiling molding.
In kitchens, Witzman recommends LED strips for under-counter lighting. And he suggests a combination of recessed lighting and lamps to illuminate the garden level of a brownstone.
“I don’t love flush mounts,” he said. “They often give off a very limited amount of light.”
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