Whether you are designing a living room from scratch or just rethinking your current living room layout, a well thought-out lighting scheme is going to be key to creating a space that is both stylish and practical. So, check out our guide to nailing your living room lighting, including which type of light sources you need where, right down to which bulbs to choose...
What type of lighting do you need in a living room?
Living rooms look their best at night when lit with layers of light. So, you'll rely on the typical three types of artificial lighting: ambient, task and accent.
Ambient light: This mimics natural daylight and can be created with pendants, lamps and wall lights for soft pools of light and a relaxed atmosphere.
Task light: This is a focused light, whether in the form of bright ceiling downlights, or a desk or reading lamp.
Accent light: Created with spotlights, downlights and uplights, among other styles of lighting, this is especially used to highlight design features such as alcoves or artwork, but can also be created with table lamps to create zoned pools of light, especially in an open plan space.
Plan your lighting around how you use your living room
Before you start designing your lighting scheme, consider the practicalities.
Natural daylight: How much natural daylight does the room get, and when? South-facing rooms tend to be bright all day long – and, in summer, well into the evening – while north-facing living rooms might receive a minimum of daylight from morning to night.
Your room's proportions: Ceiling heights will affect the room's natural light levels, as well as the surfaces you're planning on fitting in the living room – light-coloured walls, flooring and furniture will all bounce light around and lessen the need for artificial lighting.
When you use the room: Consider what time of day the room will be used, and how. You can then begin to plan in and adjust how much ambient light the room needs to be functional and relaxing, and what kind of task lighting would suit your family’s needs. Seating areas, for example, require targeted lighting such as a directional floor light or a pendant light that provides a central overhead source.
Eliminating dark spots: Think about natural dark spots, too. For example, if you’re planning a kitchen extension, the area in the deepest part of the extension, perhaps the living space, will lack natural light, and might need lighting during the day. However, it's worth talking to your architect first about improving light levels with glazing, bi-fold doors and rooflights.
Highlighting features: Once you've got your ambient and task lighting sorted, get creative with accent lighting to show off the features of your room. ‘Accent lighting comes into its own when highlighting structural details and lines,’ says interior designer Ben Rousseau. ‘Consider illuminating inner spaces, such as alcoves and under cabinets, or along architectural details, such as supports and joists, by using the same “temperature” of light for a fun design.’
Check out our living room lighting ideas for more inspiration.
Consider how your lighting will be controlled
With a rough idea of the lighting effects you want to create planned out, you can think about how your lighting will be controlled – and this is where a bigger budget will come into play.
If you are renovating your home from scratch, it is worth talking to a lighting designer early on to include clever control systems in your scheme. ‘The lighting design needs to be finalised before the first fix electrics – around the time you are thinking about plumbing,’ says Sian Parsons, senior lighting designer at John Cullen Lighting. ‘This will ensure the scheme is fully integrated into the joinery and architecture of each room. The more information provided about the furniture layout and decorative scheme, the better the lighting will enhance your home.’
No living room lighting scheme will look its best controlled by one switch – putting your living room lighting on different circuits is a must. Here's what to consider:
How many circuits? An average living room will need three circuits: one for downlights or the central pendant; one for table lamps; and one for wall lights, for example.
How many zones? An open plan kitchen/living/dining space will need more circuits, because you should treat each zone's lighting individually.
Opt for dimmer switches to set the mood – cheaply
If you are designing a living room on a budget, dimmer switches are an inexpensive option and are great for changing the mood of a room.
There are several types: a touch dimmer, controlled by touching the light or switch plate; a switch dimmer, turned on by adjusting a rotating or in-line switch on the lamp or switch plate by hand; and a remote dimmer, usually a wall plate with a remote control-operated touch-sensitive switch. This last type can be programmed to remember your ideal lighting levels.
Dimmers can’t be used with energy-saving bulbs, but the dimming itself will usually save energy. Halogen bulbs can be dimmed but may need a higher wattage dimmer than the total wattage of the light fitting – a qualified electrician can easily deal with this.
Beware if you buy LED lamps for dimming, as you may experience flickering or overheating. This might be a sign that either the lamp isn’t dimmable in the first place, or the dimmer is only capable of dimming lamps from certain manufacturers, so check your bulb is compatible with your switch. For more advice, check out our guide to LED lighting.
Create the best lighting with the right bulbs
Don’t just consider how your fittings look and where to position them – the bulbs you use will have a major impact on the light they produce, too. Here’s what you need to know:
Tungsten bulbs produce a warm, instant light, last about 1,000 hours, get hot when lit and are fully dimmable. They are being phased out in favour of bulbs with greater energy efficiency.
Halogen bulbs give off a bright, instant white light, last about 2,000 hours, become hot when lit and are fully dimmable. They also come in low-voltage capsule types for armed lighting, which may require specialist dimmers.
Energy-saving bulbs, also known as compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL), give off a warm, white light, take around 60 seconds to warm up and last for 8,000 plus hours; they are not generally dimmable, although there are some versions available, which are not recommended for touch lamps.
LED (Light Emitting Diode) bulbs last for more than 20,000 hours, give off a warm, white light, are cool to the touch and are as efficient as energy-saving bulbs. Dimmable versions are available, although they are not recommended for use with touch lamps.
Light colour can impact dramatically on your scheme. LEDs have a colour temperature measured in kelvins (or K) — daylight measures around 6,000-6,500 kelvins; candlelight comes in at around 1,800 kelvins. While you may want your LEDs to give off cool white light above worktops in a kitchen, warm white is much more relaxing for living areas.
'The most versatile colour for kitchen lighting, for example, is 2,700 kelvins, which gives off a slightly warm light that is creamy enough to have on during the day but is still a comfortable warm light for evenings,' says Rebecca Hutchison of John Cullen Lighting. 'For lights within shelving units, you would most likely have these on of an evening for atmosphere and so you’d more than likely select strips with extra warmth and go for 2,400 kelvins.'
Can you install living room lighting yourself?
If you are on a budget, you might be tempted to install your own lighting, but if you are carrying out any electrical work in your home or garden in England and Wales, you will have to conform to building regulations. This means using an installer who is registered with a competent person scheme to seek approval from a Building Control body. You do not need to tell Building Control about repairs, replacements and maintenance work, extra power or lighting points, or other alterations to existing circuits, unless the work is carried out in a kitchen or bathroom.
For more information, go to the Government’s planning portal at planningportal.gov.uk.
Should you invest in a lighting designer?
Coming up with an imaginative, effective lighting scheme may be beyond your skills and isn’t generally within the remit of most jobbing electricians, in which case, you might like to use a lighting designer.
John Cullen Lighting offers a one-room design service for £150. ‘Using a lighting designer ensures you have the best possible lighting solution for all uses of your space, taking you from day to night,’ explains Sian Parsons, senior designer at John Cullen Lighting. ‘It also offers you the opportunity to enhance your interior decorative scheme while creating mood and atmosphere.
‘As a guide, for a kitchen/dining/living space, you should expect to pay around £400 to £450 for the lighting design service. This would give you a showroom meeting, production of computer-aided design (CAD) or hand-drawn plans, specification, installation guides, a certificate of energy efficiency, in addition to mood board images matching the lighting options suggested for your scheme.’