27 January 2008

Lighting and its consequences

I had a meeting this afternoon with a client and one of the ways he wants to save money on his job is to buy cheap lighting. That's an understandable impulse. It's easy to lose control of a budget when you're building a new house, and there are sensible ways to get it back under control. Lighting is a logical place to look when you're trying to squeeze dollars in the final push to complete a project.

There are some things you don't want to cut out though and it's important to follow a lighting plan. Finding less-expensive fixtures is not terribly difficult and with some perseverance and a good eye, no one will ever know you cut some corners. Corners you cannot cut are the three kinds of lighting that every good room needs. Ambient, task and accent are the three primary categories of lighting. Ambient lighting is general illumination like that of can lights or ceiling lights. Task lighting is from pendant lights over a counter or bar or from table lamps. Accent lighting is light that draws attention to art or plants or architecture. Accent is exactly what it sounds like, an accent. Just as relying on a single ceiling light to illuminate a room is a bad idea, so is trying to light a room using nothing but a couple of uplights trained on your houseplants. You cannot have a single light fixture multi-task and do anything other than what it's intended to do. So don't cut the number of lighting fixtures and features, just pick less-expensive parts to do those jobs.

Good lighting is like good anything else. It's expensive and it's usually expensive for a reason. It's innovative, or beautiful, or it's a unique piece of practical art. There are lighting companies out there who specialize in this sort of fixture and charge accordingly. Artemide (http://www.artemide.us/) and Tech (http://www.techlighting.com/) come to mind when I think about this kind of lighting. As a designer, the offerings of these firms and many others like them make my mouth water. When somebody tells me "I want a really gorgeous pendant light." I am going to specify something from Oggetti (http://www.oggettidev.com/intro.html). Oggetti makes what I consider to be gorgeous light fixtures and they start at about $500.

I may be a designer whose eyes are easily drawn to expensive, shiny objects. But I'm also a realist and a notorious cheapskate. I may specify $500 pendant lights all the time, but it will be a cold day in hell when I spend that kind of money on a light fixture for myself.

So what is there to do? Put simply, what there is to do is study the high end of the market and pay attention to what's making those expensive lights unique. Is it the glass in the shade? Is it the patina on the metal accents? Are they really sleek? That sort of thing. Try to home in on specific features about that stuff that you like and then go find a knock off. Lighting snobs like me will be able to spot the fakes from across the room, but no one else will.

There are surprising knock offs of the good stuff that show up in the lighting aisles of Home Depot and Lowe's, but they are few and far between. Most of what's in those aisles is as graceless and poorly-designed as it can get, but every once in a while they hit on something good. I was in a Lowe's this afternoon in fact, and I was struck by the sheer ugliness of most of the lighting department. The two or three acceptable pieces were made acceptable by comparison only. It was a bad selection day at Lowe's. Ugh. A better bet is to dive onto the internet and go see my friends at Faucet.com (http://www.faucet.com/).

Faucet.com's offerings are extensive and priced across a wide range. They also sell some decent stuff there too, so you can find originals and knock offs on the same site.

The lesson? Stay out of home centers and listen to people like me.

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