When setting up a home office, most people focus on the big purchase items—the desk, chair, and filing system. Lighting often comes as an after thought—and yet, poor lighting can cause eyestrain and headaches, and is definitely not a mood enhancer. Attention, fellow workaholics: considering the high percentage of time we we spend toiling, it make sense to create a setting with optimal lighting. Here's what you need to know:
1. What's the general strategy for lighting a home office?
Lighting a home office is akin to dressing for a climate with changeable weather—it’s all about layering. When you consider the range of activities that go on in work spaces—reading, filing, working at a computer, talking on the phone, holding meetings—you realize that most are focus-intensive tasks that can't be well lit by by one light source alone. Instead, start by illuminating your office with an even and soothing warm, ambient light. It's ideal to place your ambient lights on a dimmer switch, so you have the flexibility to adjust light levels depending on time of day and types of work you're doing. Supplement this central source with task lamps on the desk and other key spots.
Above: The home office of Danish architects Mette and Martin Wienberg is light and bright thanks to a trio of sources: natural light from the window, ambient light in a corner, and, on the desk, a task light, the Tolomeo by Artemide. See the rest of the project in House Call: Clean Meets Cozy in Denmark. Photograph by Mikkel Mortensen.
Above: Overhead spotlights or ceiling-mounted fixtures can often be the cause of annoying glare on your computer screen. If your office has these in place already, you don't necessarily need to turn them on. Instead, create an even ambient light by introducing a light fixture that can bounce the light off the walls and ceilings. Here, a small task lamp supplies broad, diffuse light in a home office. More small workspace solutions can be found in 10 Favorites: The Niche Workspace.
2. What's the role of the task lamp?
Task lights provide a focused light source on specific activities. If a range of activities take place in your office, it’s best to have a dedicated task light for each. Adjustable arms are ideal for accommodating a range of setups. See 10 Easy Pieces: Task Lamps for our picks.
Above: For each of her home work stations, Danish ceramicist Grethe Meyer installed a separate task light. See the rest of her house in Required Reading: Scandinavian Modern. Photograph by Andrew Wood.
3. Why is the placement of the light source important?
Where you place your lights is critical in avoiding glare and shadows. For instance, an overhead spotlight situated behind you can result in glare on your computer screen. To avoid shadows created by task lamps, place the light on the side opposite from the hand you use to write—if it's on the same side, your hand and arm will cast shadows.
Above: A pair of wall mounted Bestlite BL6 Wall Lamps serve as task lamps in a Copenhagen home office designed by Norm.Architects. Diffuse light from an overhead fixture (not visible here) reflects evenly off the white walls. Image via Norm.Architects.
4. What about natural daylight?
Natural light improves the ambience of any room, which, in turn, helps enhance focus and productivity—Julie has noticed that her whole family likes to work in the living room because it's so sunny. In some rooms, however—such as my own home office—at certain times of day, direct sunlight can create an overwhelming glare. You can mitigate this by installing simple translucent blinds. If there’s a window in your home office and you're working at a computer, the best position for the computer is on a desk that's perpendicular to the window. Placing your computer in front of the window can cause stress to your eyes because the brightness from behind may create too much of a contrast.
Above: In her lower Manhattan studio, Briar Winters, owner of online apothecary Marble & Milkweed, enjoys the indirect natural light that comes from placing her desk against the wall perpendicular to the window. For more, see Shopper's Diary, Marble and Milkweed's New York Studio. Photograph by Erin Boyle for Gardenista.
5. How can lighting alleviate the effects of working at a computer all day?
Minimizing glare and contrast is the key to reducing eye strain. Harsh artificial or natural light is what creates the monitor glare that tires our eyes. Having your lights on dimmers and hanging light-diffusing blinds in your windows allows you to modulate light levels throughout the day, depending on the time of day and task at hand. It’s important to note that paperwork activities require a higher light level than computer work, which means that most of us when at our computers ought to consider turning down the ambient and task lighting.
Above: In my own home office, I had no choice but to put the desk in front of the windows. Translucent roller blinds help me control the brightness throughout the day in order to keep contrast and glare to a minimum. See Remodeling 101: Simple Roller Blinds for the lowdown. Photograph by Jonathan Gooch for Remodelista.
Home Office Lighting Recap:
- One overall source of lighting is not enough to accommodate the varied activities of a home office; it's best to layer light sources.
- Use task lamps to illuminate focused work.
- The correct placement of a task light is important to avoid glare and shadows.
- Natural daylight improves the ambience of a room, but at certain times of day can be too bright.
- Being able to adjust light levels throughout the day is ideal for the eyes and promotes productivity.
For more lighting advice, see our Remodeling 101 posts: How to Install Flattering Lighting in the Bathroom, How to Choose an Overhead Light Fixture, and Afterglow—10 Solutions for Romantic Lighting. And if you're looking for outdoor lighting, browse Gardenista's Lighting Posts and Photo Gallery.