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Expert Advice: 5 Things to Know About Recessed Lighting from Architect Oliver Freundlich

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Expert Advice: 5 Things to Know About Recessed Lighting from Architect Oliver Freundlich

August 10, 2018

No matter how well-designed your home, bad lighting can really kill the mood. Recessed lights are an option that when used strategically can remedy that—but they can also turn your ceiling into Swiss cheese and shroud your quarters in a dull light. A while back, Remodelista reader John Gibson wrote asking us to elucidate this “useful but often so badly applied tool.” One of our favorite designers, New York architect Oliver Freundlich, told us he is known in his office as the Lighting Dictator and would be happy to guide us. Here’s what he had to say.

Recessed lighting goes a long way in a tiny apartment: See Living Large in 675 Square Feet, Brooklyn Edition. Photograph by Matthew Williams.
Above: Recessed lighting goes a long way in a tiny apartment: See Living Large in 675 Square Feet, Brooklyn Edition. Photograph by Matthew Williams.

The goal for recessed lighting is to add not only visibility but also interest and ambiance to your environment. Toward that end, layering your lighting is critical: Combine recessed lights with a variety of other types (such as decorative pendants, table lamps, sconces, and candles) to make rooms feel balanced and inviting. This applies to modern spaces, where recessed lighting is most often used, and to traditional settings, such as old townhouses, where strategically placed recessed lights can work wonders.

How to begin? Here are my crucial recessed lighting tips gathered from my collaborations with masterful lighting designer Marianne Maloney of Filament 33 and from years of experimenting.

 Above: An Adjustable Downlight by Iris and a Jielde sconce illuminate the entry of a Cobble Hill duplex that Freundlich designed for a young couple. See The Ultimate Starter Apartment. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.
Above: Above: An Adjustable Downlight by Iris and a Jielde sconce illuminate the entry of a Cobble Hill duplex that Freundlich designed for a young couple. See The Ultimate Starter Apartment. Photograph by Matthew Williams for Remodelista.

1. Wash the wall, not the floor, with light.

Recessed lighting comes in various configurations. A wall washer is a fixture that is typically placed 18 to 24 inches from the wall (depending on your ceiling height) and used in a series to spread light on a large surface. When light is bounced off a vertical surface into a room, it creates a great sense of illumination: You notice the wall rather than the fixture itself.

In artist Chuck Close&#8
Above: In artist Chuck Close’s kitchen in Long Beach, New York, recessed lights—three-inch-square LED Wall Washers with flangeless trim from Element—illuminate a drawing. The project was one of the first Freundlich undertook when he opened his own firm. Photograph by Oliver Freundlich.

2. Spotlight art and objects.

Instead of blanketing a space with an even grid of lighting, introduce a spotlight (or a few) to orient the eye. Unlike wall washers, spotlights, with their narrow beams, draw your attention to a specific moment within a room. For example, installing spotlights in a bathroom over a porcelain sink and bathtub makes the fixtures sparkle and pop.

Do try this at home—in Freundlich&#8
Above: Do try this at home—in Freundlich’s own newly remodeled Brooklyn bathroom, he used USAI Square Bevel Trimless recessed lights over the tub and sink. Photograph by Oliver Freundlich.

3. Choose the right trim style.

We all know that beauty is in the details. Recessed lighting comes with many different trim options and apertures, and choosing the right ones can make even the most unobtrusive ceiling lights feel considered and refined. High-end fixtures are offered in metal finishes that look great in wood ceilings. For more minimal applications, you can install flangeless fixtures that are plastered into the ceiling to look seamless: All you see is an origami-like cutout in the ceiling plane.

From recessed lighting leaders No. 8 Lighting, LED Recessed Ceiling Lights in two flush circular trims in white and in satin brass.
Above: From recessed lighting leaders No. 8 Lighting, LED Recessed Ceiling Lights in two flush circular trims in white and in satin brass.
No. 8 Lighting&#8
Above: No. 8 Lighting’s LED Ceiling Lights in two square options in satin nickel and oil-rubbed bronze.

4. Test the bulb color (and aim for warmth).

Not all light bulbs are created equal. I still prefer the warm glow of incandescent and halogen lighting. There are now a lot of excellent recessed LED manufacturers, but it’s still important to test the color quality of their LEDs before committing. For residential applications, I recommend using the warmest LED available (typically +/- 2700k). This gets close to the quality of halogen lighting, though it’s not exactly the same. Be warned that some of the more affordable LED lights have very little consistency in color quality, and you can actually see different shades of light from one fixture to the next.

5. Use dimmers throughout your house.

If you take no other piece of advice from me, you must install a dimmer on (nearly) every fixture in your home. Being able to adjust the intensity of lighting (especially overhead) based on the mood you want to create is paramount. This is not just important for your entertaining areas. I recommend using dimmers for all bathroom fixtures (think of relaxing in the tub), under-cabinet lighting, and even in walk-in closets. An added benefit of using dimmers is that when a bulb is dimmed even just 10 percent, you extend the life of the bulb. Note: LED lights usually require special electronic low-voltage (ELV) dimmers rather than typical magnetic low-voltage. Check to see what type of transformer is inside your recessed fixture before selecting the dimmer control.

A Maine Modern House by Bruce Norelius features subtle recessed ceiling lights specified by lighting designer Peter Knuppel. Photograph by Sandy Agrafiotis.
Above: A Maine Modern House by Bruce Norelius features subtle recessed ceiling lights specified by lighting designer Peter Knuppel. Photograph by Sandy Agrafiotis.

Plus, Four Recommended Lighting Brands:

  • No. 8 Lighting: The holy grail of high-end recessed lighting. Check out the trims.
  • Element: The LED fixtures by Tech Lighting have very nice color quality and are comparable to the cost of a good-quality halogen recessed light.
  • USAI Lighting: Similar to Element in offerings and price point, USAI has beautiful flangeless trim options for both halogen and LED lighting.
  • Halo: A less expensive brand available at major suppliers, including Home Depot. Nowhere near the trim options available from the above manufacturers (the apertures are five inches, rather than as small as three), but the light quality is good and you can’t beat the prices.

See more of Freundlich’s work at Oliver Freundlich Design.

For lighting advice, choose your territory:

N.B.: This post is an update; the original story ran on January 29, 2016.

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