Get a Grip, on Design -- Design and Decorating Tips from Toll Brothers

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Flesh, Bones and Smurfs: Choosing Interior Lighting by Tim Gehman -- An overview of 5 types of lighting for designing and decorating your home from Tim Gehman of Toll Brothers.

“I don’t know. I’m not a decorator; I’m a designer.” This mantra was repeated seven times in the last hour to a friend who was trying to select the perfect light fixtures for her new luxury home. The distinctions are numerous and often subtle, but suffice it to say -- design: bones, decorating: flesh.

“Well you at least have an opinion, don’t you?” was her final attempt to win approval. The answer was, “of course, name one time when I don’t,” but since, like all decorating opinions, its validity would have extended only as far as it agreed with the values of the asker, this designer’s opinion remained private.

Like an aspiring socialite who’s lamenting that she can’t go strapless at the cotillion because of a fading Papa Smurf shoulder tattoo, remorse is born from shortsighted choices. For homeowners foolish choices often come from selecting the immediacy of appearance over the cognition of use; decorating over design. This is never truer than when considering lighting.

Which lamp is the better choice a Baumhauer or a Biedermeier? The foolish answer is that it depends on which matches the couch, a matter of flesh. The wise answer is that it depends on numerous factors having to do with a complex balance of lamp performance and ergonomics, the bones of lighting. Once style is set aside, good lighting design begins where all good home design begins, utility -- for what purpose will a space be used and what’s the appropriate quantity and quality of lighting to satisfy that purpose.

There are five primary types of lighting that homes utilize: recessed, wall-mounted, pendant, ceiling-mounted, and track. Each has its primary and secondary uses, and a space may require one or all of these types in order to perform a specific task or set a desired mood.

Recessed — Also referred to as down lights, cans, or eyeballs, these consist of two parts, the recessed housing (installed prior to the drywall) and the trim (the part that is visible in a finished home). These are standard fare for new construction, primarily because they’re an easy way of supplying the minimum amount of light required by many codes without getting into issues of style since the standard trim is white and flush with the ceiling. But don’t underestimate this category; although providing ambient light is what recessed lights do best, in work areas like kitchens and baths they can provide excellent task lighting for counters and islands.

One drawback to this type is that since the light is downcast, it leaves the ceiling as a black hole. Keep in mind that the housings are installed early in the construction process and should be laid out prior to the start of construction, and homeowners without the following hobbies: Photometrics, Isolux Diagrams, and Illuminance Calculations should consult a lighting specialist in order to determine the correct quantity and spacing of fixtures that may be necessary.

Wall-Mounted — The primary type in this category is sconces (wall-hung pieces that resemble illuminated brackets). They’re designed to reflect light off of walls, ceilings, or both. Because their primary function is setting mood, they’re nearly always linked to a dimmer switch, however, when fully lit in small spaces, they provide adequate indirect lighting that’s preferable to the direct lighting of cans. Because these are decorative, there is a dizzying array of choices, but regardless of taste, attention should be paid to each style’s cutoff angle; it determines the spread of the beam and figures into shielding the viewer from direct rays.

Pendant — A light that freely dangles from its housing by any medium: chain, chord, rope, taffy — these are almost always purely decorative and are available in styles ranging from minimalist to ostentatious. Primary uses are in dining rooms, in two-story entry halls, and above breakfast bars. A current trend showing up in model homes and style magazines is to have chandeliers dangling from every ceiling in the house including the bathroom. Don’t try this one at home without a net; it’s a short slippery path from oohs and aahs to headshakes and giggles.

Ceiling Mounted — Houses built prior to 1985 have one of these in the center of nearly every room. Like that cantankerous uncle who just can’t help but speak his mind in every situation, these lack subtlety and make people uncomfortable. They supply ample light but offer nothing to mood. In today’s houses they’re best left to service spaces and only then if little time is spent there. For instance, if a laundry consists of only a washer and dryer, it’s a valid choice, but laundries that also include tubs, folding tables and/or ironing boards require adjustable task lighting that doesn’t bring to mind that night spent in the local lockup on spring break.

Track — Because these are surface-mounted, they’re still the best option when remodeling. Use them to highlight art, family photos, or a beloved macramé plant hanger. Better still, redirect the beam at the ceiling for adjustable indirect lighting and sell that macramé thing. Don’t worry somewhere another sisal loving buyer awaits. They should be easy to spot. Just look for the smurf tattoo.    

Tim Gehman is the Assistant Director of Design for Toll Brothers, Inc. and holds a bachelor of architecture degree from Boston Architectural College.

Toll Brothers is a luxury home builder with a diverse array of distinctive new home communities in the most dynamic locations throughout the country. Please visit for more information.

Kira McCarron
Chief Marketing Officer


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Kira McCarron