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Good lighting is a bright idea

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Lighting is one of those design details that many people figure will just work itself out when the time comes. I've met folks who blithely go along with their building or renovation projects content in the knowledge that electrical wires are being installed but without a clue as to what will ultimately cover those wires.

Lighting is extremely important and easy to take for granted because it's always just there. We know this from childhood. I remember carrying my toddler out of the nursery, stopping by the light switch and instructing him to "turn it off." It wasn't until college and I began studying photography did I gain the necessary respect for lighting and realize how it affects not only the look of a person or room, but how it can be used for full dramatic effect to create ambience, mood and mystery.

Lighting makes or breaks a photo. A room can have all the elements of perfection, but if the right lighting is not there, it looks flat and dull and photographs even worse.

And it wasn't until I needed glasses that I realized how critical the right lighting is for daily tasks.

Today, kids don't have to wait until college and begin to lose their eyesight to value good lighting design. In the movie, "Clueless," aimed at a younger teen audience, the heroine becomes concerned when she appears to have lost the attention of her boyfriend. In a panic she queries, "What's wrong with me? Did my hair go flat? Did I stumble into some bad lighting?"

My teenage niece quotes this line and I just know she will never leave lighting decisions to the last minute when she's ready to settle down.

If you need to rethink lighting because you're building, renovating or are almost finished with a project and you can't ignore this detail any longer, here are some guidelines to consider.

Use a variety of lighting fixtures in every room. Most rooms in today's homes have task (work-oriented) and ambient (mood) lighting.

High-hats or recessed down-lights installed in a ceiling with a dimmer control are practical for overall room lighting in any room of the house. Some people may consider them too informal for living and dining rooms where a chandelier or hanging pendant may be preferred. However, recessed high-hats are good, basic lighting units that augment the other lighting fixtures in the room.

The other light sources will be dependent on the particular room and task.

— Bedroom lighting: Besides high-hats with dimmers, include a floor or table lamp and bed lights for reading. Swing-arm lamps attached to the wall on either side of the bed are a particular preference; they don't take up valuable space on night tables.

— Bathroom lighting: In the bathroom, glare can be an annoyance, especially when performing delicate grooming tasks. Angle the recessed lighting to bounce light off the walls and ceiling to help reduce glare and shadow.

Install wall-mounted sconces or over-vanity lights beside the mirror.

Be sure and position sconces to shed equal light on both sides of the face, or 3 to 4 feet apart on the wall. Bathroom fixtures should have translucent shades to diffuse light and exposed bulbs should be frosted to cut glare.

Light the shower interior with uniform brightness for safety's sake.

Be sure you've installed dimmers in the bathroom. A relaxing soak in the tub demands it.

— Kitchen lighting: Kitchen lighting is task-oriented. Rather than spacing down-lights evenly over the kitchen ceiling, group them to focus more light on particular task areas. For instance, two or more may be appropriate over the kitchen sink and stovetop while you may not need any over windows, dining or island areas where hanging pendant lights or other fixtures may be installed.

If the space above cabinets will be used for storage or display you may want to install uplights on the tops of cupboards. Under-cabinet fixtures will brighten counter space for task work and also offer soft ambient light when used solo, when entertaining or when the kitchen is officially "off-duty."

— Hanging lights: Decorative and great task facilitators, hanging lights are experiencing a resurgence in popularity and are offered in many retro, nostalgic and whimsical styles.

From a design perspective, pendants offer a vertical visual break from the horizontal lines of counters and cabinets. They provide a focal point to define particular areas of a space, especially in a kitchen where they can be used over work areas, islands and dining spots.

Research your options. If your budget precludes you from hiring a lighting designer, seek the advice of your contractor, decorator or a lighting specialist at a showroom or lighting store. If your fingers now do the walking over Web pages, check out www.americanlightingassoc.com to find great lighting sources in your area. At www.lightinguniverse.com, browse over 7,000 light fixtures, print spec sheets for the ones you like and get advice on the best types of lighting, styles and installation plans for any room of your house.

With your lighting dilemmas solved, you can sit back and bask in the glow, confident that stumbling into bad lighting won't be a problem in your house.

Chris Casson Madden is host of the Home & Garden Television show, "Interiors by Design."