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INTERIORS : Delights Fantastic and Other Ideas Both Bright and Dim

February 13, 1993|SHARON COHOON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When the curtain rises on a play we've never seen, we can sense what kind of evening lies ahead before the actors utter a solitary line. Consciously or not, we pick up cues from the stage lighting, says Gary White of Kitchen Design in Newport Beach.

Light, says the former theatrical designer, is the single most important factor in setting mood, whether the scene be in the theater or in the home.

Consider these scenarios:

It's 5 a.m. Monday, and you're staring into the bathroom mirror. The single recessed light overhead makes the bags under your eyes look like suitcases--and not overnighters. Shadows obscure your vision no matter which way you tilt your chin. An ominous beginning to the work week.

It's 7 the same evening. Work ran behind. So did traffic. Now you're trying to throw together a quick meal while your hungry family tracks your every move. The bluish light and persistent buzz from the antiquated fluorescent panel overhead aren't helping your headache. Nor is it providing enough light to see into the back of the shelves you're pillaging. You give up and order a pizza.

Each of these scenes is made more grim because it is illuminated by a single light source, says lighting consultant David Hertzberg of Allied Lighting in Costa Mesa.

While good lighting won't make up for a lack of sleep or being stuck in traffic, it can help you see the situation in a new light.

The bathroom scene could be improved by installing recessed lights in the ceiling on either side of the mirror instead of relying on the single fixture directly above it--the standard for illuminating bathrooms in older homes for generations, Hertzberg said.

Next, he says, add a pair of wall sconces on either side of the mirror at eye level. Voila, no shadows.

Once general illumination has been provided, Hertzberg says, lend a little glamour to grooming with some accent lights: a low-voltage halogen fixture spotlighting the corner Jacuzzi, for instance. Or strip lighting behind a skylight to glow through it when the sun doesn't. Or, for an attractive lunar luminescence, fiber optics woven into the grouting in a glass block shower enclosure.

Hertzberg calls providing multiple light sources "light layering." White prefers the term "painting with light." But both are in solid agreement about the importance of having enough lighting sources at your disposal so that you can easily change the ambience of a room to suit your mood. It's what distinguishes modern lighting from traditional, they say.

"It's the difference between looking at a Marvel comic book and watching 'Aladdin' on a wide screen," White says.

In the painting-with-light metaphor, general illumination is the base coat of paint.

Take the kitchen scenario. There's no reason a fluorescent panel couldn't continue to provide the major source of illumination in this situation, Hertzberg says. In fact, state energy savings requirements in commercial and residential construction virtually mandate it.

However, replacing the original icy-toned fluorescent tubes with a color-balanced daylight shade would immediately make the room cheerier. (Tones even warmer than incandescent lighting are also available.)

Contemporary fluorescent fixtures have virtually eliminated noise and stroboscopic flickering. Many are now dimmable, too.

The next light layer, or second coat if you prefer, should be task lighting, Hertzberg says.

He demonstrates by turning on recessed tungsten-halogen lights over counters and two pendant lamps over an island in a kitchen scene at Allied Lighting.

Between these two light layers there is enough illumination to comfortably perform any chore. But Hertzberg doesn't stop there. The third layer--the icing on the cake--is strips of low-voltage halogen mini-lights installed both above and below the upper kitchen cabinets and also along the toe kick near the floor.

With the rest of the kitchen lights on, the third layer's function is primarily decorative. It accents the contours of the cabinetry and psychologically pushes out the space by lighting up corners and making the ceiling seem higher. A touch of theater, if you will.

Leave these lights on and turn overhead lights off, though--when the cast moves on to the dining room, for instance--and the third layer provides enough general illumination for refilling serving dishes. The toe kick lights provide enough light for midnight refrigerator raids.

Pick a few "scenes" you like, Hertzberg suggests, and lock them in with an integrated dimming system, allowing you to recall each combination of preset lights with a single button, just like pre-selected stations on a radio.

Low-voltage tungsten-halogen bulbs--tiny but powerful--have revolutionized interior decorating by providing nearly invisible light sources, Hertzberg adds. The strips of mini-lights in the kitchen of Allied's lighting lab are one example. Multifaceted reflectors, such as MR-16s, are another.

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