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Purists would argue that lighting a period house is a simple affair: just collect an assortment of chandeliers, lamps, pendants, or sconces (vintage, reproduction, or mixed) that match those the original owners would have used, and voilà.

That is one approach. Another is to include new forms of unobtrusive or hidden lighting to support and enhance traditional fixtures that can’t cover all the bases we expect nowadays. That way, your period chandeliers and art-glass table lamps can play a starring role without your sacrificing general illumination or task-specific lighting.

A decorative sconce is supplemented by directed spots and a ceiling fixtures in a bathroom where the lighting is flexible. Chris Considine.

A decorative sconce is supplemented by directed spots and a ceiling fixture in a bathroom where the lighting is flexible.

Begin by mixing more than one source of light in every room. Think of this as a layering of sorts: lighting for different purposes, from changing light levels over the course of the day, to (corny as it sounds) mood lighting. For example, for morning work in a room with low levels of natural light, you’ll need bright illumination and task lighting. 

You’ll also need to control light levels. One of the most effective ways to do this is with dimmers. If the bulb is a standard incandescent, installing a dimmer is as simple as changing out the wall switch. The dimmer should be easy to adjust with the touch of a finger. Standard dimmers include dials and toggles to turn light levels up or down, and a switch to turn the light off completely.

Make sure that the dimmer is sized to handle the load for the wattage it will control, advises Stan Pomeranz of Light Tech, a lighting design firm in Pittsboro, N.C. There’s a big difference between a dimmer meant for a 60-watt incandescent bulb and one meant for a 500-watt halogen.

Place task lighting with care, especially in rooms with surfaces that tend to be shiny, like kitchens and bathrooms. It may seem obvious, but a task light should help you see what you’re doing, whether it’s shaving in the bathroom, or chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Keep in mind that task-light levels can be relative: according to Pomeranz, a 60-year-old needs ten times as much light as a 20-year-old to perform a task with the same speed and accuracy.

If you want a row of down lights or pendants for task lighting over a kitchen counter, for instance, use a wattage that’s strong enough to do the job, but not so strong that it is overpowering. Your goal is to create soft, bright pools of illumination that overlap on the work surface, without creating shadows or glare.

A clean brass up-light for illuminating a painting is shielded and unobtrusive. (Courtesy Wolfers Lighting in Massachusestts.)

A clean brass up-light for illuminating a painting is shielded and unobtrusive. (Courtesy Wolfers Lighting in Massachusestts.)

That goes double for the bathroom, where surfaces tend to be reflective and natural light is often absent. Take particular care around the mirror: task lighting here should light up your face without throwing shadows, creating glare, or turning your skin green. That’s why side lights like sconces and tube lights with incandescent bulbs have been popular for so long in bathrooms. While recessed lights can illuminate a counter, a better choice for general lighting is a fixture that diffuses the light before it hits any of the shiny surfaces in the room, such as a flush-mount or hanging bowl with a glass shade.

Recessed lights excel as focal point and accent lighting. Unlike a Dirk Van Erp lamp, however, the fixture itself isn’t the star of the show. Whether you want to create a dramatic wash of light on a single wall or to pinpoint light on a painting, the source should be as unobtrusive as possible. Even if you’d never put recessed lighting in a ceiling, you can always install small puck lights inside display cabinets. Such spotlighting shining down through glass shelves is ideal for highlighting Arts & Crafts pottery and copper.

A list of period lighting companies →

Hard-to-find lighting accessories:

Aamsco (800) 221-9092, Reproduction Edison light bulbs, luminaires for medicine chests, other specialty bulbs
Architectural Products by Outwater (800) 835-4400, Picture lighting, light kits, dimmers
Classic Accents (800) 245-7742, Reproduction push-button light switches and dimmers
House of Antique Hardware (888) 223-2545, Push-button light switches, plates, Edison light bulbs
Rejuvenation (888) 401-1900, Period-authentic lighting and accessories, including Edison and flicker bulbs, and push button switches and dimmers
Sundial Wire (413) 582-6909, Cloth-covered electrical wire that replicates vintage electrical wire

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