It’s safe to say our culture appreciates good lighting. From ubiquitous bright-white interiors of Scandinavian persuasion to selfie lights and LED everything, we’re acutely aware of how good lighting impacts a photo, a room, and even our reflection. But there’s a scientific reason our brains appreciate a sun-drenched interior that has nothing to do with aesthetics. Studies show that exposure to natural light during the daytime hours aligns with our bodies’ internal clock and therefore boosts productivity, enhances mood, improves sleep quality, and elevates vitamin D levels. Along with trees, leaves, and fresh air, sunlight could be considered nature’s antidepressant.
Those who had to shelter in place in a poorly lit apartment can probably speak to the opposite side of the coin. A lack of light exposure during the day can confuse our internal clocks and lead to increased cortisol and dampened melatonin, resulting in symptoms of anxiety and depression. The need for vitamin D supplements, the “winter blues,” and poor sleep could all be considered byproducts of a lack of sunlight in your home or day-to-day life.
It’s no surprise, then, that creating, enhancing, and mimicking natural light is a primary goal of intentional interior design. “Good natural light is a crucial element of a well-designed space,” says New York-based interior designer Delia Kenza. Barry Bordelon, one-half of design duo The Brownstone Boys, adds that “natural light helps any space look warmer, larger, and more vibrant — imagine a tiny home office without a beautiful window!”
Interior designer and HGTV mainstay Breegan Jane even designs certain spaces entirely around lighting. “Lighting is a huge part of my design process on every level,” she shares. “My plan for a home is often built around the natural light, ambient light, and artificial light at play in a space.”
There’s even an emerging design practice devoted to complementing and magnifying our internal clocks, known as “circadian lighting.” Using natural rays and bright LED light during the day and dim, moody lighting at night, interior designers and architects can actually promote deeper sleep, sunnier moods, and enhanced focus. It’s essentially a form of biohacking with roots in design.
“The goal of circadian lighting is to provide sufficient light signals to the brain to help reinforce the natural light-dark signals we would receive from the sun if we spent more of our time outdoors,” explains the Bios Biological Light Institute. “A simple mantra to help capture the goal of circadian lighting is, ‘brighter days and darker nights.’”
Fortunately, circadian lighting is a relatively easy DIY design. Ahead, find Kenza, Jane, and The Brownstone Boys’ tips for designing a well-lit home, plus how to prep your body and space for a restful night’s sleep.
Creating And Enhancing Natural Light In Your Home
Between the pandemic, dark apartments, and desk-bound nine-to-fives, getting enough sun exposure during the day is often where the challenge lies. But according to the designers, there are countless creative and budget-conscious ways to enhance the natural light in your space.
Add, Replace, Or Enhance Windows And Doors
First, the obvious: “If there’s an opportunity to add, enlarge, or replace windows to add more natural light, you should take it,” says Jordan Slocum, the other half of The Brownstone Boys. “Even removing cumbersome trim or shutters that obstruct light can make a huge difference.” If installing a brand-new window isn’t an option, consider enlarging or extending an existing frame or even switching up the style — sleek designs like single-casement windows allow for more unobstructed natural light.
You can also apply that philosophy to interior doors and archways. “Installing interior doors with glass details can help move light around a space,” adds Bordelon, referencing their guest bathroom. If demo is an option, consider widening or adding open archways between shared spaces. “Architecturally, it’s ideal to have a clear view from the front of the house to the back — it allows light to flood in from all directions.”
Install A Skylight Or Sun Tunnel
When additional windows aren’t an option, Jane recommends turning your gaze upward. “I love using angled skylights for maximum light exposure,” she shares. “The installation process can be costly, but having beautiful sunlight shining throughout the home is worth it.” If your apartment isn’t on the top floor, Slocum suggests a sun tunnel. “It's essentially a long tube that connects a skylight on the roof to the ceiling on the next level for an effective pop of natural light.”
Simplify Your Window Treatments
In addition to removing bulky trim and shutters, you can also simplify your window treatments to enhance sunlight. “White floor-to-ceiling curtains hung high and wide will expand your focal point and make the windows appear larger,” explains Jane. While you can nix blinds altogether to maximize light, Kenza recommends a lightweight, semi-sheer blind or roman shade to enhance sunlight while allowing you to control the brightness. “It’s important to be able to block sunlight as desired to create mood lighting, especially as dusk approaches.”
As far as what not to do, thick blackout curtains and opaque blinds are designed to have the exact opposite effect on a room. Slat-style blinds featuring wood and plastic are effective but clunky, especially when drawn — go for a lightweight, low-profile material like linen or sheer honeycomb to create bright, minimal window treatments.
Orient Your Furniture Around The Best Light
“I always advise my clients to study the light in their homes before making decisions on furniture placement and layout,” says Jane. “For example, you may want to add a cozy chair and side table to a small nook after finding the best sunrise view.”
Bordelon and Slocum echo that sentiment, adding that a compass may come in handy. “South-facing windows enjoy the most sunlight, while north-facing windows get the least,” explains Slocum. “Remembering these distinctions will help you position furniture to take advantage of better natural light.” They suggest framing a beautiful south-facing window with comfortable seating and low-slung tables so you and your guests can enjoy the best light in your home. Consider making the window your focal point, instead of a TV or fireplace.
As for the furniture itself, The Brownstone Boys are mindful of height when decorating near windows. Measure the distance between the bottom of your window and the floor before shopping, and consider a low-slung couch, table, or daybed underneath. They also suggest avoiding dark, bulky furniture in small or poorly lit spaces as it can detract from the light source.
Trim Trees And Landscaping Around Windows
“Note the location of trees, bushes, and other landscaping that might obstruct natural light in your home,” suggests Bordelon. Trimming overgrown bushes in front of a bay window or shelling out more money to remove a large tree in your front yard can completely change the natural lighting in your home. (Renters, consider speaking to your landlords about these types of changes as they are low-lift requests that are not always difficult to execute.)
Refine Your Color Palette
If you’re dealing with a north-facing space or a darker apartment, crisp white paint is your best defense. “A neutral color scheme can do wonders for a space,” says Slocum. “Just look at Scandinavian design — they’re pros at dealing with very little natural light. White walls, natural materials, and light wood tones can make a space feel bright and airy.”
Kenza adds that light pink or golden tones can have a similar effect. “Instead of only drawing inspiration from bright daytime light, consider channeling candlelight or golden hour in your space,” she suggests. “Glowy tones like pinks and yellows look beautiful at sunset and enhance light in a different way.” (She specifically recommends Calamine by Farrow & Ball.)
Enhance And Reflect Natural Light With Your Decor
Mirrors are the oldest trick in the book when it comes to creating the impression of a larger, brighter space. “They bounce light around a room and almost act as an additional window,” says Slocum. To maximize this effect, place a large mirror opposite a window so the inbound sunlight reflects, creating the illusion of more natural light. Floor mirrors are particularly effective, but any wall mirror will help.
Kenza also recommends reflective touches like lacquered furniture and mixed metals to further amplify light. “Brass is popular, but unexpected finishes like polished stainless steel and chrome can also help bounce light around a room.” Metallic bar carts, barware, wall hangings, paperweights, planters, and accent tables are all great options.
Prepping Your Mind, Body, And Home For Sleep
Getting enough sun exposure is a collective modern-day challenge, but dimming the lights post-sunset is an equally important part of circadian lighting. On a personal level, you should change electronics to night mode and limit exposure to blue light past dusk to prepare your body and mind for sleep.
Your home should also switch into wind-down mode. “Dimmers on artificial and overhead lights are a game changer — this eliminates harsh lighting throughout the home post-sunset,” notes Kenza. She also recommends gold-tipped light bulbs and vintage-inspired Edison bulbs for a more golden hour-inspired glow. “You can even throw it back to the 1970s and drape sheer scarves over lamps and light fixtures post-dusk to soften the mood — just don’t forget to remove them before bed!” she adds.
Smart home technology has also jumped on the circadian lighting train. Innovations like smart sleep lights, sunrise alarms, and luna lamps all allow us to edit the light around us post-sundown. These innovative technologies can help you pull off circadian lighting in your home to improve sleep quality, productivity, and mental health.
Pre-2020, we were able to ignore the design flaws in our living spaces and simply leave our homes when we wanted a change of scenery. But lockdown served as a reminder that optimizing our homes for comfort, safety, and happiness — including the lighting — is always a worthy pursuit. Even something as simple as hanging a mirror or giving your four walls a fresh coat of paint is an act of self-care, and we’re taking those lessons with us into 2021 and beyond.