How to Virtually Enlarge Spaces Using Good Lighting

One of the most essential aspects of interior design is lighting – an element that can make or break an interior space of any size or material. Yet good lighting can be especially important for smaller or more crowded spaces, making them feel larger and more open even when their literal dimensions haven’t changed. In turn, larger spaces with poor lighting may feel smaller and less welcoming than they have the potential to be. To make interiors feel aptly large and well lit, designers can rely on several tried and true methods that make the most of a space, from using the right shades and types of lights to placing them in the best locations to integrating other elements that best complement existing lighting. These strategies, as well as several examples of their application, are listed below.

Use Multiple Light Sources

Many residential interiors fall into the trap of lighting a room with a single, centered ceiling light. This type of lighting creates corner shadows and lights the room unevenly, making it feel smaller and potentially even straining the eyes. Instead of using a single ceiling light, designers should employ multiple light sources distributed throughout the room. The function, size, and design of the room will call for different light locations and intensities, but designers can follow several generalized rules when placing their multiple light sources:

© Yasuhiro Nakayama
© Adria Goula
© Yasuhiro Nakayama

Place Lights in Corners

Generally, darkness makes a space feel smaller, while lightness makes it feel larger. When corners are shrouded in shadows, the room appears to contract. Lights in corners, whether they are ceiling lights or strategically placed lamps, will make sure the entire floor area of the room is illuminated, making it appear at least as large as it actually is.

© Brandon Shigeta
© Elsa Young
© Elsa Young

Implement Layered Lighting

Corner lighting and other ceiling lights will typically fall into the category of “general lighting.” However, designers should typically employ three different kinds of light: general lighting, specific lighting, and ambient lighting. General lighting keeps the room generally well lit, while specific lighting allows users to see better at specific points of interest such as desks or countertops. In turn, ambient lighting fulfills a more decorative function. Layering lighting in this way ensures that all three of these needs are met. Thus, when distributing light sources around a room, designers should consider all three of these ‘layers.’ Examples of specific lighting include under cabinet lighting in kitchens or vanity lights in bathrooms. Ambient lights could be candles, recessed lights, or decorative lamps or statement pieces.

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© Hongyue Wang
Courtesy of Limu Design Studio
Courtesy of Limu Design Studio

Add Recessed Lights

Recessed lights are of particular significance because they make a space larger. Defined as lights installed directly inside a ceiling, wall, or other surface, they add extra light without taking up extra space. These fixtures are particularly useful for rooms with low ceilings, as hanging lights or non-recessed ceiling fixtures can make a vertically condensed space feel even smaller. By recessing the lights, designers increase the amount of open space, which can make a big difference in a small room.

© Christopher Rollett
© Ruy Teixeira

Wash Walls with Light

Washing walls means directing light toward a room’s walls, which virtually expands the space by lightening its boundaries. It can also be used to direct the gaze toward certain positive design aspects, such as artwork or other architectural features. Recessed lighting is one way to wash walls, making it a doubly effective strategy. Another way is to install track lighting, which can be manually directed toward walls.

© Brandon Shigeta
Dengshikou Hutong Residence / B.l.U.E. Architecture Studio. Image © Ruijing Photo
© Kim Jae-Kyeong
© Benjamin Benschneider

Use Pendant Lights with High Ceilings

Directing the gaze is not just applicable to wall-washing, but can be used to accentuate high ceilings as well. Pendant lights draw the gaze upward, making users notice high ceilings and thus making a tall space feel taller. Tall furniture, high shelves, and vertical wall lights can also serve to emphasize verticality.

© Reutov Dimitry, Gerner Ekaterina
Courtesy of Dake Architectural Design

Design with Uplighting and Backlighting

Meanwhile, uplighting can be used to emphasize high ceilings or make low ceilings feel higher. This strategy is applied simply by directing light upwards – much like wall-washing directs light horizontally – and can be facilitated through upward facing lampshades or certain kinds of specialized lightbulbs. Meanwhile, backlighting consists of adding lights behind certain furniture objects, such as cabinets, alcoves, displays, screens, and other statement pieces. This creates the illusion of depth and can make a space feel not just larger, but more complexly designed.

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© Naho Kubota
© Brandon Shigeta
Courtesy of Limu Design Studio
© Daniel Aulsebrook

Install Track Lights

Track lights are another specific strategy that calls for a closer look. These combine many of the methods listed above: they are small, making them space savers; versatile, meaning they can fulfill specific or general lighting needs; moveable, allowing them to highlight certain features; and multiple, flooding the entire room with light if arranged correctly.

© Megan Taylor
© Hey! Cheese

Add Mirrors or Other Reflective Surfaces

Mirrors are a well-known way of making a room feel larger, as they double the amount of visible space. That they reflect light as well enlarges the space even more, naturally intensifying the brightness and thereby reducing the shadows even further. The larger the mirror, the greater the effect. However, designing with relatively reflective materials – rather than literal mirrors – can make a big difference as well. For example, glossy surfaces like well-polished floors or even glass items can help reflect light, intensifying it and redirecting it throughout the room.

© Julia Totoli
© Naho Kubota

Use Light Furniture and Walls

Finally, light furniture and walls are essential for maintaining the brightness and reflectivity created by all these other design strategies. This goes a long way in augmenting the effects of good lighting, whereas dark walls and furniture can absorb all the extra brightness created by strong, well-distributed lighting and reflective elements.

© Gareth Gardner
© Daniel Aulsebrook
© Ruy Teixeira
© Wu Tou

There exist many great examples of good lighting, some of which utilize only a few of these strategies to great effect and some of which use nearly all. The Dengshikou Hutong Residence in China is one which uses many. With pure white walls and light furniture, pendant lights that accentuate the high ceilings, skylights that wash the walls with light, specific lighting over a recessed bed and table, and more, the space combines multiple different lighting strategies to make a large space feel larger. Another great example is the 22m2 Apartment in Taiwan, which is a smaller space made larger through track lighting, white walls, specific lighting, recessed lighting, and aptly placed natural light. Each space will have different lighting needs and possibilities – designers should consider each of the strategies listed above, but must ultimately choose the right ones for their space and designs.

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Dengshikou Hutong Residence / B.l.U.E. Architecture Studio. Image © Ruijing Photo
Dengshikou Hutong Residence / B.l.U.E. Architecture Studio. Image © Ruijing Photo
22m2 Apartment in Taiwan / A Little Design. Image © Hey! Cheese
22m2 Apartment in Taiwan / A Little Design. Image © Hey! Cheese

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