March 27, 2021 7 min read


There are certain places to which I return again and again for inspiration. The Criptoporticus, the ancient underground galleries in Rome, and the Caldarium, the hot-water bath at Pompeii, are two such places. In both, the light that streams down through the openings in the roofs is jewel-like. Bathing in the Caldarium must have been an act that was more than a banal washing away of the soil of the day; it must have been a ceremonial, almost spiritual experience.

Sir John Soane's house in London, now a museum, is another source of continued inspiration. Soane understood how light energizes and brings life to a room, and how it molds our experience of interior spaces, elevating architecture beyond being merely the means of keeping ourselves warm or cool or the rain off our heads. He revolutionized domestic architecture by the example of his own house, which he flooded with natural light. As well as putting immense windows in the building's facade, he made use of clerestory windows and skylights so that light pours in from above.


Thomas Jefferson demonstrated a similar understanding of the power of light when he introduced skylights to North America by installing sixteen in his home, Monticello, in Virginia.

Thirty-five years after I first experienced it, the light in the Caldarium is still an influence on my work, and I continue to exploit the dramatic effects of overhead natural light whenever I can. For a house in East Hampton, Long Island, I designed an entrance hall with a 30-foot-high, steeply pitched ceiling. Taking inspiration from the local vernacular architecture, I left the ridge beams exposed. The space, like a cathedral transept, is lit by a triangular window set in the gable end, as well as by French windows at ground level. The Caldarium also inspired the circular window in the second-floor bathroom of that house, and a rib-vaulted ceiling in a house in Arizona.

In my view, no space without natural light is worthy of human occupation. Yet, judging by the vast number of people who start each day in windowless kitchens and bathrooms, twentieth-century design evolved ignoring the emotional power of natural light. This sad fact reminds me that in ancient Rome if a senator proposed war, and the Senate voted in agreement, he became the first general. Similar justice would suggest that architects should serve time living in the buildings or rooms that they designed without light.


If a house or apartment has a spectacular view of the constantly shifting play of light on the landscape that surrounds it, I feel that it would be criminal to shut it out with heavy curtains. In one house I exchanged the modest windows with floor-to-ceiling glass panels to make the most of the lakeside view; in another, I framed the dramatic scene of a vertiginous mountain peak with a double-story window.

Unlike the mercuriale quality of natural light, artificial light is static and can be controlled at will. An integral part of design of the design of a room, it can radically alter mood, and can highlight good features or disguise bad ones. If you think of light not as light sources, but rather as the complex orchestration of levels and kinds of light, you will become the conductor who controls the concert. It is crucial that lighting is considered from the inception of a project. All too often people invest months and a small fortune decorating a room and then, just prior to the great unveiling, they rush out to buy a few lamps, thus betraying all that has been spent.

When I am planning the artificial light for a room, I look at three zones: above head level, eye level, and below knee level; and at three different types of light: ambient, work, and art. Ambient light should anonymously illuminate an interior, and demarcate the shape and dimensions of a space. Work light, for reading and sewing, should be on dimmers so that when you do not need the very bright light you can transform the high levels of light into mood lighting. What I call art light is either to bathe paintings or other works of art with a specific kind of illumination, or to create accents and effects that are decorative in themselves – like an uplight hidden behind a plant that casts wonderful lacy shadows on the ceiling and walls. Art light can also be used to evoke a particular mood or atmosphere, such as candles on the dining- room table.


What I seek in the design of ambient lighting, the most difficult type to handle, is an elusive quality. It is at its best when it comes from several, subtly orchestrated sources, and it should never be confrontational or harsh. Do not give away all the sources if you can help it, but try and conceal them in coves and behind moldings.

For more general light, you can, if your taste is modern, rely on ceiling downlights and mask the bulbs with lenses. If you're a traditionalist, I would suggest using wall sconces with shades. For chandeliers in period rooms, my choice would be hand-blown Belgian bulbs with candle-size sockets rather than the standard Edison base; and in addition, I would either keep the dimmer very low or use small shades.


I used like to evoke an emotional response in my ballroom apartment. The foyer had no natural light, and I deliberately kept the artificial lighting levels low so that it was a shock to step into the enormous drawing room so flooded with light that you might almost be outdoors. North and south light poured in to the room through three vast windows with sills set well above head height. In order not to block the light, I covered these with gossamer shades, made from fabric fittingly called “opalin crista,” or “dragon-fly’s wing.” At night their iridescent gently reflected the room's artificial lighting. French doors brought in more light, seeming to hint at a garden beyond, though in fact they opened on to small balconies far above the busy street below.

Artificial lights were concealed in the window sills so that the windows continued to appear as though they were the chief light sources after dark. Additional light emanated from the niches that contained sconces on either side of the French windows, again imitating the direction of the natural light. These niches were lined with brushed stainless-steel panels to reflect the light in a diffuse glow.

Most people make the mistake of thinking that good lighting has to do with quality, but the brighter the bulb and the higher the wattage, the harsher, colder, and more blue the light. Instead of using a 75-watt bulb, a better alternative is to use  three 25-watt bulbs. They provide a softer, warmer cast as the lower wattage is closer to the red end of the spectrum.

When you're planning work light, you must decide whether or not you want to draw attention to the lamps. I happen to be a non-lamp person, so I use the simplest that I can either design or find. In the realm of lighting classics, I would cite Noguchi paper lanterns for the quality of light they give. I also love the thin tubular lamps that Cedric Hartman designed, now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Morsa lamp, another favorite, is utterly simple and gives a soft glow through a rice-paper shade. And the shade is pre-wrinkled, so you do not have to worry about children knocking over the lamps. I would like to think of my own lamp as a classic: it is simply a clear glass cylinder with a shade – as close as I can come to a non-lamp. The underside of the shade has a saucer shield of translucent white Plexiglass, so that when you are seated you do not get a harsh glare in your eyes. I am also very fine of using silver-bottom bulbs to avoid suffering the glare of a naked bulb.


For traditionalists, I recommend antique tole lamps. They are conservative in scale and can be placed anywhere without distracting from a period-style interior. The simplest candle stick lamps in a ceramic or wood are also appropriate. I think that candle bulbs with exposed filaments turned all the way up look very rude, so unless you are willing to dim the light bulbs way down to just a glimmer, I suggest using little shades. I still use the shades I started making thirty years ago out of brown paper bags – they give a wonderful, tallow-like glow that is normally only produced from mica, which is very hard to come by now.

The color of all lampshades is very important. I generally prefer translucent white or ivory shades, especially onion-skin paper shades and beige craft-paper shades, rather than opaque ones for the more diffuse effect they give and the gentler light. Opaque shades are best when they are the color of the lamp base.

Lights turned up to their brightest at night look vulgar to me, because there is no natural light outside for balance. An overcast afternoon is the time that artificial light needs to be brightest.

When I design art lighting I try to imitate nature. Imagine a full moonlit night in a park, the soft illumination of the trees, the dark ground around the glistening pond. The light is ethereal and seems to emanate from the shimmering water. How is it possible to emulate that? If you have a highly waxed floor and a plant in a beautiful terra-cotta pot or marble urn or copper bucket, a concealed light behind the plant will produce leaf patterns in the blurred reflection of the waxed floor at night. These patterns, the lacy effect of shadows playing across the floors and walls, will begin to duplicate what happens on a moonlit night when the trees are in full leaf.