Homeowners spend hours choosing just the right bath tile, countertop, flooring, fittings, and fixtures, but lighting is often an afterthought. Designers forget about creating a lighting scheme that will showcase the finished project.

“If you're going to spend money on nice finishes, but you can't see to appreciate the finishes or to function in the bath, what is the point?” asks Peggy Fisher, design director of the Fisher Group in Annandale, Va. She spends up to 5% of the project budget on lighting. “It's hard to sell an intangible. Our clients go on blind faith up front — and only appreciate lighting afterwards,” she says.

There are two types of lighting needed in the bathroom. First, there is the overall light in the room — the ambient light. Second, homeowners need task lighting for the vanity, shower, and tub.

Ambient Light Fisher says rooms are easier to live in if they are not evenly lit. “People get tired in all fluorescent office space because it is evenly lit and the eye has no place to rest,” she says. She recommends creating light and dark areas in the room. Fisher starts by evaluating the finishes in a bathroom. The three primary light-reflecting sources are the floor, ceiling, and walls. “You can have dark walls and a light ceiling and floor and the room will seem bright.”

Fixtures flanking the mirror provide better vanity task lighting than overhead strip lights. Designer Peggy Fisher says cross-lighting with 100-watt fixtures creates an even glow.
Lydia Cutter Fixtures flanking the mirror provide better vanity task lighting than overhead strip lights. Designer Peggy Fisher says cross-lighting with 100-watt fixtures creates an even glow.

Most designers prefer to set recessed lights evenly throughout the room to create ambient light. Electrician and lighting expert Phil Blosser uses low-voltage recessed lights for better color rendering. The president of Blosser Electric in Blooming Glen, Pa., also prefers hidden fixtures. “Good lighting is where you see the effect of the light instead of the light. It's not good to have a single bright light in the middle of a room,” he says. “You should place the source of light out of your line of sight,” he says. “The room will not look brighter, just the objects.”

Geraldine Kaupp says low-voltage halogen fixtures provide clear white lighting that makes the whole room look better. The placement of the fixtures is based on the diameter of the bulb, but in general, she spaces recessed lights 2 feet apart.

“Even if you don't have low-voltage halogen, use halogen bulbs, but make sure they suit your fixture,” the designer says. The owner of Geraldine E. Kaupp Interiors in Short Hills, N.J., says designers can find 4-inch-diameter recessed products that accept halogen bulbs.

When Steven Meltzer, president of Abbey's Kitchens, Baths & Interiors in Short Hills, N.J., uses halogen lamps in recessed lights, he uses white rather than black baffles. “Black absorbs light and makes it disappear,” he says.

For homeowners who do not like recessed lights, use regular hanging fixtures. “For powder rooms, you can create an elegant look using a small chandelier or decorative light fixtures to light the room,” Meltzer says.

Work Light Fisher says before deciding on task lighting, designers need to ask homeowners how the space will function. Good lighting around a vanity is crucial. “Too often, bath lights provide only a soft glow, which is OK unless you want to put on makeup or remove a splinter from a child's hand,” she says.

Chandeliers are perfect for powder rooms. Designer Geraldine Kaupp suggests centering the fixture in high-ceilinged rooms.
Melabee Miller Chandeliers are perfect for powder rooms. Designer Geraldine Kaupp suggests centering the fixture in high-ceilinged rooms.

A common sight in new construction and remodeling is a strip of light installed over the vanity mirror. That placement is not flattering. “The light comes down and grazes the surface and accentuates the shadows,” Fisher says. She recommends a fixture with 100 watts on both sides of the mirror — not above it. “This provides cross-lighting and your face is evenly lit,” she says. For large vanity mirrors, Fisher recommends using three fixtures for even lighting.

Blosser says though side lights are ideal, they are not possible in 90% of bathrooms, due to space limitations. So in these cases, he says, lights above a mirror are acceptable. For Blosser, task lighting is a priority. “Then if you can afford it, especially if it's powder room or master bath, add recessed lights to make it look pretty,” he says. Fisher reminds designers to analyze the fixture and wattage of the lamp it holds. She once used a 50-watt halogen behind a thick glass fixture and had to replace it because the light was too dim. She also suggests using task lighting over a tub or shower (see “Lights, Fans, Action” below).

Blosser says he always speaks to his clients about using dimmers in the bathroom. “You don't need to be blasted in the face with light when you get up in the morning,” he says. Dimmers allow homeowners to set the lights low for nightlights and to set a mood for soaking in the tub or for parties. Meltzer also suggests having separate switches to control ambient lights, all the different task lights, and the fan.

Lights, Fans, Action

For shower lighting, designer Steven Meltzer uses a combination light/vent that is UL-listed for wet locations. The Fantech VLC64 is a low-voltage fixture that works with MR16 lamps. “It is housed in the middle of a vent, so you can use it as a combination fan and light in the shower. You get a really bright light and also remove steam,” he says.

courtesy FanTech and Juno

Fantech's Two-Port Bathroom Exhaust kits allow installers to use a light-vent in several areas of the bathroom with one remote-mounted fan. The REG100L kit is needed for installation and includes a remote-mount inline fan, one vent-light fixture, a mounting bracket, and hardware. The manufacturer says the light/fan is ideal for the shower or compartmentalized toilets.

Phil Blosser likes the design of the IC44N housing for MR16 halogen lamps by Juno Lighting. The product is UL-listed for shower applications. He sometimes uses two of these fixtures: one to shine on the plumbing, the other over a built-in shower seat. “That leaves a convenient spot in the center to place a vent,” he says. The units comes with a variety of trims, but Blosser likes the Adjustable Shower trim that does not protrude below the ceiling and has a frosted glass cover with a clear center that allows the halogen light to sparkle.

Revisiting a Vanity

Melabee Miller

Steve Meltzer designed this large vanity 10 years ago. Armed with more lighting knowledge and new technology, he would replace the task lighting on the sides of the vanity mirrors with color-corrected incandescent lamps that are sealed inside glass tubes.