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Bathroom lighting guide

Bathroom lighting guide

Consider this: a bathroom has to function on two levels a practical place in which to wash; and an inviting room in which to retreat. The two are not necessarily at odds with each other, but every design decision must recognise both roles. Lighting is no exception.

In other words, it is flexibility that counts. But to design a truly flexible lighting scheme means thinking ahead: wires have to be positioned in the right place before tiles are slapped on the walls and flooring glued to the boards. Quite rightly, there are very strict rules governing the -installation of bathroom lighting, which means taking advice from a reputable electrician before writing out a huge cheque for fittings. If fittings are likely to get wet (and there is a European definition of what this means, which is surprisingly stringent), they must be completely enclosed to avoid possible shorting and electrical shocks. A pull-cord switch is the only safe option inside the bathroom, but you can have other switches such as dimmer ones wired outside the door.

Mood planning

When assessing your bathroom's lighting needs, first take a look at how much natural light you have. Remember it is a room that is used mainly in the morning and the evening, so it's not a lot of help if it is flooded in glorious sunshine at midday. Think, too, of how the light changes through the seasons not just in amount, but in quality. This should give you some indication of how much artificial light is needed in order to boost the natural.

When planning your lighting, you need to take account of the quality of light needed in specific places within the bathroom; the type of fitting that would achieve it, and the style that would best suit the look of the bathroom. Plan as many light sources as you can, and make sure they do not all work from one switch. You need the option of choosing different fittings for different moods. A lighting trough or false ceiling means you can conceal wires and fittings without disturbing plasterwork.

Lighting types

The convention allows for lighting to be divided into three principal areas in bathrooms: ambient, or general light, task lighting, and atmospheric lighting (such as a twinkling wall light or candles).

Ambient lighting is overall lighting that should be relaxing, have no glare, and be without hard shadows the opposite of the solitary bulb hanging from a central wire. More radiance is created if you replace it by piercing the ceiling with a scattering of low-voltage spotlights or just recessed mains voltage downlighters that can be used to wash a wall with light. In a small bathroom, you could replace a bare bulb with a frosted glass fitting such as the one I used in the Canopied Bathroom to provide a source of light that has less glare and produces softer shadows. The Hedonist's Bathroom uses a combination of low-voltage ceiling lights with large, glowing spheres, both circuits being dimmable to create differing atmospheres, from purely bright and functional to quiet to slightly weird!

Task lighting concentrates lighting on one place to illuminate what you are doing more brightly. The trick is to shield the light source from your eyes to avoid glare and spots before the eyes. For example, you may want to position a light above the basin so that it makes shaving, eyebrow plucking or leg waxing easier. You could mount it in a recess in the ceiling, or behind a pelmet as I did in the Portuguese Bathroom. Or you could invest in softly glowing lighting panels to position around the mirror. Although they produce direct light, these panels contain several light sources, which are individually very dim and create no glare to distract the eye.

Choosing bulbs

Spare a thought about the type of bulb you prefer to use. Tungsten ones give a warm light, which enhances colours and creates a soft, relaxing glow. The best

way to use these bulbs is to buy the highest wattage suitable for the chosen fitting and control intensity with a dimmer switch. Halogen bulbs are, in fact, a mix of tungsten and halogen. They work well in up lighters where the light is directed to the ceiling and then reflected back into the room.

Low-volts halogen bulbs are smaller than most bulbs and give out a crisp, concentrated light. The intensity varies according to the fitting used. They are excellent for all types of accent and task lighting, and also for ambient lighting when many of them are used together. Existing light fittings designed for standard voltage bulbs can sometimes be converted for use with low-voltage ones through a transformer.

Fluorescent bulbs are tubes that come in a variety of lengths and colours. Unfortunately, names such as 'warm white' cannot be trusted all too often they create a hard, glaring light that flattens a room and everything in it. If you are hard up and have no choice but to keep your existing fluorescent fitting, you could investigate filters, which look like slatted panels and disperse the light so that it is not so unforgiving. Circular or curved fluorescent tubes are more flexible as they can be adapted for different fittings, including designs in paper, glass and steel. However, fluorescent bulbs cannot be used with dimmer switches.


Light fittings, too, come in myriad styles, shapes and sizes. The ones most suitable for the bathroom ceiling are downlighters. These cast pools of light on the surface immediately below. They can be surface-mounted or recessed into the ceiling. Downlighters can be positioned to cast a wide or narrow beam, dull or bright, general or directional. Whether you want a wall bathed in light or a slim beam picking up the contours of a shell, they provide the answer.

Although I am not a wholesale fan of low-voltage halogen downlighters (they were invented for use in shops, not homes), I do believe they work to best advantage in two rooms in the house, the kitchen and the bathroom; especially the latter because of the way their light makes bathroom surfaces ceramic, porcelain and polished metal shine and twinkle in a very alluring way. Their versatility is a godsend, but if you prefer something more period in style, wall-mounted fittings with glass shades also provide glare-free light (remembering always to use a fitting marked as being approved for use in bathrooms). If you have no choice but to make use of that one ceiling light, think about fitting a track of low-voltage spotlights. These will provide some directional lighting.

Atmospheric lighting

Once you are happy with the functional lighting you have planned a combination of general and task it is time to consider atmosphere. This can be achieved both with special decorative lighting, and the ingenious positioning of mirrors, glass and water. Candles are the cheapest way to transform a room. Use as many as you can find tall ones, dumpy ones, floating ones, church ones - then switch off the artificial lighting and pray hard for a shaft of moonlight to slice through the window. Nothing could be more romantic if you are sharing your bath. Mirrors, glass and other shiny surfaces also accentuate their effect.

If your present bathroom is rather grotty and likely to stay that way for a while remember that imaginative lighting can be one of the most inexpensive ways of reviving it. For instance, coloured glass bottles are all the rage right now and a collection of this lit dramatically will give an edge to a room. Double the impact by

positioning a mirror behind them. Quadruple it by hanging the shelf on which they stand near to the bath so that you can enjoy their reflections in the water. This will give the room an instant lift, adding a magical touch to a mundane space.

These tricks are cheap to pull off and they work very well in dimmed light, which is perhaps the biggest key to getting the lighting right in your bathroom. Even if you do nothing else, and just leave a bare bulb hanging there, do get your bathroom re-wired so that the switch is outside the bathroom door, and then replace it for a few pounds with a dimmer. In this way, even a humble lightbulb on a flex will provide you with flexible lighting. It will also be one that you can supplement with a few candles now and then for a romantic glow.