Washing Up: Better Lighting for a Better Bath

How lighting design can make a better bath — and how the same principles can make any space more luxurious and livable.


I PROMISED to help you get better lighting and avoid common mistakes by applying intention and purpose to your projects, also known as design. This issue of Technology Designer is focused on baths, and it just so happens that my team and I spend quite a bit of time designing lighting for bathrooms. Every home has at least one, though I cannot recall designing a home with less than three. In other words, we get a lot of practice, and I am going to share a few of the techniques and technologies we employ in custom homes.

We see a lot of electrical drawings with the requisite grid of recessed downlights, sconces over the mirror, and chandelier over the tub. Architects know that this is not great lighting, but they need something on the plans to get a permit. Unfortunately, this is too often what gets installed and the homeowner is left with downlights that serve little purpose, sconces that cause glare and make us look old and tired, and chandeliers that look great in photos but do not meet code. There is a better way.

This is the first article in a series dedicated to exploring how light can help you live a better life, and I do not want to waste any time explaining why you need task, ambient, and accent lighting. I personally find those terms uninspiring and, well, a bit distracting. Good lighting design is not about satisfying a textbook requirement but rather about satisfying human needs. I’d rather talk about what light promises to do for us.

Light — when thoughtfully designed — can help us live better lives by delivering what I call THE FIVE PROMISES OF LIGHT:

1. LIGHT CAN HELP US DO BETTER. Light can help us see what we are doing so we can do it more efficiently, safely, and just plain better.

2. LIGHT CAN HELP US KNOW MORE. Light can help us know where we are, where we are going, who is with us, what is around us, and even what our companions are thinking and feeling by revealing the emotions on their face.

3. LIGHT CAN HELP US FEEL BETTER. Light can help us heal faster, wake easier, sleep better, feel more energetic, romantic, or relaxed. And new studies reveal that light does so much for our bodies that we put ourselves at risk if we pay no attention to it.

4. LIGHT CAN HELP US FOCUS CLEARLY. Light can also help us focus on the task at hand, a beautiful piece of art, or the beautiful details, surfaces, and furnishings that make custom homes unique.

5. LIGHT CAN HELP US CHANGE EASIER. Light — when paired with well-designed controls — can help us adapt to many of the changes that are a part of life including time of day, mood, task, and even aging eyes.

We consider a bath well-designed when we have achieved all five promises. Here’s how we do it, one space at a time.

soaking tubs: feeling relaxed

The perfect light for a soaking tub in a luxurious bath involves zero lighting fixtures. Imagine an elegant cast stone tub surrounded by huge windows with a truly panoramic view of the mountains. During the day, natural light pours in with the expansive view and electric light is unnecessary. At night, dozens of pillar candles surrounding the tub cast warm, soft, flickering light in countless reflections of the glossy surfaces of the bath and create a truly relaxing atmosphere.

We need designed light that can bring us the same feelings when clouds roll in and obscure the mountains and the thought of cleaning up wax drips from a hundred candles de- ters their use. Light that helps us feel better came from candles and the sky but can also come from thoughtful design. Imagine soft light coming not from windows but from reveals in the ceiling that suggest a sunny sky above like in the home below and left by Splinter Society.

Imagine dozens of small, glowing embers of light embedded into the surrounding tile and stone. I once sketched a tub surrounded by candles and then sketched over it until I had replaced the candles with a similar glow in the same place. It ended up being quite a unique series of concepts that inspired the client to think beyond chandeliers and downlights.

Better design, in this case, simply comes from imagining yourself relaxing in the tub and then imagining the perfect light. Ingenious solutions like the illuminated rim in the tub by BC Designs completely transforms the space and eliminates overhead glare. Now that’s relaxing.

vanities: look your best

We can learn from Hollywood stars even if we do not want to look like them when it comes to lighting vanity mirrors. Count the backstage mirrors with sconces above the mirror and you’ll find almost none. Light from above simply does not do a great job illuminating our faces. This is light to help us see what we are doing, but light can also help us see what we are doing better.

Light has a hard time curving around objects like noses, chins, eyebrows, and hair. Recessed downlights above a vanity can cause the deepest of shadows under eyes and chins and make us look tired and old while posing safety challenges for those of us that wield razors near our throats. Moving the light source to directly above the mirror helps some, but if all light is from above there will always be shadows below. We need light that is focused on our face.

The stars of stage and screen have makeup mirrors with light on all four sides, historically in the form of many bare lightbulbs. This is still a fantastic way to light your face but can feel a little industrial in both traditional and modern homes. Fortunately, there are many ways to get the same quality of light within your style, including illuminated mirrors and carefully placed sconces. In the home by Magleby Construction shown here, wall sconces flank each mirror to properly illuminate the face while warm-dim recessed downlights above from DMF Lighting spotlight the sink and fill in where needed.

showers: for every type

Showers were once the most utilitarian features of a bath, often used only in secondary baths or tucked into a basement, and a single shower light sufficed to provide functional if uninspiring illumination. Today, showers become features with frameless glass doors, beautiful fixtures, benches, and the best stone and tile available. Showers have been transformed into a central component of a nice bath, but lighting has not kept place. Most have either the exact same single shower light or perhaps a second to cover the larger area.

We still use showers to wash our hair, shave, and clean up but we also use showers to relax after a hard day or invigorate before a new one. I have been known to hang out in a shower when I have a migraine and we often bathed our babies in the shower. In other words, showers are used by different people at different times of the day and with different intentions. Lighting, however, often stays the same when it should help us change easier.

We also illuminate stone or tile by grazing from recessed fixtures or slots in the ceiling. This technique can highlight the texture of natural stone or the beauty of tile and provide a soft diffused light into the shower. It is another great layer of light.

Don’t forget the recessed downlights, our most functional tool. Good downlights can provide just the right amount of extra light for shaving or cleaning. It takes all the layers working together to make a more functional, beautiful, relaxing shower and you will need dimmers and controls to repeatedly get the mood just right.

nighttime necessities

I think night-lights plugged in above the sink are, well, ugly and a potential source of glare but I do not like stubbing my toes in the middle of the night. There is a solution if planned carefully, and that is to make the bathroom comfortably navigable at night without putting too much light in your eyes.

Light under floating vanities can be soft and virtually glare-free, and we also use recessed step lights like the one above from Colorbeam to illuminate a path. We use steplights in every toilet closet so that there is light to see safely at night with as little sleep disruption as possible. Just be sure not to locate step lights where they might point into the bedroom, and consider putting them on occupancy sensors for handsfree use after dark.


the key is design

As a lighting geek it is easy for me to digress into acronyms and technical terms, the kind that make the listener glaze over and start thinking how to get out of the conversation. If you found this article to be readable and not too technical, it is likely due to the lack of terms like task, ambient and accent. You may have noticed the interlacing of words like do, know, feel, focus, and change throughout the article that indicate the five promises of light mentioned earlier. Most of our clients do not have high tolerance for technology talk and our shift to a more inspiring language has transformed our conversations. We now have clients who ask “I don’t like the sconces — is there another way to get light that helps us feel good into the space?” We know that design can improve the function and beauty of a kitchen. We know that design can enhance our shoes and our laptops.

We know that design can elevate the great room ceiling and front door. Yet many of us are slow to recognize that design can dramatically transform how we live when we apply design to light. Lighting design is not rocket science, but it is science — and art. And when done well, light can help you live a better life.