Ambient Lighting: How to Set the Mood in Every Room 

What is Ambient Lighting?

A good way to understand ambient lighting is to distinguish it from other types of light.

Task lighting, for example, refers to the more intense illumination of areas dedicated to specific tasks, like cooking, drawing, or sewing. Accent lighting is used to draw attention to specific objects, like stairs or art.

Ambient lighting, on the other hand, is the general illumination of a space, calibrated to create a certain atmosphere.

How is Ambient Lighting Achieved?

Ambient lighting is often achieved through a combination of natural light sources, such as windows and skylights, and light from fixtures, such as ceiling lights, recessed lighting, and sconces.

Color temperature and light intensity are also key. Warm, soft lighting can set a cozy and intimate mood, while cool, bright lighting can make a room feel more open and energetic.

Technically, every room has ambient lighting. The question is whether that lighting creates the desired atmosphere. Read on to discover how to use this essential element of interior design to set the perfect mood in every room of your home.

How to Choose the Right Ambient Lighting by Room

When designing the ambient lighting for a room, you need to consider two key factors: the room’s function, and the aesthetic you want. In other words, what purpose the room serves, and how you want it to feel.

Let’s consider those factors for a variety of room types.

Living Room

The function of a living room is relaxation. It should be the ideal space for good conversation, for entertaining guests before and after dinner, and for reading and watching movies. You want the atmosphere, then, to be inviting and calm, but not so sleepy as to feel like a guest is in your bedroom.

To provide overall illumination, consider a combination of ceiling-mounted fixtures, such as recessed lights or a central chandelier.

Add wall sconces or floor lamps to create layers of light and add visual interest. Aim for warm light, with just enough intensity that people can find their way to a good seat without canceling out that cozy vibe.


This is one of the most multifunctional rooms in a house. It’s where we get ready for a good night of rest, but it’s also where we get ready for a productive day. It’s where we sleep, but also where we read and connect with partners.

To accommodate all those functions, consider dimmable overhead fixtures such as flush mounts or pendant lights, to provide adjustable illumination for different activities. Soft and diffused lighting can create an atmosphere conducive to sleep, while bedside table lamps can facilitate reading before nodding off.


The kitchen is where a lot of work gets done, but it also needs to be a nurturing space. It’s key to hosting on special occasions, and to keeping the household fed many times a day. Food is functional, but it’s also a form of affection. A kitchen’s atmosphere needs to support all this at once.

Start with recessed ceiling lights to evenly illuminate the entire kitchen space. Incorporate under-cabinet lighting to provide additional task lighting, and consider pendant lights to add visual interest and define specific areas.


More than any other space, the bathroom is where your atmosphere must speak for itself. Whether guests or housemates, people spend time alone in these spaces, and ambient lighting is key to making them feel comfortable.

To take care of overall illumination, install overhead fixtures. Sconces can eliminate shadows and provide even lighting for grooming. Choose bright and clear light sources, such as daylight LED bulbs, to ensure accurate color rendering and proper visibility.

Dining Room

People come together in dining rooms, perhaps more than in any other space. Whether for a quick breakfast or a luxurious dinner, meals lead to gathering. A dining room functional—you need a place to eat what’s been prepared in the kitchen—but also deeply communal.

Start with a chandelier or pendant light to serve as a focal point above the table. Layer that with wall sconces or floor lamps, and consider dimmer switches, so you can adjust the intensity to suit various modes, from everyday meals to entertaining guests.

Entryway & Hallway

These are high-traffic areas, intended for hellos, goodbyes, and quick stops on the way to other things. Just because people spend less time in these spaces, however, doesn’t mean you can’t elevate their atmosphere.

Consider flush mount or semi-flush mount fixtures to provide general illumination for grabbing umbrellas, finding keys, and taking off and putting on jackets. Complement that functionality with wall sconces or an accent lamp to highlight architectural features, artwork, or steps.

The Benefits of Natural Light

The section above is full of suggestions for using artificial light sources to achieve various atmospheres, but it’s important to consider natural light as well. This is the most dynamic element of ambient lighting, changing in predictable but impactful ways throughout each day.

Natural light is a key element of biophilic design, which promotes health and well-being by incorporating natural elements into built environments. Exposure to sunlight supports our circadian rhythm, regulating sleep-wake cycles and fostering a sense of balance and harmony.

Using natural light increases energy efficiency, reducing energy costs and environmental impact. What’s more, it provides full-spectrum illumination, enhancing color rendering and visual clarity and making spaces more vibrant and inviting.

Using Natural Light in Ambient Lighting Design

If you have the opportunity to add natural light sources to a space under construction or renovation, consider strategically placed windows, skylights, and glass doors to maximize the penetration of natural light. Note the orientation of the building in regards to where the sun rises and sets.

In addition, architectural elements like clerestory windows and light wells can help distribute natural light more evenly throughout a room. Blinds, shades, and curtains allow for the control of natural light levels, so you can set certain moods at certain times, while minimizing glare and heat gain.

Whether you’re designing a space from the foundation up, or you’re working with a finished space, take natural light sources into account when selecting artificial lighting. These two sources of light should complement each other. In some instances, natural light might make artificial light superfluous, while others call for artificial supplements to make sure you have light where you need it, when you need it.

The Art of Layering in Ambient Lighting

Layering refers to the strategic combination of different light sources to create a balanced and appealing illumination scheme. Incorporating multiple lighting elements at varying levels and intensities can enhance the functionality and aesthetic appeal of any room.

To layer effectively, start by considering the room’s natural light sources. Then, to complement and supplement those elements, consider a combination of overhead fixtures to ensure the room is adequately lit for everyday activities.

From there, you might incorporate indirect lighting sources, such as wall sconces, to create a soft and diffused glow that adds depth and warmth. Draw the eye to points of interest with decorative lamps, and use floor lamps to illuminate areas your overheads don’t reach.

The key is to make sure your light sources do not compete with each other, but work in harmony to achieve the atmosphere you want for that room. Combine uplighting with downlighting. Balance task lighting in certain areas with gentler temperatures in others. Keep in mind that in interior design, all elements will interact with each other.

Ambient Lighting Mistakes to Avoid

Ambient lighting can serve as the finishing touch of a room, but used incorrectly, it can also detract from the atmosphere you want. Here are some mistakes to avoid when implementing ambient lighting.

Insufficient Light Levels

One common mistake is failing to provide enough ambient light for a space. Insufficient lighting can make a room feel cramped, confusing, and even unwelcoming. To avoid this, make sure to adequately illuminate the entire space, without creating glare or harsh shadows.

Overreliance on Overhead Lighting

Relying too much on overhead fixtures can result in a flat and uninspired lighting scheme. Instead, layer in a variety of light sources at different levels to create depth and visual interest.

Ignoring Natural Light

Neglecting to consider natural light sources can lead to missed opportunities. Incorporate windows, skylights, and glass doors into your plans, so that you can harness natural light and connect your rooms with the outdoors.

Mismatched Color Temperature

Clashing color temperatures result in inconsistent lighting and an unbalanced atmosphere. Be intentional when choosing your light bulbs, ensuring all of a room’s light sources have the same color temperature, working together to create the desired atmosphere.

Neglecting Dimming Controls

Failing to incorporate dimming controls limits the flexibility of a room’s environment. Especially in multifunctional rooms, consider dimmers to allow for easy adjustments suit different activities and moods.

Failing to Light Task Areas

Soft light can be pleasing, but not when you’re trying to sew on a button or fry an egg. When designing your ambient lighting, make sure task areas get enough light to facilitate safe and accurate work without straining the eyes.

Ready to Set the Mood with Ambient Lighting?

Whatever atmosphere you want to create with ambient lighting, Visual Comfort has everything you’ll need. Start exploring the possibilities here.