Lighting tips from interior designer William Peace

Proper lighting is essential to good design. It’s what makes every interior come alive. Just ask award-winning interior designer and fellow Atlantan, William Peace, ASID.

“Lighting is probably the most important thing you can do in an interior,” says the designer. “You can design the most beautiful space, and if you don’t light it well, nobody really sees it, and it doesn’t matter.”

Through his design firm, Peace Design, William has designed lighting for tons of projects, from high-end residential to destination restaurants to even museums. And now he’s giving us the lowdown on lighting.

Bill Peace Interior Design

Ballard Designs: It seems that lighting design is really having a moment in home decor right now. Can you speak to some of the changes and trends?

William Peace: Decorative lighting has really become such a focal point in interiors. Traditionally, we had very decorative chandeliers and then that look went away for a long time, and now it’s back. And it’s really back. Today, a light fixture is like a piece of art. It stands alone and can be very sculptural or very colorful or very glamorous. It has all these opportunities depending on what you want to achieve in your interior.

We’re doing a dressing room right now that has a really lovely pair of sconces and a chandelier. It’s a fun project where the kids are gone and the home owners took over their bedroom and turned it into a dressing room. In the past, we may have just put a lot of recessed or surface mounted lighting in that room and made it pretty utilitarian. But now we do these things to make it function and put a chandelier in there as well.

Decorative lighting in the living room

Ballard Designs: Say you just want to update a few lighting pieces to give your home a quick refresh. Where would you recommend making those changes?

WP: One of those rooms that is experiencing a revival in decorative lighting is in the living room area. A dining room feels natural and everyone kind of does that. But in the living room, you get the opportunity to light it in a different way and to add a sense of softness. Depending on the space, you could have a single chandelier, a pair of chandeliers or sconces. I love sconces in public areas. We’ve also used decorative lamps in the living room, because we like the softness those light bulbs bring to a space, especially at night. You’re not overlighting with those types of fixtures. You can keep them on dimmers and add subtle impact without trying to blast the room out with architectural lighting.

Ballard Designs: In a new home or complete renovation, where in the decorating process do you decide on lighting?

WP: We start talking about it early on from an architectural standpoint, so we have a plan for the electricians to run power to these placeholders we’ve designated. And when we start talking about furniture, we start talking about the style of the lighting, because it’s a very important aspect.

Decorative lighting in the living room

Ballard Designs: What are the important factors that help you determine style, such as open and airy versus something heavier?

WP: I think it’s a discussion with your client about how much of a statement you want to make, and it depends on the space. Say you have a really high ceiling; it may feel out of scale with nothing in it. Bringing a large light fixture that has some volume to it will finish the look and make it feel like a thoughtful design approach. And then there’s how traditional, transitional or modern the space is. You want something that’s going to relate to the style, whether it’s flashy, really glamorous or more subtle. Those are conversations to have with the client to figure out what that room is all about. Now more than ever there are opportunities for more interesting decorative lighting that has a more transitional or modern feel than what we have seen in the past.

Statement light fixture over a dining table

Ballard Designs: You mentioned making a statement. When and how do you decide to invest in a statement piece?

WP: We’re doing a renovation now of a pretty large house and it’s an open floor plan. There’s a living area, a dining room, a kitchen. We decided we were going to maximize the dining room and minimize the other two rooms, so we have a major statement piece hanging over the dining room table. It’s big, probably 30 inches by 7 feet. It’s a rectangular fixture with a very unique design — and it’s pricey. It’s an art piece. This fixture really is a statement, and we don’t want anything else to compete with it, because it is so special, so we’re doing recessed lighting in the other two rooms. Other times, we may have something that’s not quite a statement piece in the dining room, so we’ll add a couple of complementary hanging fixtures in the kitchen. Every space is different. It really depends on what you want to do in a room. It could come in the way of a large lamp with a really large shade to fill a volume in a corner.

Scale is a fun thing to play with, too. Sometimes where the expected thing to do is to use a small table lamp, we may come in with a floor lamp with a really large shade on it, and it makes this dynamic feeling when you walk into a room. Sometimes that statement is  from art, sometimes it’s a chair, sometimes it’s lighting.

Coordinating light fixtures in an open floor plan

Ballard Designs: When you do have that big, open floor plan, do you match fixtures for continuity or not worry about it?

WP: If it’s a living room I would probably match fixtures with multiple ceiling fixtures. But if it’s an open plan where we’re really looking across one furnished room into another, I think it’s all about complementing each other instead of matching each other. So there might be a similar finish or a similar style, or one might be new and one might be an antique, but they still share a similar relationship to each other. What we don’t want to do is make a fixture feel foreign to the space, because it does not work with anything else.

Table lamp with matching lamp shade

Ballard Designs: With most of our lamps, our customers have the option to just buy the base and pick any of our shades to go with it. With that in mind, how do you pick the right lamp shade color? Do you coordinate with other pieces in the room or the lamp base?

WP: I think you need to coordinate with the overall feeling of the room regardless of whether you have a neutral or colorful lamp base. You have to ask: do I want to pick out a light shade that really draws attention to it and puts out a lot of light or do I want something darker and richer, because I want a moodier feeling? Or do you step out and say I want a color? Typically, we’d say the color would probably come with the lamp and the shade would be neutral, but that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. And the other part of it is, what’s the texture of that shade? Texture can add interest to a space, too. Depending on how much texture you already have going on in the room, you may choose a heavier linen shade, a burlap shade or a paper shade that has a really slick finish to it. There’s not a right or wrong way, it’s about what complements your space.

Task lighting in an office space

Ballard Designs: How do you know if you have enough lighting in a room?

WP: You have to think it through. There are three components: task lighting, ambient lighting and decorative lighting. And all of those components are especially important in a space like a living room. You want to feel like there’s enough light in the room. And if you want to sit down and read a book, you want to have enough light to do that. You also want to walk into this space and see something decorative, so it’s not all just architectural lighting and clinical.

Bathroom lighting tips from interior designer Bill Peace

Ballard Designs: What are your best tricks for lighting in the kitchen and master bath?

WP: Bathrooms are one of my favorite places to light. It’s a personal space that you use every single day. You use it in the morning, you use it when you get home from work, you use it if you’re going to go out at night. It is your personal space, so you want to light it properly and also have some fun with decorative lighting. Function goes at the top of the list, so you’ve got to have task lighting, like a pair of sconces, for shaving or putting on makeup, and then you want the overall room to feel bright enough so you don’t have dark corners. And as I said, you want something decorative that’s beautiful and attractive, because you use that room every day.

For the kitchen, I would do a combination of pendants over an island, recessed lights in the ceiling, under cabinet lights where you can and lights inside glass-front cabinetry for a soft glow. You combine all these things and you have an overall well-lit room without any dark areas. And always add dimmers, so you can make it softer and add a bit more atmosphere when you want — but you’ll still have enough light.

Bathroom lighting tips from interior designer Bill Peace

Ballard Designs: So can lights are a must for you?

WP: I think you do need recessed lighting in today’s world. We’re used to having a good quantity of light, so I think a great lighting plan has a combination of recessed cans and decorative lighting. When you only have decorative lighting and lamps, the room never feels quite bright enough at certain times unless you really overdo it. So I think it’s gets tricky without recessed lighting.

Bathroom lighting tips from interior designer Bill Peace

Ballard Designs: How do you light artwork for the most impact?

WP: My favorite way to light artwork is recessed light, because if artwork is what’s it’s all about, you don’t want to compete with it. You could also do a picture light that’s clean and modern, and there’s always the traditional way where you have a console and a lamp with a piece of art above it. But there are other ways to approach it. We’ve done an asymmetrical composition that adds a decorative light fixture and a piece of art. We hung the artwork slightly off to the side and hung a light fixture to the side that puts a glow on the piece of art.

Kitchen lighting tips from interior designer Bill Peace

Ballard Designs: What are the most common mistakes people make when choosing lighting?

WP: Overlighting a room. You should have the function of dimming everything. I really like and enjoy interesting lighting that is very low level. So if I’m entertaining at my house or just hanging out by myself, I like to have artwork lit a little brighter and the other overall lighting in the room, like lamps, to be a little more dim. I think you get a comfortable atmosphere that way.

Kitchen lighting tips from interior designer Bill Peace

Ballard Designs: What are you favorite looks in lighting right now?

WP: There are some really interesting metal finishes that are out on the market right now. They’re dulled down versions of silver and brass and bronze, and I think they have a really subtle texture and finish to them. You might have something that’s subtly reflective and not totally polished brass, but it has some sort of brass undertones. I like that look, because you’re complementing other things. We don’t necessarily want the light fixture to be the star of the show. There are lots of interesting forms out there, and we have so many options that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by your lighting choices. If you keep a consistency in finishes, you can go beyond consistency in style, so you might have something that’s 1940’s and something that’s very current, but there’s a relationship that tends to make sense in the same home or room.

Ballard Designs: Before we go, do you have any other insight or advice in picking out lighting?

WP: I think you should use decorative lighting and have fun with it, whether it’s lamps or sconces or chandeliers. You can have fun even in your laundry room. There are versions of hanging lights that will give you the utilitarian light that you need, but can also be fun to look at. So I think it’s what you are attracted to first of all and what’s going to function in your home and make sense. And I’m all about hiring a professional. There are independent lighting consultants and people who work for lighting companies that can help guide you on how much light you need in a space, so that it’s functional, comfortable and decorative.

Thank you so much, Bill, for sitting down with us. These are fantastic tips!


Learn more about interior designer Bill Peace or browse lighting at Ballard Designs.