14 Designer Tips for Lightening Up a Dark Room
No renovations needed.
Remember what amateur photographer and Beetlejuice love interest Lydia Deetz told her father when he offered to build her a darkroom in the basement? “My whole life is a dark room. One. Big. Dark. Room.” Well, to each their own and all that, but for the majority of us, to have a light-filled home is preferable. It’s not always easy, however. In fact, brightening up a dark space is a common challenge when designing a room. Thankfully, there are foolproof tricks that interiors professionals like Jessica Schuster, Dan Mazzarini, and Gary McBournie use to add light through details. From painting the ceiling to layering in accessories, we asked them for some tips to help you let the light in.
As if you needed a reason to cover those midcentury parquet floors that came with the apartment. “White painted floors reflect light around the space,” Mazzarini says. “I like Armorseal Rexthane by Sherwin-Williams.” Here, the designer juxtaposed snow-white floors with black furnishings and accents for an edgy, graphic look.
A large, multicolored area rug, like this one in Juliana Lima Vasconcellos’s pied-à-terre, is not just a solution for defining a specific area in a home. “I love colorful carpets,” McBournie says. “They have the ability to both draw you in and create a distraction.”
“I will opt out of using draperies and instead use a solar or Roman shade to give the appearance of less fabric while still finishing the windows,” Schuster says. To wit: Get rid of heavy, dark curtains that absorb light. Here in the designer’s own apartment, the curtain-less look accentuates the natural light that floods in.
While dark rooms can be cozy, adding vibrant artwork will elevate the mood and look of the space. For added brightening properties, McBournie says: “Don’t forget to add some picture lights or spotlights.”
In this cozy den in San Francisco, designer Nicole Hollis made a bright artwork by Doug Aitken the mesmerizing focal point of the largely dark room.
Double the amount of sunlight in your room by bouncing the light off reflective surfaces. “It helps to completely mirror a wall or to add a decorative mirror opposite the windows to bring in the light,” Schuster says—just as Gabriel Hendifar did in his sultry New York apartment, shown here.
One of the best ways to bring more light into a room is with a high-gloss paint color, and a ceiling is the perfect spot to experiment with this design choice. “High-gloss paint can add another reflective surface to a dark room,” McBournie says. Here in a Beverly Hills home, designer Oliver M. Furth painted the ceiling in Pratt & Lambert’s high-gloss lacquer in Gun Powder.
When it comes to lighting, color temperature matters a lot! And according to Mazzarini, 2700K bulbs are recommended as you enter the world of LED lights. “If budget allows, use a warm-glow technology dimming bulb,” he adds.
Lighting designer Lindsey Adelman would know: Here in her Brooklyn townhouse, she selected her own Drop System chandelier to create just the right ambience.
Using shimmery gold or silver accessories is an easy way to transform a dark and dreary space. “I have successfully used metallics on the walls, ceilings, light fixtures, and accents of furniture,” McBournie says. “Just be careful—too much of a good thing is too much of a good thing.” In a bedroom of a South Florida home, for example, designer Rodney Lawrence incorporated just the right amount of silvery accents in the lamps and de Gournay wallpaper.
When a space is in need of additional light, it’s best to choose light-wood flooring to brighten up the room. “A lighter floor contrasted with a colorful wall can help to ‘push the walls out’ and make the space feel larger,” McBournie says. Designer Delia Kenza did precisely that in her recent renovation of a Brooklyn townhouse, shown here.
White paper wraps rock...and everything else when it comes to lightening a room. “White paper is your friend,” Mazzarini says. He suggests not holding back from bringing white paper lampshades, lanterns, and pendant lights into your dark space. Take this bright bedroom in a Belgian retreat designed by Olivier Dwek, for example.
A dark room isn’t the place to try out a moody, dark color palette. “Light hues on the walls and ceiling can really help lighten a naturally dark space,” Schuster says. If your walls are neutral, paint the ceiling a shade lighter to help light bounce around the room. That strategy helped this New York apartment designed by fashion veteran Carly Cushnie feel extra airy.
Indirect lighting aimed upward can make up for lack of light on the ceiling, especially toward the end of the day. “This is an opportunity to be creative,” McBournie says. “For the interior library of a New York apartment, I created and strategically placed a faux light shaft with an iron grate on a focal wall.”
Another excellent example? Here in a pint-sized kitchen designed by Cochineal, vintage sconces take the place of humdrum task lighting.
Yes, we know. This one seems a tad obvious, but simply cleaning your windows will have a major effect on how much sunlight streams into the room. “It is amazing what clean windows can do for a room,” McBournie says. “I recommend doing this every spring and fall, or more often.” You can see how the strategy pays off in this light-filled living room designed by Nickey Kehoe.
Those sad fixtures your landlord likely pulled out of a Dumpster aren’t doing you—or that dark room—any favors. “Often, a lighting designer can trick the eye to make the light feel more voluminous in a darker space,” Schuster says. The lighting in this moody Richard Mishaan–designed powder room strikes just the right note.