Mad About . . .

10 Things I Hate About You (My House) No 1 – How To Make A Dark Room Lighter

2nd April 2020
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A slightly wordy title but one of the commonest questions I have been asked recently so I thought I would tackle it here. Since – as someone said to me the other day – many of us are seeing our homes in daylight for the first time and realising, now that we’re all in them all the time, all the shortcomings that we hadn’t had time to notice or weren’t in long enough to care about.

internal crittal window and parquet floor by blakes london

internal crittal window and parquet floor by blakes london

And now that we are home Le Corbusier’s notion that a house is a machine for living in is perhaps proving that for many of us that machine is a little bit run down, not quite firing on all cylinders as it were. So let’s tackle some of these issues over the next few weeks and do raise your own questions in the comments below too.

The number 1 issue is that rooms, which you previously saw only at night under electric light, are proving sadly lacking when it comes to using them to work rest and play (as it were). Now this is a question I have dealt with in the book but I thought that for this post at least I would try and divide the solutions into immediate (low or no cost) reasonably easy (some cost) and what to do when it’s all over that might involve a builder.

image by andrew jonathan interiors bepsoke curtains hung to the ceilingArchitecture, interiors, design, interior design

image by andrew jonathan interiors bespoke curtains hung to the ceiling and pulled back as far as they will go

So let’s take the first. What’s on your windows? If you don’t have privacy issues do you need those curtains? The weather is getting warmer so it’s not about draught exclusion. Unless you have curtains on a long pole they can often block the light at the sides and now is not the time for that. Consider taking them down. And then, if possible replacing with window film if you need privacy ,or roller blinds if you have standard measurements and can order online. Most of us don’t have standard measurements but you can always fix them to the wall rather than the window frame if they are too wide. My blinds were fixed to a block of wood above the window too which might be worth considering. And if you want and like curtains then you can think about positioning the pole as high as it will go above the window (length permitting) to make the room look taller and buying a pole that is long enough for them to pull right back from the window at the sides if they’re on a flat wall. Bay windows come with their own particular issues and usually involve more expensive bendy curtain poles.

hang curtains as high as you can and make sure the pole allows you to pull them back as far as you can image via the modern house

hang curtains as high as you can and make sure the pole allows you to pull them back as far as you can image via the modern house

Having looked at your windows the next question is the paint colour. I’ve said it before, but there are always new readers so it’s worth saying again; painting a small dark room white is going to give you a small dark room that is painted white. White paint needs natural light to reflect off it and to bounce it around to make a space feel lighter and larger. A dark room doesn’t have enough of that already – that’s why it’s dark – and your white paint will just look dingy and dull. Choose instead a pale colour. This can be pink, grey, blue, green or a chalky off white – whatever you like. Then paint the walls, the woodwork and the ceiling all the same colour. Don’t draw attention to the edges and exits by highlighting them in white. Keep it pale, keep it simple. Create the illusion that it’s bigger and brighter.

painting the woodwork and ceiling to match the walls would have made this space feel even larger image via savills

painting the woodwork and ceiling to match the walls would have made this space feel even larger image via savills

If your floors are dark can you paint them lighter? If that’s not possible can you buy a pale rug or even carpet? I’m not saying you can’t have any colour at all but in this case we are trying to make a dark space feel bigger and brighter so focus on lightening the walls and floors and add colour in the furniture.

Make sure that you have enough electric lights. You can buy so-called daylight bulbs. This one from John Lewis is 6500 kelvins which is the same as a cloudy day – anything over 4500 falls into daylight category. That said, this high can have a slightly bluish tinge which may feel cold and a bit industrial. Most of the time you want something between 2-3000K which will be warmer. Less than 2000k is like a candle. Do please note that a kelvin measures the colour temperature of an LED light – not the amount of light it gives out, which is Lumens and before you lose the will to live I’m going to send you here for further, clearer explanation.

looped pendant light, white bedroom, shutters via the modern house

Right, so by now you have a clear window through which light can flood in and a brighter, calmer space that is well lit. I’m going to assume you have decluttered as far as possible here and that may be pretty much as far as you can go for now.

One other job that you might be able to do now is removing any internal doors that are just getting in the way. Unless you have sliding doors (something to add to the list) then the door is often in the way of the room it is opening into and maybe blocking valuable light. Can you remove it – just for now – you can always rehang it later. That said, this is one to think about because if you are living in an open plan space with lots of people then a closed door might be your friend. We’ll come to open plan spaces later, this is just about encouraging as much light in as possible.

orla kiely vintage mirror in her home

orla kiely vintage mirror in her home will bounce the light around and make the room feel bigger

And on that note, mirrors are brilliant at this. Try and hang one so that it reflects all or part of the window and it will then bounce it back out into the room.

But, later, can you bring in more light by adding any windows? These can be high internal windows – just a pane of glass, it doesn’t need to open. These windows are called Borrowed Lights, for obvious reasons and they can work really well. The common place to put them is over a door. If it’s a stud wall this is much easier than on a supporting wall where you may need to install a lintel to keep everything up.

borrowed light via doorsan

borrowed light via doorsan

Or you can create a long narrow window along the top of a wall where it doesn’t have any impact on privacy but will allow light from the room next door – perhaps from the hall to the sitting room. The bedroom to the en suite. Borrowed lights were common in 1930s houses over doors and, I suspect, were often blocked off as landing lights etc prevented small children from sleeping, but now may be the time to bring them back in other rooms of the house.

Obviously this is a job for later but add it to that list of things that might be a good idea. After all, it might make all the difference to how you use and enjoy the space.


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  • Louise 24th April 2020 at 11:46 am

    Hi Kate, would you have any advice for a dark and quite narrow hallway? It’s painted in F&B ‘James White’ and a glass door at one end has opaque window film for privacy. I’m reluctant to hang anything on the walls to avoid it feeling ‘closed in.’ Thank you

    • Kate Watson-Smyth 24th April 2020 at 12:13 pm

      If it’s not as light as you would like then you could hang mirrors? Have you painted the woodwork, doors and ceiling in James White as well? If not you could paint the ceiling in your favourite colour to lift the spirits (and distract the eye from the narrow walls). You could paint the lower half of the walls in James White gloss which would bounce any light around a bit more. Or the ceiling in gloss come to that for the same reason. Failing that then you might have to embrace it and paint it all in a different, dark and more dramatic colour. You could also wallpaper the ceiling. Basically if the colour/wallpaper/decor is fabulous no-one will notice the size of the space.

  • Silvana Steidler 2nd April 2020 at 9:43 pm

    interesting overview! thank you

  • Ellen Reed 2nd April 2020 at 1:20 pm

    All of this information on lightbulbs is spot on. It is amazing the difference changing all of your bulbs can make!

  • Mary Brady-Maguire 2nd April 2020 at 9:43 am

    Hi Kate,

    Thank you for the link on LED lighting – just what I needed for my “on hold” kitchen makeover. It’s a mind-field trying to resource lighting. Something I learned only recently that LEDs do not heat. The glass tulip shades in my beautiful sitting-room chandelier have started to crack due to heat from halogen bulbs (G9s which were in place when I bought it) and should have LEDs – lesson learned but expensive one as I cannot get replacement shades.

    On the borrowed light, I had a 9-panel glass door installed between the kitchen/dinner and TV/living/kids room and it was the best thing I ever did. The sun comes into the kitchen in the morning and leaks into the TV room and in the evening vice versa. I now intend to have the same done from the kitchen to hall as the sunlight thru’ the cut glass in front door and panels is magical.

    I think if anything, while this is the strangest period in my life, I’ve learned to accept my lot but very easily (and cheaply) I can change a few simple things to make my home seem more alive – re-arrange cushions, a lick of paint here and there (even on furniture!). I even switched the blinds around in two rooms (with same size windows!) and changed the colour themes in both!! And add a bunch of daffodils and the room immediately becomes brighter!!

    Keep well.

  • Alison 2nd April 2020 at 8:06 am

    Hi Kate,
    20 years ago we had a loft conversion and I had the builders put a line of glass bricks from floor to ceiling on the landing area to let light from the bright bedroom to the darker stairwell. I also used them in a shower wall in the very small en-suite. The latter are due to be replaced in a refit as soon as we can get a fitter in but I wonder if there is a modern version of the glass brick. Ours are square and clear but in the en-suite I used turquoise as well. I still like them and they do the job of letting in light.

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