How To Get The Lighting Right: The Sitting Room

Welcome to part II of my mini-series in collaboration with John Cullen Lighting. Last month we spoke about how to get the lighting right in the kitchen and today we are moving into the sitting room.



As you may remember from last month, John Cullen’s design director, Sally Storey, came round and spent the morning going round the main rooms of The Mad House to see what we have got right (not so much) what we have got wrong (rather more) and how we can improve (phew).

The first thing Sally said was that we should have the lights on separate circuits so that there are two or three wall switches and you can choose which lights you want on depending on what you are doing, ie; one for the central overhead pendant (we’ll get to that in a minute) one for the floor and table lights and another for the wall and atmospheric lights.

wall lights will help create atmosphere
wall lights will help create atmosphere

Obviously we should have done that, but we didn’t and, as a result of which, we have cheated. Our lights are on timers. This started as a security thing for when we were away on holiday but has resulted in my becoming so lazy that I am incapable of turning my own lights on and off these days as everything comes on automatically. We don’t have enough lights to need separate circuits, so having different lights coming on around the room at various points of the day – from 4pm in winter till about 8pm when they are all on – works just as well.

Now, the central light. I have, as you can see, removed mine altogether. I tend to use my sitting room only in the evenings and I don’t really need the brightness of an overhead light at that time of day as it’s a bit more atmospheric. However, Sally did cause me to rethink this strategy a little.

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 11.39.13
an overhead light can really show off the coffee table below

In the first place I don’t have a ceiling rose in there and it was one of those things that was on the list to restore that simply hasn’t happened yet. We’ve only been here five years, give it time… Anyway, one of Sally’s tips is that if you have a ceiling rose and don’t want a central light, you can hide a recessed spotlight in the middle of it and it will be almost completely invisible but will shine a narrow beam of light down onto the coffee table below thus highlighting your beautiful books, vase of flowers, half drunk cup of coffee and tray of broken Lego models. Well, you get the idea. The key, says Sally, is that the thing you are lighting must be lighter than the light source itself.

Slaidburn St LR-047
a spotlight is hardly visible but will highlight the furniture below

She also said that in one house she installed the secret spotlight, then hung a chandelier as well, which didn’t give much light as it was mainly decorative but the spotlight shone through it and reflected off all the crystal. Now that’s probably quite complicated to do but if you’ve bought a vintage light that doesn’t work, or a gorgeous chandelier that only works with candles, it might be something to consider.

Another trick of Sally’s is to install a couple of uplighters either side of the fireplace. These can take the place of candles when it comes to soft lighting and is brilliant if you have a beautiful fireplace. It wasn’t, I have to admit, something she was rushing to suggest for my plain black mantel. But, if you have inherited something gorgeous and marble it’s a good idea. It also brings in light from a different angle, which is another point you need to consider. These can be plugged in so you don’t have to go to the expense of calling an electrician if you just want to add this idea to your current scheme.

Slaidburn St LR-043
uplighters either side of the fireplace

The light needs to come from above, the sides and below if you are to create a truly layered scheme. Talking of layering, another suggestion is picture lights. Now, before you start gasping in horror, these don’t need to be those old fashioned shiny brass things that belong in museums and Granny’s house. John Cullen do a modern brass picture light and you can also hang a simple box wall light that you can paint to match the wall so it won’t even show. That’s probably the way I would go in my house. It also gives you another option of really low lighting if, for example, you were watching a film.

When it comes to table lights, you need a mix here too. Make sure you have a task light that is bright enough to read, knit and generally see by. A general table light can be softer if it is just for atmosphere.

the light source is completely hidden but its effect is stunning
the light source is completely hidden but its effect is stunning

If you have shutters, or actually curtains come to that, you can install uplighters below or downlights above to wash a gentle light over them in the evening. “It’s about playing with light and shadow,” says Sally.

Finally if you have shelving then consider putting lights along the top to show off the books or objects you have on them. This could be in the form of another row of picture lights for example. The lights themselves might not show that much but the objects will. Or you can use the trick from the kitchen lighting post with the LED tape.


Lighting Rules for the Sitting Room 

Make sure the thing you are lighting is lighter than the light source

Always install a dimmer switch

Have your lights on different circuits so you can play with the atmosphere

Layer the lights with a mix of ceiling, wall, floor and table/task

Vary the heights of your lights

Include a bright task light as well as softer table lights

Make the lighting work – is it showing off a fireplace, a vase, a row of books

John Cullen hold lighting workshops if you’re interested in learning more detail than I can provide here, check the website for details. 


top image by Elliot Walsh for

Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. Thanks for really excellent information. Can I ask a question – in the last picture where is the light source that is shining on the art work in the alcoves? not sure if it’s in the ceiling, behind the tables/chests or in the wall. I really like the overall look.

      1. I believe it’s actually a spot from the ceiling on the other side of the room. Look at where the shadow from the candelabra goes – the light is coming from the opposite direction. Wonderful post, and blog. Was looking for layering rugs ideas, but became ensnared by your site and have now been here all morning.

        1. How lovely to hear. Well, perhaps not for you as you probably had a million more important things to do, but I hope you have had a nice time and will come back again soon XK

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