6 Ways to Integrate Modern Lighting into Old Houses

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In the original great room of an Arts & Crafts house, very plain lamps on industrial arms throw light toward the beautifully stenciled ceiling. Antique lamps add ambiance.

In the original great room of an Arts & Crafts house, very plain lamps on industrial arms throw light toward the beautifully stenciled ceiling. Antique lamps add ambiance. (Photo: Gridley + Graves)

High-tech lighting in an old house? Why not, provided it’s well-placed and unobtrusive? Even the most ardent lover of vintage lighting must admit there are certain situations where recessed spots, LED bars or strips, and wall washers are indispensible—or at least convenient. Where would we be in the kitchen, for example, without under-cabinet lighting? Perhaps in the hospital, getting a finger stitched up. (A 60-year-old needs 10 times as much light as a 20-year-old to perform a given task with equal speed and accuracy.)

While we wouldn’t recommend ripping out a plaster ceiling for recessed lights, “points of light” have their purposes. Use them to light a dark corridor or amp up the illumination in rooms where traditional forms of lighting just aren’t bright enough. (Recessed lights are easy to place on dimmers, too). The directional lamps called wall washers will bring out the details in, say, a painted frieze.

In the same house, a bedroom mantelpiece is softly and subtly lit by hidden rope lights behind the wood apron. The art-glass panel, original to this vintage mantelpiece, has also been backlit. A simple sconce provides light to read by.

In the same house, a bedroom mantelpiece is softly and subtly lit by hidden rope lights behind the wood apron. The art-glass panel, original to this vintage mantelpiece, has also been backlit. A simple sconce provides light to read by. (Photo: Gridley + Graves)

The kitchen got a period-inspired remodeling in 2005, with cabinet “feet” based on an original door found in the garage. A checkerboard was painted on original subflooring.

Recessed lights illuminate banquette seating without getting in the way of the casement windows. (Photo: Jaimee Itagaki)

The charming paint decoration, called rosemaling, was carefully conserved.

In this 1930s cottage, Norwegian decorative painting known as rosemaling would be lost in the darkness of a long hall without an unobtrusive row of recessed lights. (Photo: William Wright)

A pleasing and changeable arrangement of fine art hangs from plain hooks and wire. Photo: Peter Sorantin

In an expansive living room in a 1918 Colonial Revival house, recessed ceiling spots are there when needed, but the eye is drawn to vintage lamps. (Photo: Peter Sorantin)

The painted ceiling in the hall, added by the previous owner, is based on decoration in California missions. The fixture is original.

Not all accent lighting has to be contemporary. This original California Mission sconce washes the wall just enough to illuminate paint decoration between the beams. (Photo: Jaimee Itagaki)