Recessed Downlights – Planning The Perfect Layout

Recessed downlights are a versatile light source for homes, hospitals, hospitality settings, offices, schools, or retail environments. They can fulfill any of the three main lighting roles: general lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting.

This article advises on how many fittings you’d need for any given space, and discusses some of the issues associated with recessed downlights.

So Where Do You Start?

Recessed downlighting layout image 1

Preliminary Questions

Before shopping for downlights, it’s useful to note a few details:

  • What is the size of the space?
  • What is the height of the ceiling?
  • Is it an open plan area?
  • What is the room’s purpose?

This information enables you to calculate how many lights you need and what type.

How Many Downlights Do I Need?

A simple method for estimating the number of downlights required is as follows:

  • Step 1: Multiply the room’s width by its depth to ascertain the square footage.
  • Step 2: Multiply the square footage by 1.5 to give the total wattage needed in the room. For example, a 15 x 10 foot room is 150 square feet in size; multiplying this figure by 1.5 gives you a total of 225 watts.
  • Step 3: Divide the total wattage previously calculated (225 in our example) by your chosen bulb wattage to work out how many fittings you need. A 6 x 40W installation would be sufficient in our theoretical 150 square foot room.

Task lighting areas need more light. To account for this, you can multiply the footage by 2.5 rather than the 1.5 figure used above.

Divide an open plan space into areas to make your calculations. If using LED downlights, use their equivalent wattage in these sums.

Recessed downlighting image 2

This is intended as a guideline only. An experienced installer will offer tailored advice.

Ceiling Height

The coverage area of a downlight depends on the beam angle of the light source and the height of the ceiling. A flood beam spotlight naturally lights a greater surface area than a narrow beam, but with less intensity (assuming the two emit an identical amount of light in lumens).


Recessed downlights are generally positioned 1.5 to 2 ft. away from walls with a space of 3 to 4 feet between each light. Dividing the ceiling height by two is a way of gauging how much space to leave between each downlight. Thus, if your ceiling is 8 foot high, place your lights 4 feet apart.

Lux Measurements

Strict guidelines exist regarding how intense light should be in different areas of a workplace. Light intensity as it hits a surface is measured in units of lux (abbreviated to lx). Lux meters or online lumens-to-lux calculators can be used to measure or estimate this adequacy of light.

Lux measurements are governed by EN 12464-1 regulations. For example, an office workstation needs a minimum light intensity of 500 lx, foyers or entrance halls need 200 lx, corridors need up to 200 lx, stairs or lifts need 100 lx, and so on. Similarly, in the home, a task lighting area such as a kitchen worktop benefits from at least 300 lx, whereas a living room needs only 150 to 200 lx.

Beam Angles and Fire Ratings

A narrow spot beam gives an intense light for task applications and is useful for highlighting small display items. Choose a recessed downlight with a flood beam for general lighting. Those with an adjustable head can be aimed at pale-coloured walls or cupboards to spread light.

Any fire-rated ceiling, which is usually one beneath an occupied floor, needs a fire-rated downlight to be installed. This prevents an early ceiling collapse in the event of a fire, allowing crucial evacuation time for anyone above.

IP Ratings

When installing downlights in a bathroom you’ll generally need a product with a minimum IP44 rating. Please read our guide to IP ratings for further advice.


Choose dimmable downlights to create mood and save energy. Contrasting areas of light and dark invariably add atmosphere to a room. You might use dimmable downlights for general lighting, turning them down for intimate effect while giving greater emphasis to floor lamps, table lamps, picture lights or wall lights.

For more useful information, check out our Lighting Advice section.

Decorative Lighting – Inspirational Ideas

Some light fittings are designed to be unobtrusive or even invisible, except for the light they produce. Decorative lighting is the opposite of that; the fitting is intended to catch the eye and ornament the room. Often it’s the centrepiece of a room, enhancing its aesthetic appeal and defining its character, whether in a home or hospitality setting.

Food For Thought


Before you choose a decorative light, you need to consider the room it will be installed in and its style of décor. The two main categories of décor are traditional and contemporary, but there are other, more specific styles. Light fittings are often described as follows:

  • Traditional: a bygone, old-fashioned style usually characterised by ornate metallic fixings (especially brass or bronze) and patterned or textured glass
  • Contemporary: frequently minimalistic and defined by simple shapes, slim designs, bright colours, and (sometimes) quirky decorative features
  • Classic: blends with traditional, modern, or eclectic styles of décor and is typified by clean lines and a timeless appearance
  • Glamorous: seen in fittings such as chandeliers, with multiple ornate lamp holders, cut glass pieces and/or gleaming metallic surfaces
  • Retro: usually inspired by the fashion of a relatively recent lamented period, such as the 1950s, 60s, or 70s
  • Vintage: more dated than retro and often inspired by fashions from the late 19th century or early 20th century, such as Art Nouveau or Art Deco

Choosing Colours

Decorative lighting image 2

There are various ways to create colour schemes. A monochromatic colour scheme uses different shades of the same colour. Complementary colours are contrasting colours that work well together (e.g. blue and orange, red and green). Analogous colours are distinct, but closely related (e.g. orange, yellow, and green).

One material that is especially popular for its warm colour is copper. The stunning Nordlux Float 27 Pendant features a gorgeous brushed copper finish, as well as a walnut peak with FSC certification denoting strict adherence to ethical forestry standards. A choice of sizes and finishes is available in the fabulous Float range.

Depth And Mood

Decorative lighting image 3

Decorative lights look good, but how do you use them to give depth to a room and create mood? Rather than installing a single fitting, you can build a layered lighting scheme that includes general lighting (preferably dimmable), accent lighting, and task lighting. Contrasting areas of light and dark always create atmosphere, and by highlighting room features you’ll emphasise space and depth.

General lighting illuminates whole rooms and is usually positioned at ceiling height. The Old Park Semi Flush fits this bill and is ideal for low ceilinged rooms. It has an Art Deco look, thanks to its geometric windowpanes (it could be described as a traditional or vintage fitting).

A pendant that is suspended low over a desk or dining table becomes a form of task lighting. The light is focused onto the surface for a specific activity, which leaves the rest of the room darker and creates mood. The Soho 3 Light Pendant achieves this effect, forming attractive pools of light on a dining table or kitchen island.

Decorative wall lights like the stylish Soho Wall Light provide a secondary source of general lighting, emitting a soft light outwards while also accenting the texture and colour of the wall.

The Maybourne Wall Light creates an upward pattern of decorative accent lighting. It adds visual interest and warmth to bare stretches of wall and can be used to frame doors, windows, or artworks (i.e. a light is positioned either side).

Waterproof Elegance

An element of practicality is necessary when choosing decorative bathroom lights, since they need to be resistant to splashing water. An IP rating tells you how resistant a fitting is to water.

The Nordlux IP range of fittings are IP44 rated for resistance to splashing water, and recommended by the manufacturer for Zone 2 bathroom use (according to IET wiring regulations). These modern fittings emit a flattering soft light through their glass diffusers.

Decorative lighting image 4

Decorative Fittings, Decorative Bulbs

A decorative fitting with a clear glass shade can be made even more eye-catching by use of a decorative filament bulb. The stylish Siren Pendant, for instance, looks fantastic with a decorative filament globe. These bulbs are superb for their calming effect.

Make Lighting Memorable

Decorative lighting offers a chance to be creative. It makes a statement, and it helps make memories.

For more helpful tips and guidance see our Lighting Advice section.

Lamp Shades And Light Distribution

A lamp shade plays the crucial role in controlling light. It diffuses and directs. It’s easy to choose a light fitting based purely on looks and style, but if you study the shade and envisage the effect it will have, you’ll be able to plan your lighting scheme more effectively. This article explores some of the possibilities.

A Few Things To Consider

Lamp shades and light distribution image 1

Colour And Form

The colour of a shade and its interior lining (if any) directly affects the hue and strength of light. For instance, the black drum shade of the Zaragoza 3 Light Table Lamp allows a glow of warm outward light while emitting stronger up-and-down light through its glass diffusers. This is a good choice of mood lighting. Paler and thinner materials (e.g. paper) naturally allow more light to pass.

We can conveniently see the effect of darker versus lighter shades in the attractive Soprana Cone Cluster Pendant. Note the extra warm hue of the black shade once the light is switched on.

A sloping ‘coolie’ shade is common in table and floor lamps and forces much of its light downwards. The Tyso Floor Lamp is an example. This shape is useful for lighting tasks such as reading or writing, while also contributing ambient light to the room.

Lamp shades and light distribution image 2

Dome-shaped solid fittings such as the Cone Pendant act like reflector bulbs. The  metallic interior of the shade gathers up light and projects it downwards. Sometimes a golden interior is used, which warms the colour of the light before propelling it out. This style of shade is often used in multiples and suspended low over a table or desk (more about that in a while).

An uplighter like the beautiful Art Nouveau Tiffany Style Dragonfly Floor Lamp usually has a bowl or saucer-shaped shade and allows a limited downward flow of light. It bounces most of its light directly off upper walls and ceilings, dispersing it over a wider area.

Lamp shades and light distribution image 3

Lighting Patterns

Some lamp shades filter an enchanting pattern of light onto nearby surfaces. Graypants’ series of cardboard Scraplights, for instance, cast lighting patterns onto walls through the corrugated surface of their shades. Other fittings, like the contemporary Nexus 20 Pendant, use a special filter in their shade to achieve a similar effect.

Lamp shades and light distribution image 4

Suspension Height

Most ceiling lights are height-adjustable at the point of installation. This is useful for taller people, as it avoids them constantly clunking their head on the shade. If the shade is hung over a table, adjustable height offers further possibilities. As the shade is moved closer to a surface, it creates a more intense pool of light in an ever-narrower beam. The benefit of this is great in a dining room or restaurant, where the focused light creates a feeling of personal space and intimacy. A fitting that is perfect for low suspension is the stunning Float 18 Pendant, which looks amazing as a single luminaire or in multiples over an elongated table.

Lamp shades and light distribution image 5

Rise And Fall Pendants

As mentioned, most ceiling lights require you to decide their suspension height at the time of installation. This is not the case with a ‘rise and fall’ pendant, which uses an early 20th century French design. The Rise-and-Fall Pendant, allows you to adjust its shade height after installation using a pulley. You can set it high up for general illumination or lower for more defined light and extra mood. These fittings are a superb choice for dining tables or kitchen islands.

Matching Shades With Bulbs

Some shades work well with specific types of bulb. The smoked glass Hint Shade is complemented by the attractive form of a LED Decorative Filament Bulb, which can be seen easily through the shade.

Choosing Shades

To summarise, remember to consider the colour, material, and shape of a shade when shopping, and then enjoy the benefits of good lighting.

For more useful information see our Lighting Advice section.