Seeing the light
Poor design once cast a shadow over wall sconces but the latest offerings are now a major highlight
Until now, I've never been a fan of wall lights. I'd always considered them unnecessary fittings: not very practical and placed at just the right level to bump your head. Another problem is that many of the sconces were poorly designed. Intended to mimic historic carriage lamps, they just ended up looking twee. Happily, the new generation of wall lights is a lot better looking - and more practical - than those that went before. "We've come a long way from cut crystal lampshades that go with your Waterford chandelier," says Mary Ryder, interior designer. "There are some very sexy sconces out there."
The word 'sconce', by the way, was originally used to describe a wall bracket that held a candle, often with a metal plate to protect the wall from the flame. Candle sconces are an archetypal piece of design and, surprisingly, still being made. You can buy them in pewter or brass, handmade in Sweden by Malin Appelgren, from the Shop Floor Project (€160 to €825). They're expensive artisan pieces and probably only worth the price if you're going to use them regularly. In Sweden, where people light several candles every evening as a matter of course, one of them would make a lovely ambient wall light. But, if you're not in the habit of lighting candles, installing a candle sconce would be like buying an electric light and forgetting to turn it on.
Candle sconces cast an exceptionally beautiful light, but they're not particularly practical. As Mary Ryder explains, this is often the case with electric wall lights too.
"Mostly, they're not there to light up a room. Their job is to create an atmosphere." Wall lighting, she finds, works especially well in rooms where the walls are painted in a dark palette of moody blues and sludgy greens. The sconces themselves don't have to cost a great deal of money. For good value, Ryder recommends Hicken Lighting, where many decent quality wall sconces cost less than €100 each, but she also likes the very high-end light fittings from Porta Romana.
"Some of them are sculptures in their own right," she says. "They're mouth-wateringly beautiful and eye-wateringly expensive!"
One of the tricks with wall lighting is to make sure that it is on a different circuit from the overhead lights. This will enable you to vary the tone and the quality of the light, and therefore, the atmosphere in the room. "Another way of dialling the light up or down is to line the shade with silver or gold," says Ryder, who also designs bespoke wall lights for her interior design clients. "Wall lighting is often thought of as old-fashioned, but it's a really useful way of adding a layer of lighting to a room," says Fred Horlocks, interior designer with Neptune. "It helps to reduce the shadows caused by ceiling and table lighting." Another way of using wall sconces is to attach them to built-in furniture, like library shelving. The Keats wall light from Neptune (€125 to €155) works well in this regard because it has an adjustable arm.
"Using a directional light fitting means that you can tailor the light for reading." For Emily Maher, interior designer and owner of Lost Weekend, the key to getting the most out of wall lighting is to position it correctly. "It's all about being thoughtful," she says. In terms of placement, she prefers to position wall lights relatively low.
"We've been putting them at the same level as you would a table lamp," she says. "You don't want to be lighting the top of your head!" One of the main mistakes that people make is putting in a row of fussy looking sconces along a corridor, or plonking them on either side of the fireplace without really thinking it through. The traditional picture light (that's a mini strip-light above a painting) has also gone out of fashion.
On the other hand, putting adjustable task lighting on the walls above desks and behind sofas is an excellent plan. The DCW Mantis wall light (€875) from Lost Weekend combines a graceful elliptical shade on a long stem, balanced by a system of counterweights. "It's decoratively beautiful and it functions as well," she says. Maher also likes the DCW In The Tube (€1,483), a contemporary take on tube lighting that comes in many alternative forms and sizes.
"It's industrial looking and kind of cool," she says. "It can be small - the basic fitting is 25cm long - but you can have long versions that look like a sculpture on the wall." Other sculptural light fittings from Lost Weekend include the Ariette (€232) designed by Tobia Scarpa for Flos. It's a large square lamp that lies flat to the wall and has a crumpled papery surface that diffuses the light. "It reminds me of a kite," Maher says. "I used one recently to give the impression of a window in a windowless room." Another way of using wall lights is to use them to highlight architectural detailing, like nice plasterwork or interesting ceilings, rather than to illuminate the room. "You can use really simple subtle fittings to wash light up and down the wall, or to draw you down a hallway. The fitting in itself isn't a feature - you're using the light to decorate the space," Maher explains. Changing the lighting can alter your perception of a room. A pool of light in the middle from a single lonely pendant can make a room seem smaller... conversely, lighting the walls will make the space feel bigger.
Although wall lights can be hardwired into place, Maher finds that it works just as well to fix the light to the wall and run an external cable to the nearest power socket.
"That way, the cable becomes part of the design," she says. Some of her clients are horrified by this. But, when she gets the "Oh my God - no - I couldn't do that," reaction, she shrugs philosophically. "If that's the way you feel, then it just isn't your look!"
See maryryderdesign.ie, lostweekend.ie, neptune.com, theshopfloorproject.com, portaromana.com, hickenlighting.com