7 Basic Types of Lighting Fixtures—and When to Use Them

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By Kate Reggev
From sconces to pendants, and recessed to track lights, we illuminate the seven basic types of lighting fixtures.

Lighting can be one of the most powerful ways to transform a space and its ambiance, so it’s crucial to understand the basics. 

First thing’s first: ambient lighting, also known as general lighting, intends to light up the entire room at a uniform level; accent lighting highlights a specific point of interest; and task lighting provides light for specific tasks such as reading, writing, cooking, or computer work. For each of these three different types of lighting, there are various fixtures available. Below, we guide you through the best options for your home. 

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Overhead lighting customized by Rich Brilliant Willing in a pert orange accents the primarily black-and-white interior scheme.

Overhead lighting customized by Rich Brilliant Willing in a pert orange accents the primarily black-and-white interior scheme.


Ceiling-Mounted Fixtures 

Wire chairs by Rejuvenation and ceiling-mounted fixtures by Hinkley Lighting grace the balcony outside.

Wire chairs by Rejuvenation and ceiling-mounted fixtures by Hinkley Lighting grace the balcony outside.

This broad range of fixtures is, as its name implies, mounted directly to the ceiling, and typically features a glass, fabric, or plastic shade that conceals the lightbulb and helps diffuse light more evenly. Ceiling-mounted fixtures tend to be used to provide ambient light in a room as opposed to accent or task lighting because they provide more general, dispersed lighting. 

Pendants 

Goneau matched Audrey Chairs from Kartell with a dining table she designed herself. "It becomes the visual continuity of the kitchen island, by its dimensions and material," she says. A bronze copper pendant by Tom Dixon hangs above it.

Goneau matched Audrey Chairs from Kartell with a dining table she designed herself. "It becomes the visual continuity of the kitchen island, by its dimensions and material," she says. A bronze copper pendant by Tom Dixon hangs above it.

Pendant lights are lights that hang from a cable, cord, or pipe from an attachment at a ceiling, ending in a shade enclosing a light bulb that primarily provides light in a downward direction, known as a downlight. Pendants are often located over a table or kitchen island because they provide ambient or task lighting, and usually have strong stylistic elements that bring character to a space because they’re so visible. 

Recessed Lighting 

Upstairs is the master bedroom and bath, plus a study for Tyler's boyfriend, Chris Brown, who works as a consultant for humanitarian NGOs.

Upstairs is the master bedroom and bath, plus a study for Tyler's boyfriend, Chris Brown, who works as a consultant for humanitarian NGOs.

Recessed lights are installed above a ceiling so that the body of the light— the mechanism and wiring—is hidden in the ceiling with a flush bulb or lens. Unlike ceiling-mounted fixtures, which are easily seen, recessed lighting tends to be more demure because it is level with the ceiling, but it does require about four to eight inches of space above the ceiling for installation. The lighting they produce can be used for a range of functions from ambient to accent to task, depending on the number and type of fixtures. 

Track Lighting and Spotlights 

Visitors to the house are greeted by an art-filled living room anchored by a B&B Italia Charles sofa and a pair of vintage Hans Wegner CH22 chairs. Track lighting from WAC Lighting Co. helps showcase individual pieces from the couple’s collection. "My favorite thing is walking in the front door," Tetreault says.

Visitors to the house are greeted by an art-filled living room anchored by a B&B Italia Charles sofa and a pair of vintage Hans Wegner CH22 chairs. Track lighting from WAC Lighting Co. helps showcase individual pieces from the couple’s collection. "My favorite thing is walking in the front door," Tetreault says.

Track and spotlights are fixtures that are attached to a track that is mounted to the ceiling or hung off the ceiling, depending on the fixture. The linear housing contains several heads that can be moved along the track and reoriented to focus on different directions. This ability to adjust and reposition the lighting makes track lighting ideal for kitchens or gallery spaces where task or accent lighting is needed, but where the desired focus may change. 

Wall Sconces 

Architect Joseph Dirand's bedroom boasts sandy gray walls and upholstered headboard. The white bed linens help reflect daylight into the space and the Azucena sconces offer task illumination.

Architect Joseph Dirand's bedroom boasts sandy gray walls and upholstered headboard. The white bed linens help reflect daylight into the space and the Azucena sconces offer task illumination.

Wall sconces are some of the most decorative fixtures in the lighting market because they are frequently installed at eye-level in most rooms. They can be either uplights or downlights, providing ambient or task lighting, depending on the fixture, but are rarely powerful enough to provide enough illumination alone to light a large space. They're often found on either side of a fireplace or bed for additional illumination, highlighting these visual focal points in a space.

Desk and Table Lamps 

The newly released Original 1227 Brass Desk Lamp in Elephant Grey is at once minimalist and statement making.

The newly released Original 1227 Brass Desk Lamp in Elephant Grey is at once minimalist and statement making.

Desk and table lamps are largely used as task lights because they’re flexible and can be positioned in various locations as needed (like adjacent to a comfy chair for reading, or atop a desk for work). They typically provide light in a downward direction, illuminating the surface directly below it rather than providing a general glow, which prevents them from often being used as ambient lights. However, like wall sconces, they can be a major design feature in a space because of they are highly visible.

Cove Lighting 

New dining with new custom buffet side board and soffited ceiling with cove lighting.

New dining with new custom buffet side board and soffited ceiling with cove lighting.

Cove lighting is an elegant type of lighting that is usually mounted to or incorporated into the upper portion of a wall or ceiling. Usually hidden from direct view, it provides uplighting along the edges of a room onto the ceiling. Today, most cove lighting is provided by a thin strip of LEDs along a cove, or niche, that is already created in the room. It provides diffuse, ambient lighting.

Next, we shine a light on living room lighting and dining room lighting.