The power of lighting to add ambience to a room


I sometimes struggle with the idea that I am solely an “interiors writer”. My brain is full of so many thoughts and ideas I’d like to share, some about interiors, but many others about art and creativity, about parenting and menopause and a long list of other topics, some trivial, some profound. I am a writer and stylist working in the interiors industry, but that doesn’t mean I particularly enjoy writing about the next interiors trend or which designer just launched a new collection. I probably can’t advise you where to buy x/y/z homeware product, and it’s unlikely that I know what Dulux’s paint colour of the year is.

Even in my interiors books I like to delve more into the why of a home rather than the what. Why did the owner choose this home? Why did they pick that artwork and hang it in the bathroom? Why did they decorate in these colours? I want the story behind the home, not just the catalogue of where they bought what. I love design and art and creativity and I love inspiring others to create a home they feel proud of and that reflects their personality. I love writing and I love creating something magical and unique out of very little and I love my little community of people as obsessed with HOME as I am. Creating a home wherever you live and regardless of your budget or the particular chapter of life you’re living through (married, single, with/without kids, divorced, flatmates, whatever…), that is something I can help with. So what makes a house (or apartment or boat or room) feel like a home?

If you’ve followed me for a long time you’ll know that I’ve moved around a lot over the years: London>Kent>New York>Boston>Los Angeles>Texas>Seoul>Los Angeles>London>Kent. When you move a lot you become uniquely skilled at settling into a home really fast, whether it’s rented or owned. It doesn’t take much. My brother came to visit recently from LA and he commented that my homes always feel ‘homey’ very quickly. And as I sit here now and look around my little rented place by the sea that I’ve only lived in for a few months, I can see that he’s right.

Even when I know I won’t be in a home for very long I still make an effort to put my mark on it. Actually it’s not an effort, it’s a compulsion – I have to do it! It’s what I love and it’s what makes me tick. I don’t really bother with paint or anything that costs real money because why would I renovate my landlord’s home for them? (The question of whether or not to invest much into a rental is a topic for another piece because it really depends on where you live and what your prospects and desire for home ownership are. In some countries owning property isn’t a high priority and I do wonder if my children’s generation, at least those living in expensive cities like London, will be forced to not care about owning a home because it is rapidly becoming financially impossible without a high paying job or wealthy parents). Anyway, tangent! Like I said, it’s an entire article in itself.

Speaking personally, my goal has been to buy another home after selling my place in the States, so saving my pennies has taken priority over fixing up a rental while I live in it for a short time. I know I’m not alone in this. And what is the first thing I do when I move into a new place, especially a rental where I may not love everything about the decor? I light it well.

My NUMBER ONE tip for instant ambience (read: homey vibes) is lighting. I know, I know, don’t roll your eyes, it’s not groundbreaking. Every designer who has ever lived has shared this nugget of interiors advice. And yet…how many homes do I visit that get it wrong? So many! Seriously, a shocking amount. I styled a big commercial shoot in a massive house in North London last year – trust me, there was plenty of money sloshing around – but the most shocking lighting situation throughout the home. Cold, harsh LED bulbs adorned a huge and likely very expensive chandelier hung in the triple height foyer – the bulbs with that blue-ish tint like you’re in the cheese aisle at the supermarket. The right bulbs and it would’ve felt like a different place entirely. Warm and cosy and inviting instead of too bright, harsh and a little bit sad and depressing.

The day I moved into my current rented home earlier this year, I plugged in all my lamps before I did almost anything else. Below is my first night, surrounded by moving boxes, but with one corner of calm lit softly by lamp light. A glass of wine and my favourite chocolate biscuits from childhood helped as well. The next day I added a couple of lamps to the bedroom along with some favourite artwork and plants and it almost felt like home.

lamp lighting adds ambience to a simply decorated room

From where I sit, in my 30 square metre, high ceilinged living room I count seven lamps. Some may say it’s excessive but honestly I’m thinking it needs more. They are dotted around, on the piano, on the mantel, a side table, and they elevate the room’s custardy magnolia painted walls (a favourite of UK landlords. Why?) to something close to elegance. With the harsh overhead light switched on, the room loses it’s charm, but with the warm, low light of a variety of lamps, it glows warmly. Low energy LED bulbs (I bought mine at IKEA) – the warm, almost amber toned ones – prevent my electricity bill from being shocking. So, lamps. If you see one you like, don’t ask do I have anywhere for it, just buy it. You can never have too many. And don’t even think about putting that overhead light on unless you’ve lost something down the sofa and you need searchlights.

I just deleted an entire paragraph with other quick tips (plants, books etc…) because you know what? This is THE ONE. If you can only do one thing, sort your lighting and it will transform your home.

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  • Reply Elizabeth 2 December 2021 at 9:30 AM

    Hello Emily,
    I love this post as I do all your other posts. How wonderful to be living by the sea.

    I totally agree with your interiors lifestyle approach. There is so much more to interiors than the newest trend or purchase and yes on all the decorating questions!

    I can relate to what you say about moving and being complemented on having a ‘homey’ home wherever you are is the best. I have moved around a great deal myself (Seychelles > Glasgow > London > Paris > London > Brittany > Netherlands) and always made a point of having the same furniture, etc. wherever we moved to (only in Europe though) :). I always preferred to rent unfurnished houses. Particularly with children, it was always important for them to feel at home wherever they were.

    Oh, lighting. How I wish I could get it right. The lighting in our house is blah, especially as I’m often crafting in the evenings after work and need bright light in the winter months. I will make a point of reviewing the lamp situation. 🙂 I will be searching for lamps and as you say, if I see one I like I won’t ask about where to put it and will just buy it. 🙂 I have that attitude towards plants so why not lamps?

    Thank you for a lovely, gentle and inspiring post.
    Warm regards,

  • Reply Emily Henson 7 December 2021 at 11:41 AM

    Dear Elizabeth,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful comment. I’m happy to hear from a fellow world traveller! Enjoy your winter crafting and good luck with your lighting refresh. Thanks for reading x

  • Reply Claire 18 March 2022 at 6:32 PM

    Hello Emily,

    I’ve enjoyed reading through all of your archives over the last year – I found you through a circuitous path of clicking on ‘More books like this’ in the library catalog after I finished Selina Lake’s Bazaar Style. Your Life Unstyled book is now a permanent resident on my bedside table – or it will be again when I unpack after my own most recent move!

    I couldn’t agree more about lighting. My previous home, a very tiny condo, actually only had one overhead light, which I never used. Instead, I collected lamps large and small. Some are still waiting on the coat of spray paint that I feel they need to truly be my style – but they give me good light even if they don’t match my aesthetic right now.

    In my new home, a walk-out basement duplex, I was de-lighted (get it?) to find that the LED disc lighting could all be adjusted to different temperatures! The previous owner had them all set on the coldest and brightest setting, but it was the work of 45 minutes and a tall ladder to go around and change them all to the warmest. I still prefer my lamps in the evening, but it nice to have warm overhead light while I cook, unpack, and learn my way around this new space…

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and for your passionate enthusiasm of letting life spill into all of our spaces!

    • Reply Emily Henson 22 March 2022 at 11:39 AM

      Dear Claire,
      Thanks for such a lovely message! I’m pleased you’ve found me (I love Selina’s book Bazaar Style – it’s also one of my favourites)

      Lighting is so so important and can change a space instantly. What joy that you discovered you could change those bulbs! Good luck with your most recent move. Emily

  • Reply Lita Notte 23 March 2022 at 10:28 AM

    Hi Emily, Its so good to hear your voice and read your written word! And Green Sink its a genius idea – very retro yet very “now”. I hear you soooo well on the ambient light touch – too many homes or houses achieve it and its great to hear your advice that its this foundational element that can help create home vibes – not just house vibe.

    Margate has such happy memories for me as a seaside town we would drive to from London in our volkswagan camper van as kids. Mum is gone now. So is the camper van but the memories keep being special and its terrific to see the town developing a creative and vibrant streak – you will certainly add heaps to that current trend!

    Keep being you and sharing your stories with us. Its such joy.

    • Reply Emily Henson 24 March 2022 at 8:17 AM

      Thanks Lita! We also had a VW camper when we were kids – bright yellow. Great memories. So lovely you have those memories with your mum. Thanks for reading and for your kind comments. Emily

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