Lighten Up

A designer turns us onto an illuminating trade.

Doreen Le May Madden glows as she talks about her work. Or maybe she’s just sitting under good lighting. As principal of Belmont-based Lux Lighting Design for almost two decades, this petite brunette has the skills to make any room positively sparkle. She’s tackled hundreds of commercial and residential jobs and the fiftysomething bandies about terms like “low voltage,” “wall-washer,” and “control system.” She’s been on This Old House, supports energy conservation, and recently custom-lit a 19th-century Gloucester castle with iron and bronze chandeliers. Here, we ask Madden about cutting down glare, going eco-friendly, and why the cliché about candlelight holds true (answer: soft lighting equalizes our nooks and crannies).

When did you, er, see the light?
I started out as an interior designer, but found myself constantly correcting bad lighting on jobs. It always seemed to be the key ingredient—that one piece that made a good design great.

What can you provide that an architect or interior designer can’t?
There are thousands of light sources out there. Architects and interior designers understand them to a certain extent, but lighting experts focus specifically on lighting technology, psychology, and physiology. I’m up on the latest fixtures and am always training.

If a house is already built, can you still help?
Architects love good lighting because it flatters their work, so they’re happy to have us on board before the walls go up. As a team, we can create solutions that are fully integrated with the design. That said, about 35 percent of our jobs are renovations, sometimes just a lighting upgrade. Many clients say that when they sell their homes, it’s the lighting we designed that moved buyers the most. There’s so much bad lighting out there that when people see good work, they really notice it.


What is “bad lighting”?
Glare is the biggest problem in interior lighting. Even low glare conditions can make people subconsciously shift around. Glare comes primarily from poorly designed fixtures, but even a good light incorrectly placed, or too many reflective surfaces like shiny countertops, will make you squint. Another major interior problem is overly uniform lighting where there’s no focal point. Without contrast, we get restless. Well-lit rooms have light and dark areas to lead our eyes from space to space. A single reading lamp in a big room can set up a cozy area to sit and relax.

What rooms are the most challenging?
Large, high-ceilinged spaces are always the hardest. They require different ambiances for different zones, but still need to feel like a single room. The trick is to hide the light source while illuminating the important surfaces and artwork.

How about your biggest success?
I had a Lynnfield client who was visually impaired; when she saw direct light, her eye broke it into prisms. Her home had recessed lighting and very bright sconces—together, they created such severe glare that she had to feel the walls to get around. I replaced everything with indirect and adjustable light sources. When it was all finished, she said I’d changed her life.

Can we have great lighting but still save energy?
Ten years ago, I had a client who wanted to light his 8,000-square-foot house with energy-efficient solutions. I used a combination of dimmable fluorescents and low voltage halogens. If I’d done it today, I would have added an LED component. With LEDs and dimmable fluorescents, you can get a beautiful, energy-efficient design.

Let’s talk new technology.
In this profession, efficiency is the future. Smaller, dimmable fluorescents last much longer than standard ones and save energy. They are similar in color to incandescent light and are very quiet. LEDs are booming—they only need a tiny amount of energy because they use a concentrated light source. I’ve put them outside to highlight flowerbeds and trees. When it’s dark, a little goes a long way, and the bulbs last forever. I don’t think they’re quite ready for interior use, except for accent or cabinet lighting, but the technology looks promising. Control systems also save a tremendous amount of energy. They measure the available light and adjust lamps accordingly—at the touch of a button, you can control all the lights in the house. They start at $10,000 for a 3,000 square foot house, and can go up to $40,000. Although they’re expensive, once homeowners understand their value, they usually go for it. I have one, and haven’t changed a bulb in my dining room chandelier in six years.