Chances are, movie palaces changed the way you light your home.

After electric lighting replaced gaslight at the end of the 19th century, most electric lighting was “specular,” a fancy way of saying it came from a point source like the white-hot filament of a standard light bulb. That situation changed during the 1920s with the arrival of indirect lighting (“indirect” meaning that the light source is hidden).

Indirect lighting took a while to catch on because, at first, electric fixtures were used just like gas mantles. No one thought of hiding them, since doing so would have been foolhardy with gas. Moreover, exposed light bulbs were initially seen as an emblem of modernity.

If you’ve ever tried to read by the light of an unshaded light bulb, though, you know that the glare they produce can be a real problem. Indirect lighting provided a dramatic solution: By concealing the light source, it diffused the light and, unlike an ordinary shade, completely eliminated specular glare.

Movie theaters were among the first to adopt indirect lighting. Auditoriums needed subdued lighting for safety even during the show, and of course having a lot of glary specular lamps wouldn’t do. Since live theaters had long used concealed footlights along the front edge of the stage – the well-known “limelight” you’ve heard about – it wasn’t much of a stretch to use indirect lighting in other parts of the building.

Perhaps the most dramatic new form of indirect lighting in theaters was soffit lighting. Typically, it consisted of a ceiling that stepped up from a low level at the perimeter (the “soffit”) to a higher one in the center.

Lighting fixtures were hidden in a continuous horizontal recess separating the two levels, so that a diffuse, glare-free light would bounce off of the upper ceiling into the space below.

The futuristic hovering effect this technique produced soon became a favorite with Art Deco commercial architects, who used it in countless clever ways. Naturally, it wasn’t long before these ideas were showing up in the latest homes as well.

But don’t think indirect lighting is all just theatrical razzle dazzle. It can be practical as well. For example, if you mount miniature fixtures under your kitchen’s wall cabinets and conceal them with a shallow skirt or “valance,” they’ll light the countertop beautifully, but won’t shine in your eyes.

What’s more, indirect lighting can be remarkably cheap. Since you don’t see the light source, you can use ordinary fixtures costing a few dollars – instead of overpriced boutique fixtures costing hundreds – and still get very sophisticated results. Depending on the space available, ordinary porcelain sockets, light ropes or even strands of miniature Christmas lights will do the job. Nor does the structure that conceals the lamps have to be expensive: Most soffit lighting, for example, consists of little more than a simple lumber framework finished with drywall.

Regardless of how you design your indirect lighting, though, remember that the lamps will need replacement now and then. Since you can’t always see into the recess that hides the fixture, make sure you can change the lamps by feel alone. And for heaven’s sake, turn off the juice first.


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