Overarching statements like being “done” with something as ubiquitous as can lighting is maybe a little dramatic, yes, but I’ve been discussing the topic with Emily back and forth for a few weeks now. It can be fun to be black-and-white about a topic to force people’s hand to make a decision. It’s what I call the “gun to the head” decision, which, well, is very (unnecessarily) violent (considering the day and age we live in), but an effective discussion tool when used hypothetically. Emily’s stance on the subject was that she’s seeing new trends emerge in place of the traditional recessed light (I’ll walk you through those), so, as a designer, maybe there’s no reason left to use the “builder basic” feature. Me, on the other hand (not a designer, just a design enthusiast), think there will likely always be a place for them. That said, we thought to take our discussion to the internet…and here we are.
From Emily: “It seems like back in the day, the only options we had for overhead lighting were can lights +flushmounts/pendant/chandelier, only can, or flush/semi-flush fixtures, but we are seeing more alternatives to ceiling lights where there is an obvious shift from the really consistently placed overhead round white 6-inch can light.”
Em, though I don’t necessarily disagree with you that people are doing different, cool things (but also, kind of cluttered things…stand by for photo examples), classic recessed lights are just one of those things in a home that, while not always super attractive, add enough value and ease of living (you know…if you classify wanting to “see” things in a well-lit room value) to outweigh their visual clunkiness. And frankly, I think, as long as they are well placed, they aren’t that clunky. Their very nature is to be visually unobtrusive, hiding up in the ceiling.
Let’s pause for a second, though, to throw out some definitions. I’m guessing most of you know what I’m talking about when I say “can” or “recessed” lighting (which, according to my husband who’s in the architecture field, are two words for the same thing), just in case, these are the bad boys I mean:
Pretty basic, run-of-the-mill can lights (also called “pot” lights) are about 6 inches round, typically with a slight ring around them that’s flush to the ceiling. The wiring and housing sit inside your ceiling. The install on these, according to Jeff Malcolm, the GC on the mountain house, is about $75 per light all in (wiring and installation) for a new build and about $125 per light for a remodel (considering there’s an existing light circuit). None of that includes the actual cost of the light itself which could run anywhere from $10 for something no-frills at say, Home Depot, to deep into the hundreds mark for something smaller, LED or more decorative.
Anyhow, I just wanted to lay that foundation for you all before diving into all the new “options” we’ve been seeing to keep costs in mind. Like with most things in life (and design), the nicer or even less visible something is, the more $$$ it becomes.
Emily did want me to remind everyone what she did use can lighting in the mountain house (that’s a “before” shot above of the family room). Exhibit A:
The house was more modern than her LA house, so they “fit in.” Plus, the intention was to keep this house much more minimal in terms of “stuff” so the can lights provided overall room light without filling any space with lighting fixtures.
Now, let’s dive into the whole “what we’re seeing” part of this post, starting with a project that’s likely familiar to anyone who’s been following this blog for a while:
Black, Square & Very Small
Emily’s friends Corbett and Leigh opted for more modern recessed lights in their (ridiculously gorgeous) Los Angeles home, shown above. The installation on something like this would likely not increase the cost; the only thing that’s the variable is the light itself. I personally love this look because it’s both functional and pretty good looking. It’s like a nice, kind, smart AND funny man. FULL PACKAGE PEOPLE. I think white, round can lights might look a little sterile in a home like this…misplaced almost, so this is a great option.
Here’s another example, in another modern home. Definitely file away “small, black and square” into your modern home filing cabinet. These could also just as easily have been white to fade away, but I’m sure it was a stylistic choice. These appear to be double lights (two small bulbs in the same housing), which probably helps with light distribution and direction. I’m into it.
The whole “tube” light fixture in general is what made this conversation about the hypothetical demise of the can light come to light (ha). I’ll show you some shots where these are used in groupings (like can lights would be) in a sec, but for right now, this is what we’re calling “spotlights” because, that’s frankly exactly what they are. Making them into more of a flushmount fixture does feel a bit more intentional. That’s not to say a recessed light wouldn’t have been premeditated, but being that it’s a one-off in the ceiling, making it stand out a little more rather than visually disguising it says “yeah, I meant to do this.” Could this also have just been a moment for a pendant? I think yes, but it really depends on the placement in the room. In this space in particular, it might be a bit strange, like a random hanging light fixture off-center to the room. What do you think?
The lights here seem to have a bit of a similar purpose (providing more direct light on the sofa…maybe for reading?) but they very well might also just be individual pivoting lights, similar to what you’d find on a track lighting system…just without the actual track.
Same situation (same designer, also), presumably for illuminating a dressing area near the closet. These, however, are black (or bronze?) so my question then becomes, why chose to make spotlights like this more visible. Is this purely stylistic? To pick up the black in the cord of the pendant above the nightstand? To play off the room’s more contemporary aesthetic?
Really Striking Black Track Lighting
If you’re okay with the visibility of black, modern track lighting, this could be a good alternative to recessed lighting. It’s adaptable, works well for a ceiling like above and below (cement-finished, wood-slatted) where drilling in holes for the cans might look disruptive, and in my opinion, adds a certain cool industrial vibe. I’m not talking found iron barrels repurposed into a coffee table “industrial vibes.” I just mean it’s a bit more suited to an open, contemporary room/space.
Recessed lighting has the option of having a pivoting “eyeball” like feature, so you can direct light similar to how you would a track lighting system, but again, I think it just boils down to aesthetic preferences, tbh.
Clustered Tube Lights
These are just like the one-off spotlights I wrote about earlier, except…there’s more of them. I do really like them over a kitchen island, and they’re also pretty neat in a hallway:
But I was curious about the kind of light they gave off (would they be harsher, is this any different than a can light that would sit 6-8 inches higher?), so I whipped out my phone and had an impromptu interview session with my unsuspecting architect husband about them. Here’s the gist of what he said:
Me: “So I’m writing about can lighting and ‘what’s next.’ I’ve been seeing a lot of ‘tube’ lights lately, like this:”
Me: “What do you think? Do you think it would create different light than recessed? Why do architects like using can lights? PS, I’m quoting you, so don’t embarass me.”
Charles: “Well, the light would probably be more focused, so it wouldn’t spread as much. It would focus on an area directly below it, in this instance, the island. But because it’s so focused on an area, now you get light playing…a pattern…dark, light, dark, light, dark, light.”
Me: “Ah ha, I see…so as an architect, do you like something more decorative like this, or are you still a fan of the traditional can/recessed light?”
Charles: “I like what works for the space. Something more decorative isn’t always the answer. Sometimes, elements have to fall back for others to stand out…so, it depends on what the space looks like and what’s trying to be accomplished. But can light is probably less expensive.”
Me: “So, do you think this kind of thing is just trendy or do you see it having lasting power?”
Charles: “It’s hard to say for me, but if what I’m seeing is any indication, even traditional recessed lighting seems to be getting stale in a design-forward state of mind. What I’m seeing is either smaller lights with more power resulting in a smaller profile (think LED) or a bank of LEDs behind a surface that acts as a diffuser. It’s like hiding your hand…like a magician. This whole surface is lit…but how??”
Me: “Now you’re showing off, but thanks.”
And there you have it folks…a look into my marriage. If you want someone who will always have something to say about literally anything, marry yourself an architect. SO MANY OPINIONS but SO USEFUL when you’re a design writer, I tell ya.
Before moving out of this category, I wanted to note…so many of these photos with the “tube” lighting situation are sourced from homes/designers out of Australia. The Aussies tend to lean much more “warm minimal modern” than Americans, but what we see over there eventually catches the wave across the Pacific stateside, so if you’re like “blegh this is offensive to my eyeballs” all I’ll say is this…just wait. Before you know it, you’ll be on board (like me with—I can’t believe I’m saying this—the scrunchie).
And finally, I move into the category that had Emily and I the most chatty: the multiple, showy flushmount. This is not a subtle design move. In fact, it plays the opposite role of the camouflaged recessed light. It’s an “I do because I can” aesthetic play, which I’m not normally mad about. My heart lives far deeper into the maximalist zip code than minimalist, but I’m not sure I’m entirely sold. In the above room, I do kind of like it, probably because the rest of the space’s decor and furnishings are neutral and subtle. This is the big “moment” here.
There’s also something interesting about the rose-hued blown glass flushmounts in this kitchen (if it looks familiar, I originally shared it in this post about lilac being back…and you guys called out the flopped over art piece which still makes me chuckle). They’re visually “light” so I think in this instance it works. Besides, if you’re someone who can muster the courage to do a purple kitchen with a funfetti-like terrazzo countertop and backsplash and a mustard yellow range…I doubt you’re worried about keeping things minimal.
Okay, I just LOVE this. It’s so over the top and purposeful and I’ve had this image saved in my Instagram bookmarks for a few months now. When Emily first suggested this topic being a post, I instantly knew I wanted to use this shot. I consider this far more of an art installation than functional lighting, but if you’re going to buck traditional, might as well do it with some flair, no?
And finally, speaking of flair…
While I’m not sure I’d go this far in my own space, I do applaud the adventurous spirit of Tia Zoldan, the designer of this kitchen above. While six can lights would have provided likely a sufficient amount of light, the brass flushmounts sure do add more style than recessed cans ever could.
So…I come back to the original question at hand: are we done with can lighting? Me personally, I think no, we’re not. And frankly, I don’t think Emily thinks we are either, but it’s fun to dive into what ELSE there is out there. But now I throw it to you, dear readers…where do you stand on the “cans are dead” vs. “cans are alive and well” debate? Are you into the multiple flushmount look or even the “tube” downlight? Can’t wait to hear from you!