Bathrooms With an Attitude

Lighting tips that enhance ambiance, purpose and style
By Brice Cooper
May 17, 2010

Today’s bathroom has become a destination location inside the home—and not just for obvious reasons. Whether being tranformed into a spa-like retreat or a kid-friendly “Jack and Jill” wonderland, stylized bathrooms rarely skimp on color, accessories or the latest bath fixtures, yet lighting is often an afterthought. To maximize the investment of a bathroom install or retrofit, it’s important to consider architectural details as well as the mood that fits the space and the task. Even the smallest half-bath requires effective lighting so that guests can appreciate attention to detail in fixtures, accents and, of course, their own reflections.

Creating a bathroom that’s both functional and flattering requires multiple layers of light: ambient (or overhead), task and accent. By layering light, you can achieve the perfect balance between practical purposing—like applying makeup—and creating a softer ambiance throughout the rest of the space. A thoughtful lighting plan for a bathroom, regardless of its size, can enhance the room visually and functionally, while exuding an overall atmosphere that is a true expression of the homeowner’s style.


Warm colors, natural wood tones and clay tiles offer a great framework for a cozy bathroom. To enhance this mood, consider gentle ambient illumination with soft warm light. Certain compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), for example, help make surroundings feel comfortable and warm. Ideal for general purpose fixtures, these lamps (bulbs) offer a soft light that will last up to eight years, making them a great low-maintenance, energy-efficient alternative to standard incandescent lamps.

Highlight task areas with floodlights, and focus track lights on accenting tub and shower areas. This will allow for additional light in key areas without disrupting the mood of the room.

Take your plan to the next level by installing dimmers, which can do more than create a cozy atmosphere; dimmers can reduce the wattage and output of lamps, even if you’re already using energy-efficient light sources such as CFLs. CFLs offer up to 75 percent energy savings compared to standard incandescent lamps. In addition, they warm up fast and can provide 15 to 100 percent continuous dimming to give off just the right amount of light in all the right places. Be sure to select lamps that are dimmer-compatible.

GE Energy Smart CFLs GE's Energy Smart Floodlight R30 (right) is dimmer-compatibleGE Energy Smart CFLs (left) can add warmth while GE's Energy Smart Floodlight R30 (right) is dimmer-compatible

For added comfort, illuminate the walls and ceiling with soft white indoor floodlights, which cast a warm glow without menacing shadows. Position accent lighting to showcase an interesting object from above. Or try the latest trend in the lighting aisle, light-emitting diode (LED) accent lamps. LEDs give off a cool white light that’s ideal for accent illumination. Wattage options can range between 1W and 10W for virtually any accent need.


Peaceful decor can evoke feelings of serenity, balance and relaxation. For a tranquil environment, using more than one light source can add dimension and avoid overpowering silhouettes. An all-white decor is space-enhancing and, when matched with limestone, mosaic tile, mirrors or frosted glass, creates a calming, light-reflective environment. Soft ambient lighting, such as recessed downlights (rated for wet locations), has a peaceful effect when paired with dimmable, energy-efficient CFLs.

Cool accent colors, such as green, indigo and blue, have a soothing effect that combats stress and works well alongside multi-lamp fixtures to make the room brighter for specific tasks. Overhead spotlights can enhance the look by highlighting artwork or plants; wall sconces can showcase architecture or other intriguing details. These are both ideal applications for LED accent lamps. Stone or other textured walls can be emphasized by a wall-washing technique called “grazing,” which involves placing recessed directional fixtures 6  to 8 in. away from the wall and 12 to 30 in. apart for a dramatic visual effect.

Create drama with grazing Create drama by grazing a wall with light. Designer: Susan Cozzi


Bright colors have been proven in various studies to alleviate tiredness and boost energy, so for a fun, motivating ambiance, choose vibrant shades and light sources that offer crisp, white light. Halogen globes used in the bathroom vanity add a decorative touch that emphasizes the beauty of the fixtures while offering the added benefit of a longer lamp life compared to standard incandescent sources. Halogen globes are ideal for task lighting. For extra glamor, install rows of globes along the top and sides of the mirror.

Looking to create morning motivation? Opt for CFLs that produce clean, flattering light to bring out the colors and patterns of towels, paint and tiles, which can go a long way toward creating an upbeat, get-up-and-go bathroom. Best of all, they provide the same amount of light (lumens) as their incandescent counterparts, while consuming one-third to one-fourth the amount of energy and lasting 10 times as long. CFLs ensure more light and less heat, converting up to 25 percent of the electricity they use into light.

CFLs come in a variety of shapes (A-line, candle, globe, etc.), finishes and wattages, making them the ideal fit for just about any fixture. Many CFLs are also now available in a covered version (some are even ENERGY STAR-qualified) to mimic the incandescent shape that consumers are accustomed to.

There are many considerations to any bathroom design, but the lamp choice greatly impacts the room visually, economically and environmentally. Good lighting decisions can make a room lively and energetic or calm and cozy, depending on the mood of the space and the people who occupy it.

To learn more about lighting styles, energy-efficient lighting or other design tips visit What’s Your Lighting Style?

If you want to calculate the total energy savings by utilizing CFLs, check out the GE Energy Smart Calculator.

—For the past three years, Brice Cooper has been the face of the lighting industry as the “GE Lighting Guy.” An interior stylist by trade, Cooper’s expertise in lighting comes from firsthand experience in the field. His ability to convey product messaging and engage live audiences across the country is what has made him a consistent figure on television. Currently, he is the face of design shows such as Fox's Design Invasion as well as HGTV's Design on a Dime. His knowledgeable quirky persona shines through as the host of whatsyourlightingstyle.com, where Cooper guides the user through a series of lighting-based tutorials, videos and games.


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