Home Lighting

Finishing Touches: Six Reasons Why Surface Finishes Matter

By Susan Bloom

Dark walls, shiny stone countertops and high-gloss furnishings may be in vogue, but before you opt for these seemingly luxe looks, consider the following: The finishes on different surfaces can greatly impact the way you see light and subsequently experience glare, depth and color.

In fact, confirms Daniel Blitzer, principal of The Practical Lighting Workshop LLC in New York City, “our visual experience of a space or the objects in it is a function of both the light we apply and the surfaces we apply it to. Selecting materials without considering the lighting (and vice versa) can often yield surprising—and disappointing—results.” Blitzer offers the following suggestions for pairing lighting and surfaces finishes in your home.

Why Surface Finishes Matter In Lighting Design

Bright surfaces, such as white walls, require less light than darker ones. To save money and energy, opt for lighter surfaces.

1. Lighten up. 

Dark surfaces absorb more light than reflective ones, “so, to achieve a desired brightness, dark surfaces require more light and, therefore, more energy and cost, than do more reflective ones,” he explains. “For the most energy-effective designs, limit darker finishes to smaller surfaces, where the absorption of light will be less problematic.”

2. Matte trumps shine.

In addition, whether a surface is highly polished or shiny (specular), matte (diffuse), or highly textured also affects the experience of light. “Depending on the angle at which light arrives on a specular surface, you may experience distinct reflections that are either high in glare or else dull,” says Blitzer. “Matte surfaces, on the other hand, reflect light regardless of its origin without a distinct image and appear pleasingly bright.” He recommends using a matte finish, which minimizes glary reflections from the lighting above it, for working surfaces such as kitchen counters.

Blitzer warns that aging eyes need special considerations too. “Older eyes often find that specular reflections create glare and orientation concerns in circulation areas,” such as hallways and common rooms. “In these applications,” he notes, “matte finishes on walls and floors are better choices.”

3. Polished isn’t always perfect.

Polished woodwork or hardware reflects light around a room, which can create unexpected splashes of light, especially when lighting is overhead. Softening the polish on floors can help to reduce unpleasant or misleading images. For polished materials like ceramic tile that are frequently used in bath areas and kitchen backsplashes, Blizter suggests locating the light source close to the surface to prevent visible images of the source on the wall or other vertical surface.

4. Texture matters.

“Textured surfaces reveal highlights and shadows when lighted with grazing light at an acute angle,” he notes. “This is most appropriate when the surface is richly textured, such as rough stone or brick.” However, he cautions, “some surfaces have undesirable textures (think of a poorly finished plasterboard wall) and should be lit with a wash from a less acute angle.”

5. Color is key.

The color of the surface should dictate the color of the light source, says Blitzer: “The color you see from a surface is highly dependent on the color of light you use. Warm colors generally benefit from a light source rich in red (such as halogen or warmer tones of fluorescent or LED sources). Cool colors will typically feel a little muted with those sources and will appear more vibrant with cooler sources.”

6. Consider night and day.

“Finally,” he adds, “be sure to evaluate materials under the light sources you’ll ultimately be using in the space and remember that everything looks different when illuminated by daylight and at different times of day.”

What you need to know:

  • A surface finish can impact how you experience glare, depth and color
  • It’s important to consider lighting when choosing the finishes for your home
  • Our designer’s checklist can help you evaluate your finish options

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