It’s a rite of passage to have a dark (maybe even windowless) room at some point in your life – You aren’t alone and I can solemnly say that a small room with little natural light is one American’s biggest design agonies. If natural light is our design best friend, then the lack of light is indeed the enemy. So today we are declaring war, and we are going to win.
The goal here is to not just add physical LIGHT but also create a sense of BRIGHTNESS, of LIFE. But first, if you are currently renovating or about to, stop and ask yourself “could I put in a window or skylight in here?” So aside from you lucky renovators, most of us just have to use what we are handed and to resort to tricking the eye into perceiving the room as bigger and brighter than it is. MAGICIANS WE ARE. Let the magic begin…
Painting Your Room A Color Instead Of White
Don’t be afraid to embrace a darker color, including the ceiling. Oddly if you have a dark room with a white ceiling it almost stops your eye and makes the ceiling feel lower. But if you paint it the same color or a slightly lighter version it feels more like it extends with no stopping point. If you are afraid of it looking like a cave, go for a medium tone (like the 2nd or 3rd on the paint strip you are eyeing) to give it “a feeling”. Despite all of your common sense, if you paint a small dark room white, it will look like a small dark flat boring room. Sure it might feel bigger, but without light bouncing around it’s also going to feel like a boring jail cell.
Mirrors Are King
This isn’t the first time we’ve spoken about the power of mirrors. They are any room’s secret weapon (or magic trick). Mirrors not only make your room feel bigger but they will bounce around any light that comes its way. Ok, that one was obvious but that’s how important it is.
Don't be afraid of using more than one mirror in the same room. Just make sure to vary the sizes and functions (for example: one could be a large leaning mirror and the other a smaller wall mirror).
Pepper in Reflective Accents
This hack is in the same vein as the mirrors. Shiny objects will always reflect light and make a space feel a little happier. That can be a light fixture, picture frame, small tray decorative object, accents of your furniture pieces, etc. Just don’t go overboard unless you want to go full speed into the glam world.
Use Different Types Of Lighting
When you don’t have natural light you gotta create it. We wrote a lighting post a few years ago talking about different types of lights and the importance of having multiple in one room. So first thing’s first, ambient lighting is a MUST in a dark room. Those are lights that give off diffused light in all directions (think lamps with a shade). Then consider a sconce and even a small directional light task lamp for a side table. Having a couple types of light sources will make your space feel much happier.
Use Warm White Lightbulbs
Since we are already talked about lights, let’s go deeper and discuss light bulbs. Now there is a time and a place for cool white light bulbs. They are apparently way better for your work area and where you put on makeup (they create more of a color contrast). But EHD is pro warm light all the way. This is especially important in a dark room. Don’t add a cool light that will make your room feel cold and harsh. Instead, bring warmth into your room and your heart with a lightbulb like this one🙂 Also, we are planning to do a light blub review post soon and it is going to be riveting folks.
Add In Color and Pattern
If you have a dark room and only decorate with muted solid neutrals, you are asking for a space that will feel flat and probably a little depressing. You don’t have to decorate with all the colors of the rainbow (actually, don’t do that). Just choose a color palette that makes you happy and throw in some patterns (with varied pattern scales) for visual interest.
Consider French Interior Doors
This one is a bit more involved but a great tip nonetheless Installing french doors or interiors doors that let in light is an easy hack to increase the brightness of your room (there are great modern options too). You can put a shade, curtain or film over the glass for more privacy. Obviously these types of doors don’t give the most privacy no matter how good your shade is. So they might be better suited for an office, playroom or even guest room.
Also, I know that in the photo above those doors are actually sliding doors for Sara’s old closet but we didn’t have the ideal shot. Well actually we have one but we have to save it for the book. UGH, I can’t wait for this book to be done so you all can see the stunning homes we shot.
Put Plants Near Your Window
Does it seem counterintuitive to block your likely one window with even something as small as a bud vase? Sure. I mean in a dark room you want to capture every bit of natural light that you can. Well, I am here to tell you that you silence your intuition and should try putting a plant near your window. It will simultaneously bounce light around and create pretty shadows that give your room texture. Ultimately a plant will bring life and sculpture to your room which is ALWAYS a good thing in my book.
Ok, the war is now officially over because as I confidently predicted, WE WON. Dark, sad rooms be gone and only happy, brighter spaces shall be created henceforth. I hope that if you are one of the natural light lacking room dwellers that you feel hopeful those days are indeed numbered.
If any of you have any other tips PLEASE share. We love getting to hear what has worked for you and passing it along. And if you own your home and have been dreaming of natural light via a skylight, we are still running our Velux “Brighten Up Any Room” Skylight giveaway. Here’s the post to learn all about it. I can’t tell you what a difference they have made in the Mountain House and I will never renovate a house without them again.
See you in the comments xx
I love the layered patterns on the Cup of Jo bed pillows.
Maybe in a future blog post or something, can you discuss the number of light sources one should be shooting for in a dark room? My partner likes to joke that my love of lighting has caused us to live in a museum of lamps, but most of our rooms do not have overhead lights, cans, or sconces. How does one deal with lack of fixtures in a rental without going overboard?
I’ve been in that boat and my solution was a plug-in pendant light kit with a long cord. Plug it in, run it up the wall with a cord cover painted the wall color over the cord (or white cord, white wall), and then swag that puppy over.
I’m also a huge fan of plug in sconces and swing arm lamps, especially by beds and over side tables to save surface area. I like to vary the kinds of light shapes too and where they go, so I have a round lamp with a LED puck light in it on a bookshelf, etc.
I actually did the same thing in our last rental! We had plug-in pendants in our family room and both bedrooms–everywhere that lacked permanent overhead lighting. I was amazed at how much more light they provided than pur table lamps. 🙂 Also–consider your light bulbs. If you switch to LEDs, you can choose a bulb with a much higher Lumens output. When the fixture identifies its max wattage (e.g. 40 watts) it refers to the amount of electricity *used* by the bulb–not the amount of light the bulb produces. A 60-watt equivalent LED bulb only *uses* 9 actual watts, so it would be totally safe in a 40-watt max fixture, but it would produce significantly more light than a standard or CFL 40-watt bulb. The ceiling fan fixtures in our current home provided so little light that I thought I would have to replace them all. However, my engineer husband explained the trick above, and BAM! Problem solved. You can even get LED bulbs for old-fashioned fluorescent-tube lights–and they don’t buzz or flicker on! One final thing–EHD suggest using warm light, but I hate it. Basically, it distorts colors and gives everything yellow undertones. We use “daylight” (NOT cool white)… Read more »
wow. that’s a lot of bulb info. Sounds like you might be a good resource for our bulb post!
Emily – When you do the light bulb post, could you include info on how each type of light bulb generates light? Or maybe just identify the types of bulbs that generate light by strobing? I am a migraineur and strobing light bulbs, like fluorescents, give me migraines, sometimes in just a couple of minutes. I would love to have more choices than 40 watt incandescent light bulbs….
This issue is relevant to people with seizure disorders, too.
Thank you for your consideration.
Thank goodness for bulb-smart husbands haha My husband is a lighting rep so you can imagine that the electrical plan was his #1 priority in our new-build. As you said, everything is LED and you betcha that he picked a house color temp and ev.er.y.thing is the same temp – which feels so nice – even the Edison style in our glass shade pendants. One thing he introduced me to is a ‘warm-dim’ fixture. We are big fans of dimable lights and you can get bulbs/cans that get warmer in temp as you dim them which is really glowy and lovely.
I am actually SO excited for the lightbulb post! Can’t wait!
I am looking forward to the lightbulb review! There are so many choices, that it is kind of crazy. Please just tell me what brand and type to buy! Standing in the lightbulb aisle studying choices isn’t fun!
All the rooms shown are rooms with plenty of natural light!
they aren’t, necessarily. But it was SO HARD to find photos of rooms that have no windows or small windows for whatever reason.
Come to my place, you can use every single tiny light challenged itty bitty room (Brooklyn apartment, the real kind not the “tiny space but I actually can afford a big space” kind)…;)
All the rooms shown have plenty of natural light!
There are a lot of good ideas in this post, but I wish the photos were actually of dark rooms. My house has a lot of dark rooms because of the trees on my property and I have been struggling to make them look right.
Totally agree! Very odd to a do a post on dark rooms and just about every picture was flooded with natural light. I love this blog but posts like this just feel churned out.
Thanks for the lightbulb recommendation! I have a dark basement family room where I used the French door trick. Could you give me a recessed light recommendation? I’d love to know what you use!
I’ll defer to the expert designers, but would note that we recently replaced the old-school 6″ recessed lights in our home’s ceiling with adjustable 4″ units and visually it made a world of difference.
Thank you so much! Do you mind if I ask how bright they were?
Where’s the hero image from? I want to know more about that couch.
it’s from Ian Brennan’s house here: https://stylebyemilyhenderson.com/projects-individual-new-home?term_id=3582&title_name=%22FDR+Chic%22+With+a+Mix+of+Old+%26+New, But I think we got the sectional and HD buttercup. 🙂
I recently heard about light tubes. I’m reluctant to install a full on skylight, but I’ve heard that light tubes can be a great way to bring in more brightness. I’d love more info or experiences!
There’s a light tube (Solatube brand?) in my kitchen. The kitchen is small with just one north-facing window. The light tube makes a big difference! Like, it brings in enough daylight to make a sandwich with the windowshade closed, though I do need to turn on the electric lights for enough brightness to cook for real. It has a frosted glass shade and a bulb inside, so it does double duty as an overhead lamp at night.
Huge fan of the solar tube! In our old house we put one in our master closet and it was miraculous! In our current house the only room that didn’t have a window or skylight was our kids bath, but with a tile roof it was too hard to add. When we re-roofed last year you bet we added one! It made such a difference! For quick trips, brushing teeth, even showering, they hardly turn the light on if its daytime! Even when the it is fully sunny and the light coming through is pretty bright, it never feels harsh, just a lovely glow. It even spills light into the previously darkish hallway, making it feel lighter. We have skylights too in larger rooms, and I love a good skylight so if you are renovating, re-roofing, or just have the budget or desire for one, they’re great. But solar tubes are so inexpensive and relatively easy to install, so they are a great add if a skylight is not feasible, and they can be a better fit for a smaller space. Go for it, you won’t be sorry!
I really can’t wait for this lightbulb review. I’m always sad when one of my lightbulbs goes out because I have to figure out what the heck to replace it with. I can never seem to get it right.
Help, I’ve stopped getting your almost daily emails. What happened?
Help! I no longer get your emails delivered to my inbox. What happened?
AHHH. Working on a fix for ya!
Thanks for these ideas, because, living in a townhome, we have lots of spaces that are too dark. I’m always afraid to paint a dark room a dark color, but the image you show looks great. Ok- if you are writing a post on lightbulbs, I will share my own guidelines for buying LED replacements for incandescent bulbs. First, I will not buy a bulb with a CRI (color rendering index) less than 85, but I always try to get 90. 90 is the closest match to incandescents, and the closer to 100, the closer to sunlight. Color rendering refers to the “trueness” of the colors when they appear in that light. This info is not easy to find on packaging of bulbs bought in stores (and if it’s not on there, I have found that it usually means it’s bad). That’s why I usually order my bulbs online where I can see all of the specs. Second, I use about 2700k temp for inside (warmer), and 3000-4000k for outside (recommended by electrician who replaced our 250 outside lights at our HOA). I find 1000bulbs.com a great source, but sometimes I find them there but buy the same bulb through… Read more »
It’s kind of a duh, but be sure to think about what is going on OUTSIDE any windows you have. In my one darker bedroom, a small but dense fir tree right outside the window was blocking a fair amount of light from streaming inside. Swapped it out with a small magnolia that has a small number of large leaves and the room is much, much brighter.
Reading this on break from painting my small, one-windowed kitchen bright white ???♀️
SO helpful!!! Thank you! We’re about to finish our very dark, somewhat windowless, 100% underground basement and I’m excited to try a few of these ideas!!!
glad you found it helpful! my dungeon — i mean, bedroom, only has the door leading out to my balcony for natural light, so i’m excited to try them out for myself 🙂 😛
Not directly related to this post, but I just wanted thank you for providing direct linking to comments again. I really appreciate it! 🙂
This is really interesting! One thing I can add is this:
A mirror that reflects dark surfaces will make the space seem darker.
The day I figured that out was a huge breakthrough. If you paint a room a dark tone, you will be better off hanging art that has a white matte/lots of white in it that hanging a mirror. Or put a mirror opposite the doorway or window to get it to reflect light.
Oh, this is such a good tip. Thank you!
please do a light bulb post!!!! I am desperate for help.
I, for one, AM looking forward to a light bulb round-up! And I never thought I would ever say such a sentence:)
Ha. Same here!
Thank you for this! Would you ever consider doing a post about how you’d style a below-grade basement? I.e. flooring options, paint color (true low light room), lighting types, furniture types/colors, etc? The only designer basements I’ve seen are walk-out basements with lots of natural light, and my basement is most definitely not that!
Thanks to you and your team for this blog. Love, love, love your style and learning how to incorporate changes into my home to make it better. 🙂
What about a weirdly large, semi-dark Southwest-facing kitchen that’s only bright during very specific times of the day? I was going to go for a light grey, but now I fear “jail cell.” Is Repose Grey medium? Oy vey.
I would especially love tips on dimmable LEDs. I know what to look for when it comes to color temperature, but the dimmable bulbs often have weird “steps,” and I can’t find the step that I like — I want something in between.
I am grateful that there are so many new lighting options now, but it’s hard to keep up. When I renovated my kitchen three years ago, the only pot style under-counter lights we could get were halogen (we needed pots versus strips, because they are installed in/under some floating shelves as well as cabinets). As the lights burned out, I found LED replacements, but it was so hard to find a size that fit, a good color temperature and… my holy grail… ones that don’t have weird steps. I do love that they aren’t hot though.
I also have some Hue lights in my bedroom, which are amazing. The color can be changed so easily, and I have them set on timers to gradually scale up in the morning and scale down in the evening. But they are $35 for each bulb, so that’s not going to work for the whole house.
Here’s a question, I have an “inside” bathroom in my condo that we’re about to renovate – no natural light. Would that mean white tile is a no-no?
I honestly need the lightbulb review. Please do it soon! I’m so confused with the bulbs that are out now.
Good content and images.
Was literally about to send in this exact design agony. You gorgeous talented angel ladies, my bedroom is about to be so cute. Thank you!!!
Love most of these tips, but I have a warm white pendant light in my small, low light bedroom and it actually drives me nuts. It gives everything a subtle orange tint – just enough that everything is a slightly different color in my room than it is in the store (fun!). Between the tint and the flat light, I often dislike things once they’re in my bedroom.
One thing that helps is texture! I got a denim-blue linen duvet cover, which I love (purchased thanks to EHD’s tip to use medium tones in low-light rooms). Anything I’ve brought home that’s plain cotton looks super meh. Waffle textures, linens, knubby knit stuff – as long as they’re more medium tones, they’re all are good!
Of course, now I’m totally confused about what to pair with a blue duvet cover (ha!). EHD, any chance of getting a post on how to style a bed around a colorful duvet?
I also find bold patterns are overwhelming in my small (legit small, like 10’x11′) bedroom. I’d love to bring them in to help with the lack of light, but it’s overpowering!
What would you suggest for a dark bathroom with no windows?
A few months ago I was faced with how to make my living room brighter in my rental condo. After researching paint colors I discovered that all paints are given an LRV,
Light Reflective Value. This means how much brightness is reflected back off the surface when light is turned on.
The numbers are usually printed on the back of the sample paint strip, or on the paint manufacturer’s website.
The values go from 0 – 100,
0 = black and 100 = brightest white. I had chosen a midtone blue to start, and after learning about LRV, I checked and my number was below 50. I went back to paint store and found a similar color but with LRV of about 70. It made ALL the difference in how much brighter my room looked.
I hope this helps others when considering paint choices.