Why Pot Lights Are The Scourge of Interior Design

Why Pot Lights are the scourge of interior design

A pox upon the pot light! Everybody’s got ’em.

But according to a study released by The Comfort Institute, less than 20% of us actually use them. Why? Well, for one thing, the light source they provide is oppressive. It casts sharp and contrasted shafts of light in concentrated areas from the top down, creating harsh shadows whenever anything gets in the way.  A pot light possesses about as much simulated similarity to natural ambient light as a tanning lamp suggests real sunlight.

Initially, pot lights came into vogue in industrial settings; cavernous spaces that needed to be lit cheaply and brightly at a glance. This is the same design philosophy big box retail stores ascribe to; slightly refined and offset, usually with directional track lighting: even more beams that brightly illuminate showrooms to show off products to their best advantage…well…sort of.

The light is bright – yes.

But it also tends to lack any sort of refinement; achieving a bold, garish assault on the human eye. Colors pop, contrast is through the roof distracting, and the eye becomes unable to recognize any and all subtleties in color reproduction. Arguably, this ‘look’ is great for a showroom. At the very least, the products being displayed ‘pop’ with a sort of cartoon display of color that, if not accurately reproduced, nevertheless, suggests a level of vibrancy impossible to recreate inside your home. Better question: why would you want to?

So, how about the home – your home?

Well, pot lights gained popularity in the kitchen, bathroom and closet; a great way to provide concentrated shafts of light to illuminate counter space for food preparation, or brighten walk-in wardrobes and showers. So that’s where I dropped the soap. But I digress.

Great! Brilliant! …except that the moment a chef leaned in too far to examine his/her handy work, their shadow blocked out this pool of light, burrowing into the back of his/her head instead. For some reason, the popularity of pot lights continued. Fast, they became the standard for vaulted ceilings. Some high ceiling condos built in the late eighties and early 1990’s are so slap-happy with pot lights they look like the undercarriage of the mother-ship from Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Today, the recessed ‘can light’ survives.

Most use a standard bulb rather than an energy efficient LED, and this can lead to heating, and overheating issues if the ‘can’ is not properly insulated. You can tell if a recessed can is airtight just by looking inside it; light seepage and/or holes in the can itself. While the ‘can light’ can be a valued accessory in the home, skillfully employed over kitchen cabinetry or arranged to dramatically highlight works of art on the wall, as a primary source of lighting in any home it really should be avoided at all costs. Even the best of the lot contribute a ridiculous amount of heat that, in attics, can lead to ice dams due to condensation during the winter months.

On a more superficial level, any light source with a concentrated downward beam is not particularly flattering, having the reverse effect of the ole ‘flashlight under the chin-campfire ghost story’ effect; casting harsh and aging shadows everywhere. Worse, at a height of 8 ft. the average interior ceiling at home, light spread from a pot light is barely 4 to 5 ft. …so much for ‘filling’ a room with an evenly distributed ambient light source. Consider you will need approximately 6 to 8 pot lights to achieve the same light distribution of two 14-watt bulbs in a semi-flush mount light fixture. More of a concern, especially for those installing pot lights in a lower level, is the issue of heat distribution. Either from improper installation, or simply from using wattage too great for the fixture itself, it is not uncommon for pot lights to scorch the sub-floor and joists above them – a very real fire hazard.

Bottom line: there are so many more efficient and attractive ways to illuminate a room; some, to be discussed in a subsequent article on this blog.  The difficulty, expense and dangerous of an improperly installed pot light supersede any of its aesthetic illuminating value…or lack thereof. While the pot light has its place, it arguably has no room in the place you call home.

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