The Designers’ Guide to Wall Sconces

Three interior designers share tips for selecting the best wall sconces for your space.
When it comes to lighting, there’s the good, the bad, and, well, the ugly. Lighting can either set the mood or, for anyone who’s been faced with the harsh glare of a fluorescent bulb for too long, it can leave you with a blinding headache. So you want to be sure to hit the right switch, so to speak. Of the various lighting fixtures out there, the wall sconce is the one that is used for multiple purposes, whether it be task, accent, or ambient lighting. Knowing which one is right for you can be overwhelming, so we polled three designers to bring you a comprehensive guide on this luminaire extraordinaire.
Bookshelves topped with orange sconces in room with orange sofa.

In Sasha Bikoff’s Springs, East Hampton, New York, residence, she opted for Urban Electric Co. custom neon colored sconces for her library. Photo by William Waldron

As defined, a sconce is a wooden or metal bracket affixed to a wall and designed to hold candles, lamps, or other types of illumination. One of the earliest forms of lighting fixtures, sconces first appeared in Classical antiquity (Although, it’s arguable that it was early homo sapiens who first came up with the idea during the Stone Age when they would wedge torches into the walls of caves.) By the by, more elaborate variations were inspired by the custom that began in the European Middle Ages of affixing metal sconces holding candles to church walls. Now fast forward to today, there are predominately eight silhouettes to choose from: flush mount, armed, swing arm, candle, wallchière, half-moon, spotlight, and recessed.
Marbleized paper lamp shades in tapered and drum shapes.
Design Tip: Petite shades are an easy way to bring added style to a space while also introducing color and texture. Made with fabric, marbleized paper, or grasscloth, tapered and drum shaped shades diffuse the light from wall sconces and chandeliers, and enhance the interiors they grace. Browse the collection of shades at Currey & Company.

Sponsored by Currey & Company

Considering the myriad styles available—from utilitarian to sculptural—selecting the right one really depends on the individual’s tastes. For New York City–based interior designer Sasha Bikoff, whose design aesthetic leans maximalist, she opts for an avant-garde look. “Wall sconces, for me, are like jewelry of the home,” she says. “My recommendation when choosing sconces is the same way you would consider what earring to wear to a party. Make it sparkle!”
Bed with surfboard headboard in bedroom designed by Sasha Bikoff. Shell sconce on wall over bedside table with vase of zinnias.

In her East Hampton guest bedroom, designer Sasha Bikoff answers nature’s call with a Murano shell sconce beside a Versace bed. Photo by William Waldron

But if you’re going for a more traditional approach, interior designer Becky Nielsen of Nashville, Tennessee, shares a few of her practical go-tos. “I love a swing arm sconce by a bed, so you can move it around as needed,” she says. “I love something metal in a bathroom. It feels clean to me and easy to match with whatever tile or architecture you have in there. A picture light always gives warmth or helps highlight a piece of art. And something low profile with a decorative shade is an easy way to add a little whimsy to a staircase.”
Bedside table with floral print table cloth, blue and white jar lamp and potted fern. Brass swing-arm lamp with pleated blue and white shade mounted on wall beside bed.

In this beach front Florida guest bedroom, designer Becky Nielsen added custom shades to swing arm sconces for easy reading. The side table is draped in a Caroline Irving floral fabric to coordinate with the Soane sheers and Les Indiennes paisley wallcovering. Photo by Caroline Bramlett

For Barrie Benson, Charlotte, North Carolina–based interior designer whose flair for mixing old with the new has become her calling card, she finds that using a wall sconce is an opportunity to bring in something vintage or antique to a room. “Wall sconces add character to a space,” she says. “They can be like jewelry for your walls.” But ultimately, selections will depend on what your space needs, she says.
Chest with blue and white China vessels filled with arrangements of peonies, larkspur, and hydrangeas. A pair of leaf-shaped wall sconces flank a gold-framed mirror over the chest.

Barrie Benson sourced Murano glass sconces from 1stDibs for this Charlotte, North Carolina, dining room. The de Gournay wallpaper is shown in a custom colorway. The sideboard is a Jansen antique; the leather chairs feature Jerry Pair leather; and the florals were designed by Proper Flower of Charlotte, North Carolina. Photo by Brie Williams

Barrie says wall sconces are especially preferable in certain spaces because of the light they provide. “In the powder room, you want to use something that will warm the face and create a mood, while in the bedroom bathrooms, you typically want a workhorse,” she says. “In this instance, we usually source something new, whereas, in the powder, we love to find a unique set to add interest and dimension to a small space.” Sasha concurs. “Sconces are great because they really illuminate the wall, so if you have a wallpaper with colors or a paint with texture, it highlights those details.”
Bathroom sink with mirror on wall above, mod black metal and clear glass globe sconce mounted on mirror, cartoon wallpaper on walls.

For this powder room, Barrie Benson installed a black and white frame print wallcovering sourced from Charlotte, North Carolina. For added interest, Barrie added decoupage New Yorker cartoons cut and collected by her client into the frames on wallpaper. Lighting by Visual Comfort & Co. Photo by Brie Williams

What do you need to consider when you’re selecting material, shape, and size? Becky says you need to think about the accompanying elements in the space. “What other finishes are in the room? What type of material is it being mounted on? What is it going next to?” Often used in pairs to flank a central piece such as a door, art, or mirror, sconces are decorative fixtures that create symmetry. “Balance is key, as is understanding the variables,” Barrie explains. “We love to play with different finishes, adding custom shades when appropriate, and using lighting as another layer in the design. It’s an opportunity to add a beautiful detail to a room with a strong focus on function, as well.” Sasha adds, “I love sconces that replicate nature. Whether it be shells or flowers, I view sconces almost as sculptural art.”

When it comes to proportion, there may not be a rule of thumb, but according to these designers, scale is everything. “Being able to draw an elevation and fixtures to scale can eliminate many mistakes,” Barrie says. “Always find out the placement of the wiring in regards to the fixture. Ultimately, bringing the fixture to the job site and seeing it there is the final act.” Becky says size and scale are most important when selecting a wall sconce. She asks the question, “Is it above a piece of art? On either side of a mirror in a bathroom? Next to a bed? You always need to scale in the sconce to the location first.”

Dining room with table set with china and white flower arrangement. Blue banquette with a pair of brass sconces sits against the wall behind the table.

This dining room features custom Gracie wallpaper and a coordinating aqua ruffle drapery. Designer Becky Nielsen added sconces near the banquette for mood lighting and the option of slipcovers on the chairs for ease. Photo by Laurey W. Glenn

Your sconce needs to possess both beauty and brains. In other words, you have a beautiful fixture, but is it equally functional? Our designers agree that function is paramount. “Often in small spaces like a powder room, it’s the main light source, so you must consider the impact it will make visually but also functionally,” Barrie says. “Providing enough light and the right type of light is crucial.” If you’re wondering what’s enough light and the right type of light, Barrie emphasizes, “Everything needs to be dimmable and make sure your bulbs are warm.” Becky points out that you need to consider where the person’s eye will be looking. “If you’re going to be under it a lot, adding a diffuser is nice.”
Banquette in corner of room with two paintings and sconce with brass-trimmed green shade on wall above.

Barrie Benson incorporated a David Iatesta sconce from Ainsworth Noah over pink linen upholstered walls in her client’s Greenwich, Connecticut living room. Barrie used a Fermoie stripe and Houles fringe for the draperies. The banquette is swathed in Robert Allen fabric and detailed with Samuel & Sons trim. The custom pillows feature Susan Deliss, Quadrille, and Fortuny fabrics. Photo by Francesco Lagnese

Truth be told, if well-designed walls could talk, they wouldn’t need to say a word. A sconce, the accoutrement to a wall, does all the talking for them. So let there be light, but make it pleasing to the eye!
By Ashley Hotham Cox