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.
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.
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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!”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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