Should we use recessed can lighting in a mid century living room?

1960s living roomShould recessed can lighting be added to mid century homes, where there wasn’t any originally? And if, so, how? I’m throwing this one open to reader ideas. Natalie writes:

Pam – You link your kitchen to show your round, chrome, recessed lights, but I cannot find anywhere on the website where you say what the product is that you used for those round, recessed lights in your kitchen. We have vaulted ceilings in our “Den” with fake wood beams seperating it into 6 rectangles. The previous owner put in some nice 80’s can lights in each section. We cannot decide if we should replace them or if we should just close up the ceiling holes. If we close up the holes, I am afraid the living room will be dark, because the only light coming in there is from the patio door on one end of the room. So then I thought about recessed lighting to help it be more flush with the ceiling. Any ideas are welcome. I just needed a second opinion, well third since the hubs is just as stumped.

Thanks, Natalie

I ask Natalie whether the existing “eyeball” can lights work. She reports:

They work okay I guess, except that if you use regular light bulbs when they go out they explode. Like explode. And the light bulbs they have to go in there are like $40 for a pack. We flipped the lights on once and the one right above the light switch and entry way into the living room exploded in front of us. Then another one exploded over the couch. So there is currently only one light bulb in them.

I find them bright and kind of spot lighty, if you get what I mean. It is a den, it should be more warm.

And, when she sends more photos, she adds:

And we are actually trying to decide if we want to paint the beams white or not.

What do you think, readers — how should Natalie and Graham get more light into their mid century living room / den? Note, we had a post earlier this year in which readers weighed in (1) keeping a beamed ceiling and (2) with some comments on painting the beams. Although the style of the house was different, it’s worth taking a look — there were 80 comments!

  1. Evan says:

    We are restoring our 1947 ranch style and it has two recessed chrome lights in the kitchen, original to the house. I like them, but as we are in the middle of work, not sure how they will be actually “in use”.

  2. walter says:

    Recessed lights are very mid-mod. Our house had square ones in every room. The fixtures produced very poor lighting by todays standards. So when we rebuilt the house we replaced them all with modern cans.

    For the ‘exploding bulbs’, I wonder if you somehow got some defective ones. In any event, you might consider replacing them with LED bulbs of the same size (PAR38?) and never worry about it again. LED bulbs use about 1/7th the power for the same brightness too.

  3. ModMeg says:

    You could replace the ceiling fan with a single pendant light, perhaps a school house style shade. Cover the can lights up and paint the ceiling a burnt orange. Love the wood beams!

  4. Erin Inclan says:

    NO to recessed lighting. My architectural lighting designer spouse says no to recessed lighting in general, regardless of your home’s era. Recessed lighting is spotty and makes for a dark ceiling. What you really want is lighting that will throw light UP and down. You can do this with a pendant or floor/table lamps. For example, think George Nelson or Noguchi, or even the cheap Asian paper lamps (Ikea has some decent knock offs). Think glowy. We have a similar living room (1960s split level) and have a couple floor lamps that are white globes, one illuminated wall that changes colors (dichroic glass and a computerized timing system with down lamps) AND we have one of your aluminum cans (came with the place) that points at our fireplace. We swapped all of our fugly 1970s brass fans and lighting fixtures at Portland’s infamous Hippo Hardware. Cheers!

    1. pam kueber says:

      Thanks for the comment, Erin. Note, though: Somebody loved those 70s lights and fans back when… and they’ll likely be “hip” again soon – some are already!

  5. Tim says:

    I’d put in the can lights. Your house is not a time capsule and lighting is one of the most important things in your house. Put them on a dimmer switch and then you can really highlight your room without blinding people.

  6. Janet says:

    If you paint those beams someone will be very, very frustrated someday when they try to return this room to its original appearance. I would not try to impose a newer aesthetic on it. Touching up the stain is not that difficult to do. For a less contrasty appearance I might consider mellowing the white-white ceiling with a tiny bit of golden or rose tin, just enough to alter the color of light in the room but not enough to make people notice that it’s not pure white.

    Those ceiling lights look good just as they are. Any other kind of fixture would have to take the slope of the ceiling into account. Pendant ball fixtures could do that but I think they would be too intrusive … there are too many.

    Overhead lighting has a way of somehow pressing down hard on your head. At the time your house was built people often overdid this kind of lighting because they simply hadn’t had experience with fixtures like this or they thought of it only in utilitarian terms. Once the electrical issue is resolved, which should be first priority for safety reasons, I’d use those ceiling lights only when bright light is required. Examples might be cleaning or looking for a lost contact lens. For all other purposes I’d rely on lights that are no more than head height: floor or table lamps.

  7. dn says:

    A bit late to this party, but…. For those of you concerned about the authenticity of recessed lighting, check any Saxon’s (“Oh, Happy Happy Happy” was one of his books) cartoons in the New Yorker from circa 1960, his post and beam fantasy houses had the big (probably brass) bezel can and pinhole spot lights, and some eyeballs too. They would have been the height of cocktail chic back then….

    And get the wiring checked, blown bulbs are often an indicator of bigger problems (or cheap bulbs, but I know you aren’t using them).

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