We can learn from good lighting installations in various locations. The florescent lighting in the ceiling of this library offers general illumination. Consider color-corrected bulbs for the best color rendition. The track lighting focuses attention on the new release section near the windows. Soffit lighting illuminates the wall shelves which, in the retail showroom, would be displays. Photo courtesy of Azrock.

Lighting is a vital tool in the showroom. After all, you want your customers to be able to see your products in their best light so that they can make a wise and satisfying buying decision. But with more than 3,500 electric light sources to choose from, lamp selection can be quite a challenge.

Although color is among the most important considerations, efficiency, lifespan and price are also key factors. The selection process generally involves compromise on certain lamp features in order to optimize others.

Offered in this month's column is some general information about lamps to get you started. Your best route to success may involve seeking help from a lighting professional. Most lighting suppliers employ experts who are more than willing to help you choose the best lighting for your needs.

A combination of general lighting in the rafters of the open ceiling is augmented by accent or spot lighting in the display area. Photo courtesy of the Kohler Co. Design Center.

The ABCs of lighting

The three basic types of electric light sources are incandescent, fluorescent and high-intensity discharge (HID).

Incandescent lamps generate what generally is called "white" light. The spectrum of light emitted is continuous, with no gaps or spikes in the entire range of visible energy. Therefore, a smooth curve with more light in the red and orange range of the spectrum, and less in the blue and green wavelengths, is the visual result. Lamps most often used in the home produce "yellow-white" light.

A halogen lamp is a special incandescent variety that emits a "whiter" or "crisper" light than standard incandescents. Halogen lamps become more appealing when dimmed, as they tend to reinforce the impression of relaxation or intimacy.

Because they generate light in all parts of the visible spectrum, incandescent lamps are the best light sources for color rendition. They render all object colors well -- although red and orange object colors are rendered more vividly than blue and violet. Incandescent lamp color is very well suited for applications where a warm environment with good color rendering is desired. Examples of such areas include retail, hospitality, beauty salon and residential environs.

Fluorescent lamps represent another type of illumination. Flourescents are the most universally accepted lighting in commercial applications because they are economical to buy and operate. On the other hand, they distort the color of most products in their cool ranges.

More than 35 types of white fluorescent lamps are available. For showroom applications, I suggest that you choose a warm lamp at 3,200K (Kelvin), or less, to reinforce impressions of relaxation. Lamps in the range of 4,100K tend to reinforce visual clarity and efficiency. Look for bulbs with Color Rendering Index (CRI) values of 90, or greater, for good object color.

High-intensity discharge (HID) lighting was designed largely to illuminate roadways, industrial buildings, and to provide flood lighting and security lighting. Happily, things progress. From a color standpoint, the greatest variety of new lighting products hails from the HID family of lamps.

Don't forget to highlight architectural details with lighting. In this store, we see lighting installed in a curved, cove molding and in the display areas above the ties. An artificial skylight was created in a domed recess in the ceiling. The effect is softened, general illumination that doesn't distract from the merchandise being sold. Photo courtesy of Fiordo Tile.

Planning the system

You'll want to plan the lighting system for your showroom to accommodate general illumination, localized lighting and accent lighting. Lighting will help you to draw attention to specific products or areas. It can direct people through your showroom and act as a silent salesman. The system can be constructed to make a design statement, or it can be completely hidden from view.

For general illumination, such as instances in which the lighting is being used for cleaning or when you're doing general construction in the showroom area, fluorescent lighting will suffice. But don't rely on fluorescent lighting for the bulk of your illumination, because it tends to dull and distort most colors. One exception would be the warm fluorescent bulbs, which emit more light in the red range of the spectrum. They are a bit more expensive than the bluer-wavelength cool fluorescent tubes, but worth it if you're trying to show products to their maximum advantage.

In my opinion, a much better selection would be PAR 38 regular incandescent lamps. These will accommodate a regular light bulb and give you a warm, softer color of light. I would then suggest low-voltage MR 16 halogen lamps for feature and accent lighting. The low voltage would save you money and the halogen would give you a lot of high-impact lighting for your dollar. If you have a small budget, this combination would give you the most impact. For special areas, you cold introduce decorative pendant lights to make it easy for shoppers to identify various areas.

For a bit larger budget (but not over the top), recessed downlights can be installed on an overhead, enclosed-trellis system for general lighting. Then install track-mounted luminaires along the sidewalls to beam light onto displays that line the walls. PAR 38, 90-watt halogen lamps should be used for the downlights and the track lighting. Then stagger pendant lighting fixtures throughout the space to create a sense of drama.

A combination of recessed lighting and suspended pendant lights provide attractive lighting for the most selective clothing shopper. Flooring shoppers are just as discriminating when it comes to choosing their floor covering wardrobe.

Permanence vs. changeability

Some showroom owners and managers believe in changing the scenery often to keep a fresh look. While this can play havoc with a lighting system, you can avoid major disruption in the future by planning for lighting changes at the outset. I've seen showrooms where the lighting is wired for maximum flexiblity to accommodate constantly changing displays. Because nothing in the system is permanent, the showroom manager can redesign and reposition all of the lighting as needed.

There's a theatrical-style lighting system manufactured by the German manufacturer Erco that sets the lights on tracks that are equally spaced and run back-to-front in the room. This way, each display can be lit differently and adjusted to suit the display.

In retailing, it's not unusual for owners of small stores to present their designers with tight budgets and then exhort them to "make it work!" Solutions that are tasteful and provide a value-added element to the interior can be cost-effective as well.

As one lighting consultant I know advises, "Keep the lighting plan simple, select luminaires that integrate with the architecture of the interior, and remember that the lamp source does most of the work." All you have to do, at that point, is sell!