As any lighting designer will tell you, layering is key to creating the right ambiance. Toward that end, wall sconces are the ideal choice for creating everything from a bold, large-scale effect to specific task lighting.
“We are big fans of sconces and use them often, both as functional pieces and aesthetic focal points,” says Lauren Nelson, owner and principal of Lauren Nelson Design in San Francisco’s Bay Area. “I like to use wall sconces in spaces where I want more ambient light, and where we want a visual element on the wall.”
A great combination of function and form, wall sconces are decorative lights that are mounted to a wall rather than the ceiling. They can be—and often are—pieces of art. As such, they’re rarely a budget item. “I think of wall lighting in the same category as heirloom furniture, in that it should be a valued purchase: not fast-casual shopping, but rather an intentional choice to invest in something that you’ll potentially be looking at for decades,” says architect and designer Robert Highsmith, cofounder of Workstead Design Studio in Brooklyn, New York.
While you can find sconces for under $500, these are semi-permanent fixtures in your home and can act as investment pieces. “You can expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $6,000 for a wall sconce,” says Nelson. “This price fluctuation is a matter of material, quality, and vintage versus new.”
Materials and Forms in Wall Sconces
The wall sconce is the original light fixture, harkening back to medieval lanterns and colonial candle reflectors. “Historically, it really was the primary source of light,” says Highsmith, who designs the wall sconces and lighting products Workstead sells. “I think now it has evolved to being more decorative or additive in terms of creating another layer of light in the space. Sconces have the ability to be quite transformative.”
Traditionally just a simple source of light, today wall sconces have multiple uses. “They can uplight and downlight the wall, providing a soft ambient wash of light,” explains Ginny Macdonald, principal and founder of Ginny Macdonald Design, based in Los Angeles. “They can be installed up high above a sink or mirror to give you some directional light from above. They can also protrude out of the wall on an arm and act as a reading light above a bed or chair.”
“A well-placed and well-considered wall-mounted fixture can create a gratifying level of completion in a room.”
—Robert Highsmith, Workstead
Wall sconces come in a wide variety of materials. Stainless steel, aluminum, iron, brass, and wood are all common choices with the form of the fixture ranging from straight and simple to sculptural and multi-faceted. “I tend to love sconces that use rich materials and even a mix of materials—porcelain, alabaster, brass, wood, clay, plaster, stone,” says Nelson. “The more tactile, the better, in my book. I love to see the mark of the artist in a lighting fixture, and when there is a mix of these natural materials, they translate so beautifully into not just lighting, but art.”
For Workstead, brass is the go-to when designing sconces, both as a foundational metal and as a finish, but they also use cast iron, steel, and aluminum. “Our most popular collection is our Lodge collection made all of natural oak, which we either wax or oxidize,” says Highsmith. “Wood as a lighting typology is a fascinating material for us because it has this unexpected warmth to it that people don’t always find in lighting.”
Shade style and material are similarly wide-ranging, from traditional cloth and glass coverings to more modern and experimental choices. “We definitely oscillate between creating designs that are very distinct and fixed and impactful, with those that have just simple like flexibility and a kind of grace to them,” says Highsmith.
Functionality and Placement of Wall Sconces
Things to consider when selecting a sconce include candle style versus swing style. The fixed, candle style is a popular accent choice whereas a swing style is more suited to task lighting above a desk or bedside table, since you can move it around to direct the lighting.
Power source and control should also be top-of-mind. Ideally, wall sconces will be hardwired, requiring electrical and construction work or proper planning in the design and building stage. However, plug-in wall sconces are an option, and the power cord can be hidden behind an unobtrusive run—or made into a feature for a more industrial look. Hardwired scones are controlled from both a light switch and analog switch on the fixture, whereas plug-in versions will be most likely limited to the switch on the light.
Light direction is also a key consideration. When shopping for a sconce, think about what type of light you want first: up-facing, down-facing, or both, and diffuse ambient light versus a more directional, task-orientated illumination.
The type of bulb similarly has a big impact on aesthetics, especially in the increasingly popular exposed-bulb look. Look for dimmable LED bulbs for quality and longevity, more innovative form factors, and greater utility.
How a sconce sheds its light will also affect placement. “Placement of sconces completely depends on the space, what is sitting under the sconce, what it’s illuminating, and what size it is,” says Nelson.
Here’s a general guide to placement measurements, with input from the lighting experts at Lightology:
Bedside sconces: A bedside table space-saver, a wall sconce in the bedroom should be mounted at head height when you are sitting in bed.
Bathroom vanity sconces: Mount on either side of smaller mirrors with the center of the fixture mounted 60 inches off the floor and about 28 inches apart. For larger mirrors place above, centered about 78 inches off the floor.
Larger rooms and hallways: Mount wall lights with the top of the sconce at eye level—five-and-a-half to six feet—above the finished floor.
Innovative Uses for Wall Sconces
While bedside, bathroom, and general wall space are the traditional spots for sconces, there are plenty of other places to put these versatile illuminators. Commonly used in pairs, you can go also singular. Pick one sconce and put it above your kitchen sink for overhead task lighting, above your desk to provide light without clutter, or above a dining room buffet.
“In hallways, the repetition of sconces down a corridor is often more inviting than overhead lighting,” says Nelson. “It harkens back to the very first use of sconces hundreds of years ago, which were candles or torches mounted to walls.” Macdonald likes to use a sconce as statement pieces in a room. “Using a long-armed, sculptural wall sconce as a feature in a room can be done by offsetting the sconce to one side of the wall above a credenza; it can also be done over a sofa,” she says.
A gallery wall is another striking spot for a sconce. Add a sculptural piece alongside prints, photographs, and paintings to create an even more impactful moment.
Save ($150 to $500)
“There are always spaces where budget makes sense, and splurging makes sense,” says Nelson. “There are plenty of sconces out there in the budget to mid-range that look great.” Less expensive sconces, which she sources from online retailer Horne, are best suited for kids bedrooms, mudrooms, playrooms, and guest rooms, says Nelson. She likes to reserve the splurge-worthy fixtures for the main spaces. “It’s worth every penny because the lighting acts like art.”
Macdonald’s favorite sources for budget lighting include Worleys, Lucent Light Shop, Schoolhouse Electric, and Cedar & Moss. “Lower price points will use cheaper finishes, such as veneers and plated metals,” she explains. “While you are likely to get a more unique product by going higher end, that doesn’t mean the lower price point sconces are any less stylish and beautiful. It’s all relative to what a client’s budget is, what the style of the house is, and where it will be installed.”
Spend ($500 to $1,500)
This mid-range category is where the sweet spot is for most people, combining craftsmanship, quality, and a wide range of styles, materials, and customization options. Nelson and Macdonald both favor American-based manufacturers in this price point, Nelson citing New York-based Allied Maker and Macdonald pointing to Workstead as favorite makers in this space.
“We exclusively manufacture all of our products in New York,” says Highsmith of Workstead’s process. “It gives us the ability to know the people that we’re working with, that we’re sourcing from, to utilize the highest-quality materials and the thickest-gauge metal possible. In a lot of ways, our fixtures will outlast us.”
Splurge ($1,500 to $6,000)
At the top end, manufacturers like Allied Maker and Workstead offer pieces with multiple light points and innovative, rarer materials. You’ll also find more sculptural, artistic pieces from companies such as Atelier de Troupe and Apparatus Studio.