Apr 25, 2022

By Chip Israel, Fellow IALD, LC, LEED AP, Fellow IES
Lighting Design Alliance

Shelf lighting seems so simple, yet it is one of the biggest lighting coordination issues out there, and it gets screwed up the majority of the time. Yet when done correctly, shelf lighting can provide an unparalleled effect for residential, hospitality and retail applications.

The process should start with some fact finding:

  1. What will be displayed? Solid books, translucent bottles, artwork, etc. Each would require a special detail.
  2. What is the back surface? This is important because too many times designers select a specular material or mirror as to see the back of the objects. This can also create an undesired reflection of the light sources.
  3. Are the shelves fixed or moveable? Fixed shelving is the easiest as the wiring doesn’t have to move (or use special conductor systems) or perhaps the lighting can be run vertically behind the styles as to conceal it and allow the shelves to adjust.
Tools of the Trade: Shelf Lighting
Option 1 – Accent the shelf from the ceiling. While cost effective, it does have its limitations. If the accent source is too close to the shelves, strong shadows can occur, and the objects might not be illuminated. If the accents are too far out, then a potential shopper could cast shadows on the displayed merchandise.
Tools of the Trade: Shelf Lighting
Option 2 – Rear illuminate the objects. This can be very successful with objects that are translucent or those that have a very strong silhouette shape. Is it an uplight or a downlight? That can depend, but make sure that the guests cannot directly see the sources. The entire rear wall can be trans-illuminated also, but access will be required.
Tools of the Trade: Shelf Lighting
Option 3 – Front light. Add a lip to the cabinet and just add a strip light. But be careful—many times the lighting for the upper shelves could become visible, and consider guests sitting, such as in a restaurant or on their sofa. The lip of the shelf could need a return that allows the direct lighting to fall on the objects, but also “block” the light from the guests.
Tools of the Trade: Shelf Lighting
Option 4 – Vertical strips. Similar to horizontal strip lights, but now rotated to run vertically. This does allow the shelves to be moveable, allowing flexibility. Off-angle views must be studied, to make sure that the source is fully blocked from view. In general, most strip lights are low voltage and require a driver. These need to be accessible, ventilated and hidden from view.


Chip Israel

Chip Israel

Chip Israel has been a lighting designer for over 35 years. In 1992, he founded LIGHTING DESIGN ALLIANCE, a full-service architectural lighting design firm, where he built a highly-select team of lighting design professionals who now serve a variety of clients worldwide. As CEO... More info »