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Light and Space 

Distributed by New York Times Special Features

Sconces are the decorating equivalent of a great pair of earrings. You don't really need them, but what a difference they can make in pulling a look together. Though defined as a wall-mounted candlestick, the word "sconce" generally refers to any style of light fixture that hangs on the wall. These fixtures don't, however, usually suffice as the primary light source for a space. One exception is when a series of sconces is used to illuminate a hallway.

In general, sconces work best as accents or to light specific tasks or objects. Perhaps not coincidentally, we find that the spots in the house where they are most handy -- next to a bed as reading lights, for example -- are also where they tend to look best. In these contexts, sconces are both accessories and problem solvers, freeing up space on a bedroom nightstand or shedding light on a treasured work of art.

Similarly, in a small, windowless bathroom, a pair of sconces with mirrored backs can provide extra light where it's useful, while giving the room a brighter, more open feel.

Installing a sconce, however, is not quite as straightforward a process as putting on jewelry. Unlike a table lamp, sconces can't just be plugged in and positioned wherever you want. Think of these wall-mounted fixtures as you would ceiling lights: Installing them is a job that requires a professional electrician and can be fairly complicated, depending on the location you choose and your home's existing wiring.

Here are some of the factors that determine the amount of work and cost involved:

Is the wall where you want to put the sconce wired for a fixture? At any place where electrical current is exposed, you're required to have a junction box inside the wall. Junction boxes can be made of galvanized steel or thermoplastic. Cities have varying codes regulating the materials and sizes of these boxes, but the purpose is the same: to protect flammable wall materials from coming in contact with electrical currents. You might open a wall and find that there's already a junction box behind it; some homes are built with extras just in case. If so, the sconce installation would be as simple as making one hole and would cost about $75 to $100. If, on the other hand, a contractor must install a junction box and wire it horizontally, drilling a hole between every stud in the wall and fishing a wire through, it can cost a few hundred dollars or more.

Are there proper supports for the junction box? These boxes are often mounted on studs, but since the placement of a sconce is so crucial to the look of a room, "blocking" -- building up extra blocks of wood in the wall where there are no studs -- may be required for precision. This is not a complicated task, but it can mean higher labor charges.

Do you want the sconce to be connected to a wall switch? A sconce might have a switch on the fixture itself, but if you want one to work off a wall switch, more walls may have to be opened to connect the wires.

Does the room have a ceiling fixture? If that fixture is already wired and connected to a switch, adding a sconce is simpler. Your electrician might be able to connect the lines vertically, between two studs, rather than horizontally.

The bottom line is: Unless you're replacing an existing sconce, you should not attempt an installation yourself. Incorrect wiring is a fire hazard.

Although the location and installation of a sconce must be carefully considered, the style you choose is simply a matter of taste. Whether you select an elegant crystal sconce to sparkle in the dining room, or a sleek chrome sconce to complement an ultramodern bedroom, there is a wide range of styles from which to choose. Remember that these fixtures are, after all, ornaments, and just as with jewelry, you will know you've chosen the best one when everything just seems to glow.

click to enlarge Martha Stewart - WILLIAM ABRANOWICZ
click to enlarge TIP: A sconce by the bedside not only provides a - light for reading but also clears space on the bedside table. - TODD EBERLE
  • Todd Eberle
  • TIP: A sconce by the bedside not only provides a light for reading but also clears space on the bedside table.
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