Fireflies are lovely -- but you can't count on them to do all the work of lighting a garden party. For that, you need technical resources: There are many magical ways to light up the night.
"Lighting is one of the most important design tools we have, and it is accessible to everyone," says Tyler Wisler, an interior designer and partner with Tiki Brand torches. Indoors or out, Wisler says, "when you control the lighting, you control the room."
This spring, Wisler worked with Tiki Brand to light outdoor party spaces with traditional and modern garden torches and tabletop fire pieces of all kinds. Flickering flames have instant appeal, he says. "As soon as you light a fire, people gravitate toward it," he says. "It's almost primal. You feel cozy; you feel safe. It's a gathering spot."
Lighting up the garden lets you express your style in new ways and makes even a casual gathering a special occasion, Wisler says. You can use outdoor lights to direct your guests along a path, to add some twinkle to a tabletop, or to call attention to a destination in the garden. Great outdoor lighting, by its contrast with the surrounding darkness, creates a sense of privacy and enclosure.
For big events, you may want to turn to professional lighting designers, but you don't have to hire an expert. You can do it yourself and have fun, says Noah Hammer, owner of Full Circle Lighting in Atlanta. The goal, he says, is to create a warm glow, illuminating some areas more than others. "Mystery is very important," Hammer says. Don't spoil it with too much light, and, above all, he says, "do not shine stuff in people's eyes."
Hammer's background is in theater design, and before opening his own business, he worked with Cirque du Soleil, the circus arts and performance company. In the entertainment business, he learned that "the absence of light is art," Hammer says. That's not just a principle of theater lighting -- it's true in your own backyard, he says. "The dark spots add to the mystery of the show."
Cafe-style lighting is especially popular right now, Hammer says. Strings of bare bulbs with the filaments showing are a classic cafe look, and they're widely available at party supply shops and big-box and novelty stores. Allow the strings of lights to drape slightly, Hammer suggests, for a graceful look, but hang them high enough to allow your guests to walk under them comfortably. "They cast a nice warm glow over people," he says. He uses a dimmer switch (available at big-box stores) to reduce the light to about 50 percent, to soften the mood. LED strip lights, in white or in colors, find their places under railings. Hammer also recommends up-lights (sometimes called projection lights) for your trees, but don't light the trunks, he says -- light up the foliage.
Special effects are a professional's stock in trade. Hammer's team can rig up lights that look like real fireflies in the distance, and they have light setups that simulate a lustrous moon-glow.
Wisler's outdoor lighting designs rely on layers of light from standard Tiki torches, candles and tabletop torches. The combination provides light at the center of a seating area, for example, as well as around the periphery, and at different levels. Mixing several kinds of torches is always more exciting, and less formal, than sticking with just one light source, he says. Try clustering three tabletop pieces -- a candle and two tabletop torches, for example, of different heights. "It gives you dynamic energy," Wisler says.
Wisler recommends setting up clusters of lights in several places around the garden. "My rule of thumb is: More is more," he says, but he doesn't necessarily have all the lighting options burning at once. "When you are reading in your bedroom, do you turn on all the lights? No," he says. "You want to have options of different levels of lighting. It gives you flexibility to set the tone."
Use garden lights as accessories, Wisler suggests. "They're meant to be fun -- so go ahead, experiment a little." If you think of yourself as a set designer, lighting a stage as you place candles, torches and a string of lights or two around your garden or patio, that's appropriate. Garden parties make for great summer theater.
-- Tyler Wisler is an interior designer and tastemaker in the New York area who works with brands to integrate their products into home and garden lifestyle designs. His design firm is Tyler Wisler Home, tylerwislerhome.com.
-- Full Circle Lighting and Productions in Atlanta is a theatrical and event-lighting company specializing in corporate meetings, trade shows, weddings, parties and other events: fullcirclelighting.com. To find a lighting designer in your area, search for "event lighting" and your city.
-- The Tiki torch was introduced in the 1950s; today, Tiki Brand has expanded to include many styles and designs of torches, tabletop fire pieces and candles, and a line of torch fuel, including clean-burning and bug-repellant fuels. They're available at garden shops, at big-box stores and through tikibrand.com.
-- Outdoor party lights of all kinds can be found at party shops, big-box stores and online. One mail-order source for electric party lights, including cafe lights, LED lighting, mini-lights, rope lights, novelty lights and accessories, is partylights.com.
Garden Lighting Tips From the Pros:
-- Light up the entrance to the garden, the seating areas and the tabletop, but vary the lighting. Some areas should be brighter than others.
-- Relatively strong lights, such as torches, are a good choice for pathways. Tabletop lighting can be more subdued.
-- Mix and match lighting types and styles. "Things come alive when you have a touch of this and a touch of that," says Tyler Wisler.
-- Don't overlight the party. Buy a dimmer for strings of lights, and turn the lights down for a cozy atmosphere.
-- If you have existing outdoor fixtures, consider replacing their bulbs with flicker lights.
-- Make sure all electric lighting used outdoors is rated for outdoor use.
-- Cables and electrical wires should not be dangling or exposed. Use gaffer's tape and zip ties to secure electrical lines.
-- If you're going to keep outdoor lights up for an extended time, you might want to consider commercial-grade lights, which are more durable than regular outdoor lighting. A 48-foot string of dimmable cafe lights with 24 bulbs (15 watts each) is about $110 from partylights.com.