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Lighting a Public Restroom

Randall Whitehead explores the good, bad and ugly of men's public restrooms.

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Randall Whitehead, public restroom lighting
Public restrooms don't have to have bad lighting. Here are some examples of good lighting.

I have had this thing about the lighting quality of public restrooms in the United States ever since visiting Amsterdam. There, the facilities are all-gender. The stalls have doors that go all the way to the floor and the lighting at the sinks is quite flattering. They are the ultimate “clean, well-lighted spaces.”

As I travel across this country, the quality varies greatly. Some are diamonds. Some are diamonds in the rough…and most are just rough. I am now going to report back what I have found. Admittedly these observations are male-based, because visiting the restrooms marked FEMALE is frowned upon.

Much of the lighting here in the USA, is soul-sucking. There are still a lot of fluorescents being used, and those that have LED are using a cool color temperature with a low Color Rendering Index (CRI). This deadly combination leaches the color out of your face and makes these rest areas feel like the set of one of the "SAW" movies.

bad men's room lighting
Typical public men's room lighting. Photo: Randall Whitehead.

This is your typical men’s room illumination scenario (shown above). Recessed fluorescents draining all the life out of you as you enter. It has a prison-like quality. Have I been to prison, you ask? The answer is yes. But it was women’s prison and that is a story for another time. 

Who decided that this was the default way to illuminate a public restroom? Now is the time to break the cycle of abusive lighting.

back lit mirrors in a restroom, Randall Whitehead
The color temperature is a little cool and the CRI is 85, when it should be 90 or higher, but it is a step in the right direction. Photo: Randall Whitehead

I am happy to report that there are some bright spots of decent lighting. These mirrors at the sinks are back illuminated (shown below). Its not a huge amount of illumination but it does evenly illuminate your face.

I can’t tell you how pleasantly surprised I was when I saw the lighting for the newly remodeled Harvey Milk Terminal One at San Francisco International Airport. There was tasteful cross-illumination at the bank of sinks, as well as a full-length back lit mirror. There were also these wonderful ovoid LED pendants at the entry. What an amazing difference well designed lighting can make.

men's room lighting, the lighting doctor
In addition to the vanity lights there is also a subtle raking light, emanating from a reveal which runs along the perimeter of the room.


men's room lighting, randall whitehead
The edge lighting of the mirror provides even, flattering light. If it was recessed lighting it would make you feel schlumpy.


public restroom lighting, the lighting doctor
The overlapping pendants create a sense of welcome.
public restroom lighting, the lighting doctor
An ‘infinity’ light doesn’t provide the best illumination but it sure is cool.

I would have to say that my favorite men’s room is located in the Eight4Nine restaurant & lounge in Palm Springs, California. It is a black & white dream. The 12’ high walls, stalls and ceiling are painted a high gloss black. Hanging below recessed ceiling fixture are a series of striped umbrellas, which capture the illumination and simply glow. The umbrellas are hanging on hooks that allows them to be taken down and cleaned easily. It is a simple and elegant solution. I was enthralled.

innovative public restroom lighting, randall whitehead
This is not a Black & White photo, but there are B&W photos hanging on the walls.


Randall Whitehead headshot

Randall Whitehead is an educator and author on the subject of lighting design. His work has been featured in many magazines, including Architectural Digest, Home & Garden and Esquire. He has appeared as a guest expert on HGTV, Discovery, CNN and Martha Stewart Living Radio.

His Latest book Beautiful Light outlines how to create successful and subtly beautiful LED lighting designs for homes and gardens. Available through Amazon and Rutledge Books.

You can see his entertaining 1-minute instructional videos at furniturelightingdecor.com. And you can follow him on Instagram:  @randall.whitehead


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