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Kitchen Lighting

Today’s kitchen is the heart and soul of the home. It is, more than any other room, the central hub of activity. Part food preparation area, part dining room, part gathering and entertaining space; the kitchen and its lighting must be extremely functional while meeting the style and aesthetic expectations of such a popular place.

Kitchen Lighting Requirements
Functionally, kitchen lighting must provide:

  • a generous amount of ambient lighting to facilitate frequent entrance and exit at all times of the day
  • proper task lighting on preparation, cooking and cleaning surfaces
  • accent lighting to allow guests and other ‘non preparation participants’ to linger comfortably while out of the way. Accent lighting should also be used to help define and gently illuminate dedicated dining areas

All good kitchen lighting plans will combine these three classes of light into a functional yet attractive ‘layered lighting’ design. Endeavor to select one or more fixtures producing each type of lighting as you read about common fixture options below.

Overhead Lighting
Overhead fixtures are important in providing general, ambient illumination in the kitchen when light from windows is limited. Unfortunately, homeowners or builders often mistakenly rely on them as the sole source of light for the entire room.

Single overhead fixtures produce shadows. The single most common problem in kitchen lighting is reliance on one or two overhead fixtures. When purchasing a home, the kitchen is empty and it may appear to be properly illuminated by these overhead fixtures. When actually cooking, however, the cook find his or her body continuously casting shadows on the countertops and preparation surfaces as she steps between the overhead light source and the working area. Under cabinet lighting will solve many of these problems (see below), but implementing overhead fixtures with multiple points of light (monorail or track lighting systems for example) will help minimize shadows on these surfaces as well.

Out with the fluorescent! As residential kitchens have shifted from preparation areas to social gathering and eating areas, fluorescent fixtures have gone by the wayside. Even with their recent improvements in color temperature and flicker, fluorescent light remains comparatively cold and fails to render color well which makes food, plates, countertops and people look flat and unappealing. Replacing fluorescent fixtures should be a priority in any kitchen lighting plan.

If you need to replace or augment existing ceiling fixtures, but you don’t want to remodel to add additional power sources from the ceiling, consider track lighting or attractive monorail lighting systems. These systems produce excellent light (bright, crisp, white light with near perfect color rendering abilities) that may be directed easily to illuminate surfaces some distance away. They accommodate track heads for directional light as well as a wide variety of attractive blown glass pendants to suspend as accents over bar or island areas.

Use dimmers on all overhead lighting circuits. Dimmer switches are well worth the money. In addition to extending the life of difficult to change overhead bulbs, they allow the mood of a room to be shifted from practical ‘cleaning time’ to functional ‘preparation time’ all the way to ‘intimate dining’ at the touch of a button. If your kitchen made use of fluorescent fixtures, you will definitely need to add dimmers as fluorescent fixtures are not dimmable so they will be absent.

Under Cabinet and Over Cabinet Lighting
As practical and often beautiful as kitchen cabinets are, they are a serious obstacle to the lighting designer. They protrude over critical work surfaces and create shadows on the walls and corners above. Ceiling mounted lighting fixtures, even versatile track lighting systems, cannot adequately light the counter tops below cabinets. Under cabinet lighting is a simple, effective and inexpensive way to rectify this problem. There are few excuses not to have under cabinet lighting in a kitchen.

Under cabinet lighting not only provides plenty of light for preparation tasks, it is useful as low level overnight ambient light source as well. Gone are the days of fluorescent under cabinet lighting. There are a variety of new options that use halogen lamps to maintain that warm, inviting feeling that every kitchen should have.

If your cabinets have a considerable amount of space above them, you may also consider lighting above them. This will dramatically enhance the perceived size of the kitchen. Although over cabinet lighting will provide some ambient light, typically it serves as an accent only and isn’t a replacement for primary overhead fixtures.

Pendants and Chandeliers
Consider your dining area carefully before choosing fixtures. If this dining area will only be used for eating with friends and family, attractive pendants using non-directional light bulbs (ambient pendants) will be the ideal choice to create an intimate dining space. Modern low voltage pendants are suspended on thin, almost invisible cords that may be trimmed to any length desired when they are installed. Consider hanging two or three pendants at various heights over the table to break up the space.

If your dining area will serve as eating area, homework area and occasional home office, you should instead opt for pendants that use directional lamps (MR16s are a popular, common choice.) These pendants, creatively referred to as ‘downlight pendants’, shine a more intense, focused light on the space immediately below them. Place these pendants on a dimmer to easily transform your dining area back to homework area as needed.

Recessed Fixtures
Consider recessed fixtures when illuminating the space under a sofit (such as a bar or peninsula) or in a tight corner or alcove. Recessed fixtures are an inexpensive way to produce rich, usable task lighting on any surface. They are especially practical over the primary sink and cleanup area since these areas are often not illuminated by under cabinet lighting. Unfortunately, installation of recessed lighting in anything other than new construction is non-trivial and will likely require the services of an electrician and contractor.

Kitchen lighting is often the most difficult in a home. With a little planning, your kitchen lighting will be inviting and soothing as well as functional. Dress the kitchen with layers of light and cook up the right mood.


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