Lighting Your Kitchen — Design Considerations

The story of two sisters

Two sisters recently renovated their kitchens. Both jobs turned out well, but after looking at them, one sister realized that her lighting decisions were based on aesthetics only, not practicality. She never considered her lighting when placing her cabinets. Because of this, the illumination from the under cabinet lighting she chose wasn’t optimal for precise dicing and chopping tasks, or even for easily reading recipes.

She wished she had realized that the illumination from the spotlight she selected for over her sink would cause glare on the surrounding countertops. She also wished she had known to look for a fixture with a narrower, more focused, beam. Unlike her sister, she never thought to install a light that turned on automatically whenever she opened the pantry door.


Installing the right kitchen lighting is essential

Today’s kitchens have multiple lighting needs, and selecting the right kitchen lighting can be more complicated than it appears. In most homes, the kitchen is the center of the action. It’s where you prepare your meals, gather as a family for food and conversation, enjoy a midnight snack, and entertain. Chances are that the kitchen also functions as an office and a den, a place for paying bills, supervising homework, and playing board games with the family. And, doing each of these activities depends on having the right lighting.


Effective  lighting depends on upfront planning

As one of the sisters above learned the hard way, it’s essential to develop your lighting plan before you begin remodeling your kitchen. That way, you can ensure that all your decisions work together to create a kitchen that is consistent with your lifestyle, priorities, functional needs, budget, and personal aesthetic. Equally important, it’s kitchen lighting that can help make the statement most homeowners envision when contemplating a kitchen remodel.


Kitchen lighting layers

Kitchen designers think about lighting in layers. Task-level lighting helps kitchen users accomplish the jobs they are doing in the kitchen, whether that’s cutting vegetables for a stew, finding the right ingredient in the spice rack, or assembling a midnight snack. Accent lighting highlights areas of visual interest, from architectural detail to the beautiful pottery you back from your trip abroad. Ambient lighting fills in the gaps and ensures overall safety and comfort.


Start with task lighting

Task lighting promotes precision, productivity, and safety. Use it for the work areas of your kitchen where you’ll be slicing, dicing, reading, hunting for items, or making other fine movements. Task lighting is best utilized over countertops, sinks, cooktops, and kitchen islands.

Under cabinet lighting is best used for lighting kitchen countertops. Be careful to choose lights with the right width beam and intensity for the tasks you’ll be performing.

Motion-activated lights are great for cabinet drawers. Illuminate the bases of kitchen cabinets and islands with toe kick lighting. Something more dramatic might be chosen for breakfast bars, but consider first what you will be using it for.

Consider the user. As you get older you may require brighter work areas than younger family members. Children may require lower placement of fixtures than adults, and night-time snackers may find motion-activated light helpful as they navigate the kitchen.

Consider illumination needs. Some tasks, such as slicing, require bright light. Others such as reading require adjustable light depending on time of day or user. Specific areas, such as inside cabinets or drawers or pantries, may only require light when they are open and in use.


Accent lighting

Once you’ve decided on task lighting, think about what kitchen features you’d like to accent. Accent lighting calls attention to items of visual interest: stemware in a glass cabinet, artwork on your walls, architectural detail, or other items you have on display in your kitchen area. You can also use accent lighting to contribute to the kitchen’s look and feel, making the room feel larger or to create intimate spaces.

In choosing accent lighting, think about whether to shine light from above or below.   If you are hanging fixtures, be careful to choose a height that provides the desired illumination but does not obstruct views or compromise headroom. Consider solutions, such as dimmer switches and track lighting, that let you vary the intensity or the direction of the light depending upon how you are using the kitchen at the time.


General lighting

General lighting fills in the gaps, and is more diffuse than task or accent lighting. It may be the first light you turn on as you enter the kitchen to illuminate the entire area or a large section. It creates the overall feeling of the space. Depending on your personal aesthetic, ambient light sources can be almost invisible or essential elements of your kitchen décor. You can use a single fixture to light a particular area or opt for a coordinated group of fixtures, suspended at different heights, to enhance that area’s visual appeal. Overhead lights, chandeliers, recessed lighting and pendants are commonly used to provide ambient light. Decorative fixtures are available in a variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and materials. Room size and height, availability of natural light, and whether the colors of the area to be lit reflect or absorb light are all important considerations in selecting your general lighting solutions.


Kitchen lighting and technologies abound

There are many types of light to choose among including halogen, fluorescents, xenon and LEDs. Each technology has pros and cons such as visual appeal, light quality, level of heat emissions, ease of installation, durability, initial cost, operating costs, energy efficiency, and adaptability to your space.

Ultimately, your choices will depend on a variety of factors ranging from budget considerations to the your current infrastructure and the level of remodeling you want to undertake, to the flexibility you want to build in to allow for future modifications as new technologies become available.


Professional help

With so many options to consider and tradeoffs to make, it may be a good idea to talk to your contractor. A good kitchen contractor will help you clarify your requirements and then help you select the right lighting solutions to meet your needs.

Your contractor will consider lighting basics such as the minimum light required for each common kitchen task, the optimal placement of lights to provide the desired light intensity and beam, and the electrical infrastructure required to support various lighting options. Your contractor will also take into account your space constraints and physical environment. These considerations may dictate other design decisions—such as cabinet height and/or depth—or the choice of materials for the surfaces below them.

A good contractor will also help you keep your lighting project within budget, and will help you make the right decision based on the pros and cons of lighting options..


Are you ready to get started?

The essential first step to an effective lighting plan is figuring out what you need and want. Evaluate what you like and don’t like about your current lighting. Talk to your friends about what’s worked well for them. Leaf through some catalogs of lighting fixtures. Figure out your budget and then get started on your personal kitchen lighting plan, and above all, express yourself!




Posted in Lighting.


    • Great comment. I assumed ceiling lighting is obvious but you are right. It can be very involved as you know. Would you like to write a blog about different types of ceilings, plastering as an art, etc., and we will put it in our site and give you credit?

  1. Using LED technology for lighting at home feels really interesting to me, especially since we have a lot of renovations planned soon. Something like this could provide us a very efficient alternative for large lightbulbs that are constantly popping and exploding, thus making this place a lot safer. I’ll go and look around for any electricians that offer LED installations right away so we can get some installed.

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