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A Lighting Primer

Types of kitchen lighting fixtures and tips

By Sharon Johnson

While a good lighting plan is important for every room in the house, it is especially critical in the kitchen. After all, this is the space where everything from food preparation to homework to cooking is done, not to mention the place where sharp knives are used.

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Classic Traditional Kitchen
Drury Design

A Quick Primer on the Types of Lighting

Ambient, task, and accent lighting are the main tools in your lighting toolkit. A well-designed kitchen employs all three types for maximum efficiency and impact.

Ambient Lighting: This is the general, overall lighting in the room, typically provided by a central fixture that casts a glow that reaches throughout the space. Think of it as all-purpose lighting that gets you safely from one end of the room to the other. Ambient lighting is typically provided by a chandelier, ceiling fixture, or pendant lights.

Check out these kitchen pendant light ideas.

Task Lighting: This lighting lets you concentrate on the job at hand. It is a more focused beam or beams of light shining directly on countertops, cooktops, and work stations. Task lighting is typically provided by recessed spotlights, track lights, and in some cases directed pendant lights.

Accent Lighting: Considered the most dramatic type of lighting, accent lighting shines special attention on a room's unique features, such as artwork, collectibles, fireplaces, and other strong architectural elements. It is purely decorative and is typically provided by uplights and wall-washer lights.

To be effective, accent lighting should be at least three times the intensity as the general lighting around it.

Lighting Tips for Specific Areas of the Kitchen

Cozy Traditional Dining Room
Scott Hirshson

Lighting the kitchen table: A decorative pendant or chandelier works well above a table. It provides the right amount of illumination while acting as a great focal point for the room.

Good to know details:
Hang the fixture so that its base is 30 inches above the tabletop. If the table is round, choose a fixture that is 12 inches narrower than the table's diameter. For square or rectangular tables, the fixture should be 12 inches narrower than the smallest width of the table.

Lighting island counters and breakfast peninsulas:

Pendant lights work well above any long expanse of counter and easily do double-duty as both task and ambient lighting. For the best visual effect, hang in odd-numbered groups. A series of three pendant lights is usually the most visually appealing.

Good to know details:
The American Lighting Association offers these guidelines for mounting pendants at the correct height:

  • Mount each pendant so the bottom of the shade is 66 inches above the floor. This ensures the pendants don't impede the view from one side of the room to the other.
  • If the island or peninsula is used as an eating area, it's better to install the pendants six inches lower, or 60 inches above the floor.

Take a look at HomePortfolio's editor's pick on kitchen lighting.

Lighting inside cabinets:

Glass-fronted cabinets provide a great opportunity to add another layer of light and drama to the kitchen while accenting the china or collectibles stored in the space.

Good to know details:
Install low-voltage LED down lights or light strips inside the cabinets for an even wash of light.

General Lighting Tips

Full Globes
  • Dim, dim, dim! Dimmers on main lighting, task lighting, and under-cabinet lighting allow you to easily adjust the mood of the room while saving energy.

  • Look for fixtures with the ENERGY STAR label. They are the most energy-efficient, and will save you considerable money in the long run.

  • Consider adding LED strips in the cove and toe-kick spaces above and below cabinets to give more ambient lighting and an illusion of more space.

  • Enhance the inside by lighting the outside. Large windows, beautiful during the day, become black holes at night. Adding landscape lighting increases security while augmenting the nighttime view from inside your home.

  • Under-cabinet lighting is a great way to add extra illumination to your countertops. You can use everything from mini track lights to low-voltage linear systems. Key is to place these fixtures toward the front of the cabinet, rather than back against the wall. This ensures the light will be distributed evenly.

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