Kitchen Lighting Design Tips

America's top lighting designers share their foolproof tips for creating the perfect lighting plan for your kitchen.

Lighting your kitchen doesn't need to be a complex matter, but it is layered. "The most common mistake people make is trying to light their entire kitchen with one fixture centered in the ceiling," says Randall Whitehead, a lighting designer in San Francisco, and author of Residential Lighting: A Practical Guide. "It ends up being a "glare bomb," visually overpowering everything in the space — including family and friends."

Best Kitchen Lighting Plan

According to Whitehead, the most effective lighting for the kitchen involves four layers blended together: task, ambient, accent and decorative lighting. The end result: a warm and inviting environment that works with your other design elements to create a practical workspace and lively entertainment area.

White Kitchen Bar Peninsula

Custom Kitchen Bar Peninsula

Photo By: Designer, Shane Inman

Designer, Shane Inman

Task Lighting

"Task lighting is what people think of first when designing a lighting system in the kitchen, because it's integral to preparing food," says Joe Rey-Barreau, director of education for the American Lighting Association. "However, if task lighting is misplaced it can actually hinder your ability to work efficiently, throwing shadows on your workspace."

According to Rey-Barreau, key locations for task lighting include underneath the overhead cabinets and over the island — anywhere you'll be chopping, slicing and reading recipes. The pantry is another place where you'll want bright, focused lighting. 

A Well-Illuminated Kitchen

Photo By: Progress Lighting View original photo.

Progress Lighting

Under-Cabinet Lighting 

Under-cabinet lights can be a hidden asset in any kitchen, providing task lighting as well as soft ambient lighting to give the room a warm glow with the touch of a dimmer switch. Strip lights are a popular choice, long linear bulbs or a string of lights contained in a single fixture. Another popular option is a puck light system, made up of a series of hockey-puck shaped halogen lights.

White Kitchen Cabinets With Neutral Marble Tile Backsplash

Shaker Cabinets With Under-Cabinet Lighting


M.A. Allen

Photo By: M.A. Allen View original photo.

M.A. Allen

Ambient Lighting

According to Whitehead, ambient lighting is an important layer that is often overlooked in the kitchen. "This indirect lighting is what I like to call the humanizing ingredient to any lighting design," says the designer. "It softens the lines and shadows on people's faces and creates a warm inviting glow in the room."

The kitchen used to be strictly for food preparation and children who were not to be seen or heard. Now, floor plans are more open and parties often flow from the living room through the dining room and into the kitchen. "Ambient lighting will attract people into the kitchen and make them feel welcome while eating appetizers and sipping wine at the island," says Whitehead. Ambient lighting fixtures may include flush-mounted ceiling fixtures, a pendant hanging over the island and adjustable track lighting. 

Well-Illuminated Kitchen With a Variety of Storage

Photo By: Progress Lighting View original photo.

Progress Lighting

Accent Lighting

"Accent lighting is the least common layer in the kitchen, but it is becoming more common as people spend more time in the kitchen for casual entertaining," says Rey-Barreau. You may want to hang a piece of artwork on the wall behind the breakfast table, or a tile splashback over the sink may be a decorative focal point. Occasionally, Whitehead installs lighting inside glass cabinets to illuminate collections of china and glassware. 


Photo By: Jason Kisner ©2012, Scripps Networks, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Jason Kisner, 2012, Scripps Networks, LLC. All Rights Reserved

Accent Fixture Choices

Track lighting, up-lighters, directional eyeball lights and wall sconces are all accent fixtures. Whitehead recommends recessed adjustable low voltage fixtures to highlight artwork. The MR16 bulbs often used in these fixtures come in a variety of beam spreads. I the diameter of the art changes, a simple change of bulb will be all that is needed to illuminate the new art. 

Bright Kitchen

Bright Kitchen

Decorative Lighting

Decorative lighting should be considered in direct proportion to the size of your kitchen — the larger the space, the greater importance chandeliers, hanging pendants and other eye-catching fixtures play. "There are two major considerations when it comes to decorative lighting," says Whitehead. "You want to make sure that the scale of the fixtures is right for the space, and that the shade material has enough opacity to effectively hide the light bulb."

Decorative lighting is the most expensive element of your lighting design scheme. If you're on a tight budget, Whitehead recommends installing the infrastructure for decorative lighting — the junction box and/or recessed box in the ceiling — then, purchasing the actual fixture down the road.

White Open Kitchen With Brown Chandeliers Above Kitchen Island

Statement Chandeliers in Stunning Kitchen

Photo By: Lincoln Barbour View original photo.

Lincoln Barbour

Making the Layers Work Together

The idea behind a layered lighting design is to have a variety of light levels available at your fingertips. "Dimmers and switches are the most economical way to coordinate lighting levels," says Rey-Barreau. "For about $20 per layer, you're able to do most anything to modulate the mood and environment." Whitehead recommends implementing zones, wherein each layer of lighting is on a different dimmer for easy adjustability. 

Dimmer and Switch Caveats

The drawback of dimmers and switches is that while it's easy for you to enter a room and tinker with the light levels, it's equally easy for children, grandparents and guests to take the same liberties. If your budget allows, you may want to consider a "scene" integration system that allows you to preset, typically, four different lighting levels. (For example, daytime, food preparation, dinner and evening entertaining.)

According to Rey-Barreau, a standard scene integrator that is hardwired into your electrical system and controlled by a switch plate with a limited number of scene choices will run under $1,000. Of course, more scenes and a higher level of technology are available — for a price. 

Beige Kitchen With White Countertops, Glass Chandelier and White Island

Contemporary Kitchen With White Waterfall Countertops

Photo By: Antonio Martins ©Scripps Networks View original photo.

Antonio Martins, Scripps Networks

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