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Kitchen Lighting Design Tips

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

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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 what I call a 'glare bomb,' visually overpowering everything in the space — including family and friends."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"Smart" homes are the wave of the future. You can preset and administer lighting in all rooms of the house through one centralized computer network, all through a computerized keypad. "The biggest advantage of smart systems is the high level of control," says Whitehead, who recommends this option for new houses, but cautions that it can be quite expensive for a remodel. "You can preset a large number of scenes and turn on lights in any room of the house from your car or your bedroom."

Just as the layers of lighting are combined in a variety of ways, so are the methods of controlling them. According to Whitehead, homeowners are typically use four-scene presets in all of main rooms, including the living room, dining room, kitchen and master bedroom. Standard switchers and dimmers are usually used in the secondary rooms, such as children's bedrooms, bathrooms, the basement playroom and the office. The best part is that your lighting options just keep expanding.

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