Let There Be Light

The right lighting can make your kitchen more functional -- and more enjoyable! Here's how to brighten your kitchen's future.


Enlarge Image In this kitchen, pendant lighting illuminates an island that serves as a primary workstation.

The first step to proper lighting is determining which kind will work best for your floor plan and workstations.

Before you buy lamps or fixtures, think about how you use the kitchen -- for cooking, naturally, but also for eating or for handling household tasks, such as paying bills. Such varied uses mean the room's lighting must be flexible enough to let you read fine print, but be toned down for cozy dinners.

Next, assess how much light the surfaces in the room reflect. Light colors and shiny surfaces reflect ambient light; dark colors and matte surfaces absorb it. White, for example, reflects 80 percent of the light in a room, while black only reflects 4 percent. So a kitchen with lighter colors will require less light than one with dark or matte-finish surfaces.

Evaluate your ceiling height. Taller rooms require brighter lights to fill the extra area and to cut down on shadows. Low-ceiling spaces often need softer light to keep reflections from bouncing off the walls.

Take windows into account. If they're facing south, odds are you'll get plenty of light during the day, but allow enough fixtures to do the job after the sun goes down.

Enlarge Image Canister lights recessed over the counter provide task lighting for food prep.

Sketch a plan that spotlights the activity areas of the kitchen: islands, appliances, tables, desks, breakfast bars, and so on. Decide what kind of light each area will need: general or ambient, task, accent, or decorative lighting? General or ambient lighting provides overall illumination of the room; task lighting illuminates a specific small area so jobs can be performed there; accent lighting provides deliberate illumination of an object or very limited space; decorative lighting focuses attention on itself, rather than an object or area.

In some places, you'll want more than one type of lighting. For instance, if the dining table will be used both for intimate dinners and for correspondence, you'll likely need both ambient and task lighting. If you have a working wet bar and also enjoy the look of its decorative niche, consider both ambient and accent lighting -- controlled separately.

Ambient Lighting

Recessed canisters are an increasingly popular choice for ambient lighting. They're efficient but unobtrusive, and if you make sure to use enough, you'll end up with even light distribution. If controlled by a dimmer switch, they can also be toned down to create accent or mood lighting in a kitchen.

Ceiling-mounted fixtures also work well, but should be appropriate for the kitchen's size and ceiling height. Surface-mounted fluorescents are economical light sources, but glare problems and no-frills looks leave them a little short on character. Use them sparingly.

Task Lighting

Potential locations for task lighting include the stove; countertops, especially those at the sink; and islands or desks. This bright and direct lighting -- halogen fixtures work exceptionally well for this application -- should originate in front of the person using it. At the same time, it should be shielded from the view of others who may be seated nearby.

Pendant fixtures work fine for task lighting if their placement doesn't inadvertently create shadows at the workstation. Undercabinet lighting or a single recessed canister directly over the workstation are other good choices.

Accent Lighting

Make sure accent lighting is not overwhelming; apply the same principles as for other types of lighting, keeping in mind that the smaller the object is, the dimmer the accent light should be. To highlight collectibles, use a focused beam lamp; halogens and spotlights are good choices.

Decorative Lighting

Decorative lighting calls more attention to itself than to objects in its path. It can be static, such as a fixed wall candelabra, or kinetic, from a fireplace or an array of candles. It's not intended to showcase objects but to create ambience that makes the room inviting.

Enlarge Image These decorative incandescent bulbs provide enough light for dinner and for this table's other life as a homework station.

You can achieve different lighting effects depending on the combination of bulb and fixture you choose. Most kitchens benefit from a balance of warm and cool tones, so it's best to choose bulbs that provide balanced lighting. Types include:

Incandescent. These are the classic type most of us use throughout our homes. They emit continuous-spectrum light, or light that contains every color. They provide a warm glow for virtually any purpose, but they aren't really efficient. Much of the energy consumption goes to creating heat, not light.

Fluorescent. These bulbs are energy-efficient and cast a diffuse, shadowless light that works well for general illumination. "Cool white" fluorescents cast a harsher light that is not flattering to anything it touches, but newer versions have reduced that problem. Fluorescents are available in standard tubes or in folded shapes called compacts.

Halogen. This is a type of incandescent lamp that produces a brighter, whiter light at a lower wattage with greater energy efficiency. Halogens cost more than other types of bulbs and emit concentrated heat that requires special shielding to reduce fire hazards, but they also last longer than conventional incandescent bulbs. Their compact size and sharp beam suit them for task and accent lighting.


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