What Is The Best Kitchen Lighting For All Your Activities?

West Linn Remodeled Kitchen Lighting

The best kitchen lighting (1/2)

. . .  and why should the best kitchen lighting combine art (the human factor) and science (the technical factor)? To achieve maximum enjoyment and function.

Here’s an example: The homeowners loved their home but disliked the dark kitchen.

  • It was large and had many angles.
  • The windows faced east which meant that the kitchen got dark early in the day.
  • They had to turn on recessed incandescent fixtures that wasted energy and increased their electric bill. Their kitchen was still dark.
  • The speculation builder used dark-stained standard cabinets that absorbed most of the light, limited the layout, and wasted space.

Several contractors said the best solution would be to add onto the kitchen. That would solve the problem with angled walls. But it wouldn’t solve lighting problems unless they went with an all-white kitchen. That’s not what they wanted. No one suggested using LED lighting.

The good news, there was only one addition needed. A 3′ by 3′ area was added to the southeast corner of the eating area. This allowed space for a sliding patio door and it created more wall space for a large picture window. This allowed more light into the room, and the homeowners got a great view of Mt. Hood! They soon became fans of LED illumination. More about this later.

Four kinds of  lighting for all rooms (not just kitchens!)

One fixture in the center of the kitchen ceiling? Never again! The technology associated with great kitchen lighting can be confusing. For now, we’ll leave that aside and address the reasons why a well-lit kitchen has all of these characteristics:

  • General illumination
  • Task lighting
  • Accent lights
  • Decorative fixtures

General Illumination covers a room but it may not be good quality — or — quantity

West Linn Kitchen Before Remodeling

Original dark kitchen

GENERAL LIGHTING is installed electric lighting that provides a uniform level of illumination throughout an area, exclusive of any provision for special visual tasks or decorative effect,” according to Energy Code Ace. General illumination is not daylighting, also known as ambient lighting from windows, doors, and skylights.

When it’s overcast or dark, we have to use artificial light to compensate. Many people — even professional designers — fall into the trap of making “Swiss cheese” out of ceilings with too many recessed fixtures. General kitchen lighting often provides a safe pathway, starting at doors. It can include direct ceiling or soffit lighting. It can be indirect light, using new LED strip light technology.


Task Lighting makes a kitchen functional and safe

West Linn remodeled kitchen view 2 with the best lighting

Remodeled kitchen with the best lighting (2/2)

TASK ILLUMINATION includes under-cabinet fixtures and ceiling-mounted fixtures over countertops to assure safe working conditions.

Under-cabinet fixtures: Until LED strip lighting was improved, we had only individual fluorescent fixtures and halogen “puck” lights installed on the bottom of wall cabinets. The problem with these lighting alternatives was:

  • They didn’t provide continuous lighting on the countertop surface; there would be shadows between each fixture.
  • There was a reflected glare on the countertop, especially highly-polished and dark-colored stone.
  • Halogen lights get hot, heating up the inside of wall cabinets, and creating a burn hazard for your hands.
  • They weren’t easily dimmed; they were either on or off.

LED fixtures don’t have any of these problems! Because they’re thin strips, they can be mounted on the inside lip (or small trim) of all wall cabinets! Continuous light, no glare, no heat, and they can be dimmable!

Ceiling-mount task lighting: Includes recessed fixtures and pendant fixtures over islands, peninsulas, and tables. Pendant fixtures are often called decorative fixtures.

Accent Lighting provides emphasis on special features

ACCENT LIGHTING is anything that emphasizes art or collectibles or highlights an architectural feature. There are many different types of fixtures to achieve this type of kitchen lighting:

  • “Puck” lights in display cabinets.
  • Recessed or track fixtures with special trims: Angle-cut adjustable, slot aperture, gimbal, retractable, and framing projector.
  • Picture lights attached to the back of a picture frame.

Layered Lighting creates an interesting and inviting environment

Remodeled West Linn Butler Pantry with best lighting

Butler’s Pantry with layered lighting

LAYERED LIGHTING is achieved when all three characteristics are present at different levels of intensity. General light provides a background. Task light is brighter than general illumination. Accent light is the brightest, but there are fewer fixtures for the required visual interest or “punch.”

According to Kichler, a manufacturer of light fixtures, “Multiple light sources balance a room by minimizing glare and shadows while adding depth and dimension.”

Wolfers Lighting confirms this in their blog. “Simply put, layered lighting involves the use of multiple lighting types to create a well-lit and balanced space. Think ambient lighting for overall illumination, task lighting for work areas (e.g. countertops or desks), and accent lighting for areas of interest and/or a particular object of interest (such as a piece of artwork).”

Switching is more than an on-off toggle

To achieve the best kitchen lighting results, each type (or group) of fixtures should be controlled by a separate switch for maximum flexibility. Often, there are space limitations at doorways that prevent more than three switches ganged side-by-side. It can get very confusing if you have more than four switches lined up, either horizontally or vertically.

If your kitchen lighting budget permits, you can have a one-room lighting control system installed, where all of your lights are controlled by buttons in the same space as a single switch. The wonderful thing about these types of controls is that you can set different scenes, i.e., one for preparing meals and cleanup, one for dining, and another for entertaining a large group of people. I’m a fan of Lutron switching and have had great results with their systems over the years. There are several other manufacturers, including Cooper, LeGrand, and Leviton.

With available technology, why install just switches and not dimmer switches? A standard toggle or paddle switch is less expensive and easiest to wire, but there’s no comparison between all-on/all-off options versus dimming the lights to the exact level where you want them. It’s especially important to have dimmer lights when you’re entertaining. It sets the mood for a special occasion. Homeowners (and their guests) are happier in their remodeled homes when lighting is controlled by dimmer switches.

There was one couple in particular that I’ll never forget. The husband was adamantly opposed to dimmers because he thought they were too expensive. His wife and I ganged up on him. When their whole-house remodeling project was finished, you’d think all they did was “switch” to dimmers!

Recap: The best kitchen lighting

Lighting can make or break any environment. You can have a modest kitchen, or a large kitchen (like this one), but if it’s got great layered lighting, you and your family, and guests, will enjoy it totally. Dimmer switches, whether individual controls or whole-room controls, make your kitchen use more flexible and enjoyable.

Guaranteed, dimmable LED lighting will provide the best illumination and save you money. New technology allows you to select the right lighting color to enhance your kitchen. The days of expensive incandescent and only cool white or warm white fluorescent lighting are gone! The human touch, artful selection, and placement of the right mix of light fixtures emphasize the uniqueness of your environment. Read my article and listen to my podcast about LED lighting!

Conclusion: The story about lighting for this project

Fortunately, the homeowners wanted to use energy-efficient LED lighting in all the rooms that were being remodeled or updated — the rear hallway, family room, kitchen, new wine room, and the butler’s pantry. Here’s a list of the lighting:

  • Carefully-placed recessed lighting was an important part of the layout. Because they would move the eating table in the nook for large parties, we used two recessed fixtures over the table that would be controlled by a separate scene.
  • LED strip fixtures at the top of wall cabinets for indirect light and accent light to make the copper accessories sparkle.
  • LED strip fixtures at the bottom of all wall cabinets for task lighting.
  • LED pendant fixtures to follow the upper island’s round shape. These fixtures are a combination of task and decorative lighting.
  • LED “puck” accent lights show off the contents of display cabinets.

The homeowners chose the Lutron Grafik Eye controller that allowed them to set scenes for daily activities and special occasions. Several months after a large catered indoor-outdoor party at their home, they said that all their guests (and the caterers) loved what we’d accomplished.

See the before and after photos plus a detailed description of the featured project.

 “See the Possibilities. Create a Positive Difference.”

If you are stuck trying to figure out your kitchen’s layout and lighting, I’d love to help you! With over 36 years of education, training, and experience, I offer compassionate creativity that inspires communication. Call me so we can talk about your specific needs!

Headshot of Diane Plesset

Diane Plesset, CMKBD, C.A.P.S., NCIDQ is an Advocate who specializes in helping homeowners with remodeling and addition projects. She has been the principal of D. P. Design since April 1984. Diane is the author of the award-winning book “THE Survival Guide: Home Remodeling,” and the recipient of many design awards.


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