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How to Light Today's Kitchen

Updated on June 25, 2014
Photo courtesy of Seagull Lighting
Photo courtesy of Seagull Lighting

Not Your Mothers Kitchen

Years ago, when kitchen lighting was not an issue. a home builder would locate the kitchen where the rear door led in and it would be a small room that was off the dining room. Family members would enter the house, take off any wet shoes or boots and leave them to dry on the linoleum floor. Mom would be in front of the white caloric range preparing Jello to mix with Libby's fruit cocktail for dessert that night. The only lighting consisted of the double circline fluorescent fixture in the center of the room and a 60 watt bulb in the range hood. If the homeowner was lucky she would have a walk in pantry but that was usually a feature only on older homes dating to the 1930s or earlier when home canning was commonplace.
In this present era of cooking shows and celebrity chefs the kitchen has become the most important room in many homes and a hub for all types of activity. The wall that separated the living and dining space has been removed and replaced by a bar or counter that invites guests to chat with each other and gives the cook a chance to be part of the conversation. Kitchens have become an average of three times larger than their mid 20th century counterparts. Refrigerators may even have built in TV screens so the cook can follow along with a favorite chef preparing a recipe in unison. There is always a dining area and usually an island for food preparation. The four burner stove that went from white to coppertone to avacado has been replaced by a six or eight burner commercial giant complete with deep fryer, grill, griddle and a vent system that could remove the exhaust from a bus garage. The monster ranges are now stainless steel, black, navy blue and even red. These modern rooms are now also places to do homework, pay bills, watch TV and surf the internet. I have been to small parties where the men all gathered in the kitchen because that is where the beer was. You can understand how these rooms become a lighting challenge today.

Split it up
The kitchen lighting challenge is reduced If you take the room and separate into smaller areas of use. This is where the term task lighting is applied. You have distinct areas where light is needed. The counters, the stove, the island, the bar, the dining area and the most overlooked area, inside the cabinets.
First determine the overall style of the room. Is it contemporary, country French, country American, Mediterranean or Eclectic? Browse some online lighting catalogs. It is best to start with the large, mainstream, companies like Seagull Lighting Kichler or Progress These three companies along with Murray Feiss and Minka Lavery offer complete lines for everywhere in the home in every style. They are not upscale contemporary companies like Louis Poulsen, for example, but they are more like the Ford, Chevy and Chryslers of the industry. You will find some of their products gouped into families of coordinated styles.

Under Cabinets
Lets start with the cabinets and over the counters. Here is an area where you need two attributes to your lighting. Brightness and color rendition. You want to be able to see your food that you are preparing, to be sure something foreign does not get in there that your guest will discover later much to your embarrassment. You also want to see your food and serving pieces in their true color for presentation. There are four light sources that are applicable here. Fluorescent, Halogen, Xenon and LED. I will discuss each one in order.

Fluorescent kitchen lighting technology has made leaps in recent years in many areas. Under cabinet lighting is one of those areas. The new T5 lamps are are just over 1/2 inch thick and and come in 39 watt (3 foot) and 54 watt (4 foot). versions now. They have excellent color rendering and produce four times the light, watt per watt, as an incandscent lamp. The lamp life is very good also, about 30,000 hours based on a 12 hour start. The only disadvantages are the limitation on sizes and they require special ballasts to dim. These ballasts are very costly.

Halogen under cabinet lights come in several forms. The two most widely used are those little disks that are wired together commonly referred to as pucks. I personally do not like them although, at a few dollars each plus the cost of the transformer, they are the most economical. The problem is in two areas. The lamps never last as long as they should due of heat deterioration caused by the fixture design and transformer issues. The little electronic transformers fail often and the larger magnetic ones have to be hiidden somewhere like a cabinet where they often hum. It is best to locate the magnetic tranformer in the basement but then there could be extra wiring costs. The CRI (color rendering index) is excellent at around 90 out of 100. The strip type halogen fixtures are considerably better. They are sleek self contained units that mount easily with a screwdriver. These are available is several lengths and link to each other for a continuous runs with no shadows. All halogen fixtures are dimmable also.

Xenon fixtures are usually linear kitchen lighting fixtures often called tape lights because they are flat and flexible and the lamps can be spaced as close or as far apart as needed. The cost and quality of these vary widely. They are cooler that halogen and have an excellent CRI. The lamps last for 10,000 hours. They are low voltage, 12 or 24 volts as a rule, so a transformer is required. I am a big fan of this type of undercounter lighting. On the less expensive side look at Seagulls Ambiance line and on the high end, Starfire Lightings Xenflex. These are also available in self contained modular units.

LED, or light emitting diode, fixtures offer the longest lamp life and the greatest energy efficiency. It is still in its infancy in residential lighting and this will probably change before I even finish this article. Basically it comes in two colors. 2700 K (warm) and 4000 k (cool). A standard incandescent lamp is around 2700K while the new fluorescent lamps are usually 3500k or 4100k for example. Go to and search LED lighting and you will find many examples. Alkco Lighting has a nice line of LED undercounter lighting under their product lines of Aris and Lincs.

The Island and bar
The next area of kitchen lighting we will discuss is the island. Typically islands are lit by two to five mini pendants, of which there are literally thousands to choose from, or with several recessed lights. If choosing recessed lights think small and bright. Three to four inch halogen lights with 50 watt MR16 lamps work well. Look into companies such as Contrast, Con-Tech and Eureka for a great selection. Many even have decorative glass glow rings as a nice accent.
Another interesting way of lighting an island in an eclectic or contemporory setting is with flexible rail. Your imagination can really be tested with this. Try Tech Lighting, Axis Lighting or Focalor Lighting as good examples of this. These companies can be found on Lightsearch.

The Dining Area
Next let's look at the dining area. It is usually a round table of varied size. The simple solution is usually the best here. Put a pendant that matches the mini pendants that you chose for over the bar. That is where those families I mentioned earlier come in handy. You may also put a circle of rail or match the recessed lights. Two recessed adjusable low voltage halogen lights located 12 to 18 inches off the edge of either side of the table with make your table setting sparkle with color. Uniformity works well here but it is not a rule. You may have an unusual antique or vintage fixture that would be an eyecatcher in this spot. Once again use your imagination.

The Hot Zone
On to the stove. If you do not have a hood there, a couple of lensed recessed lights will work well. Be sure they are lensed and utilize halogen par floods of at least 100 watts and in stainless. These will be difficult to find. Try Halo, Lightolier, Kurt Verson or Juno to start.

What's in There?
Lastly, with proper kitchen lighting are the always overlooked cabinets. A simple solution is using small, adjustable recessed lights approimately 24 inches away, spaced to shine into every two cabinet doors. A 35 watt MR11 flood works very well for this. Small lights with perpetual on switches controlled by the doors opening and closing can also be installed much like a refrigerstor. A highly skilled elecrical contractor or cabinet maker would need to do this.

A Few Little Tips
There are a few other things to mention. A ceiling fan is a good idea, but without lights unless you have a high ceiling. In that case uplights from on top ot the fan motor work well to remove the dark cavern above. Be careful not to place ceiling fans where they are below a lightsource to avoid a strobe effect..
Never use recessed line voltage floods to light a kitchen. The heat will be excessive and your own shadow will always get in the way of the tasks you need to perform.
Wall sconces add a nice touch but most kitchens don't have a place for them.
Another little tip, if you have space above your cabinets, is to lay an inexpensive piece of rope lighting up there as an accent and a night light,

I hope this information will be useful to you. I have listed some additional sources by category. You can find them all at

Upscale traditional lighting- Nulco Lighting, Metropolitan Lighting

Upscale architectural lighting- Bruck Lighting, Louis Poulsen

Track and recessed lighting, Lightolier, Lithonia, Halo, Juno, Eureka, Contrast, Con-Tech and Kurt Verson

LED Lighting- Cleanlight Greenlight and Alkco


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    • frogpatch profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Jersey Shore

      I have been out of the lighting industry for the last couple years, after almost thirty years, and write full time now so I miss a lot. Thanks for the valuable info Rob. I do believe that LED lighting will be the driving force of the industry for many years in the future especially with the phasing out of the A lamp. I hope it does not disappoint like the solar industry has so far.

    • Rob Led profile image

      Rob Led 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, British Columbia

      "LED has not changed nearly as much as I expected"

      LEDs ,in the last two years have gone from "commodore 64 - Quad-core" LEDs might be one of the most important advances EVER.

    • frogpatch profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Jersey Shore

      It been two years since I wrote this and LED has not changed nearly as much as I expected. It is still very pricey for a high quality product. Yes it does come different color temperatures and even color changing and mixing as in Color Kinetics

    • Rob Led profile image

      Rob Led 

      6 years ago from Vancouver, British Columbia

      LED"It is still in its infancy in residential lighting and this will probably change before I even finish this article." Great prediction, and Ryan , if you don't like you're "Cool" LEDs try "Warm White" next time. there indistinguishable

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I have found that one of the down sides to led lighting. Is that the light color emitted is blue and cold. But it is worth sacraficing the color for a energy savings.


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