20 October 2009

Lighting 101 Guest Post - Kitchen Strategies

"When I do my job well, no one notices," shares professional lighting designer Vicky Lodge. The problem is, as Vicky can tell you, when lighting isn't well planned or executed, you absolutely will notice.

Work areas won't be well lit for the task at hand. The room may feel too glaringly bright, too dark, or harsh in some areas and dim in others. Your space -- and its occupants -- just won't look their best. So I asked my lighting pro friend to share her designer strategies for lighting your kitchen and she graciously agreed. Here are Vicky's strategies and tips:

Kitchen lighting overview

The kitchen, more than any other room in the house, needs "layers of light." Layering lights is done by providing light from different sources and locations for the different tasks that will be performed in the space.

Layer One - general lighting

General lighting for a room is achieved by installing lights overhead to cast a broad glow over the entire space. Recessed lighting is the least expensive way of doing this. But not all ceilings allow for this. For example, if your ceiling is tongue and groove wood with the roof installed right on top, there is no space in which to recess anything.

A kitchen featuring energy-efficient recessed lights by Elco Lighting.

Track and cable lighting

If there are beams running across your ceiling, you could install track lighting along their undersides for more versatility in directing the track heads, or along their sides, so that the track heads are not as visible when you enter the room.

Another way of getting general overhead lighting, especially if the ceiling is high or vaulted, is to install cable lighting.

Kable Lite system by Tech Lighting provides a stylish ceiling-mount alternative to recessed cans.

This style of lighting is low-voltage and, therefore, requires a transformer. A transformer steps down the line voltage of the home (110 volts) to either 24 volts or 12 volts. I prefer 12 volts because the bulbs (lamps) are more widely available.

So now, where does the transformer go? Whenever possible, it is best if the transformer is hidden, but still easily accessible.

Lighting Pro Tip:
I often use the top shelf of an upper cabinet or pantry to hide a transformer.

Sometimes the easiest location to conceal a transformer is in an adjacent space, like a bedroom closet or the garage.

The dimensions of the transformer depend upon the type you're using. Electronic versions are smaller but more expensive. Dimmer switches are also more expensive for electronic transformers. The magnetic ones are less expensive, but much heavier and about the size of a small shoe box.

When hiding a transformer is not possible, there are surface-mounted transformers that are finished in attractive coverings. Its size will be influenced by the type of transformer you're using, as noted above, and by the number of lights the cable lighting system is designed to activate. A lighting designer can help you with the layout and specifications.

Monorail systems

A system that is a cross between track lighting and cable lighting is a monorail. Monorails have a rail that is similar in size and shape as a track, but are hand-bendable. Monorails are similar to cable lighting in that they are suspended from the ceiling and often appear to float in mid-air.

A monorail system, like this one from Tech Lighting, is another way to provide attractive ceiling-mounted illumination to a kitchen.

Layer two - task lighting

Besides general lighting, kitchens also need task lighting. Task lighting illuminates a specific area where work is performed, be it a sink, cooktop or countertop. Usually, task lighting is achieved by installing strips of light on the bottom of upper cabinets. These strips can be fluorescent, halogen, xenon, or LED.

Fluorescent lights operate at a much cooler temperature and are energy efficient.

Lighting Pro Tip:
The buzz, delay, or flicker that is often associated with fluorescent lights can be eliminated if the ballast of the fixture is electronic rather than magnetic.

Halogen and xenon fixtures render colors more accurately, but they do run hot to the touch. They are easily more easily dimmed and smaller than their fluorescent counterparts.

LEDs are cool to the touch, are environmentally friendly, small, and produce a great amount of light relative to their wattage. Just as incandescent, fluorescent and halogen light source differ in color, so do LEDs. Plus, since they are fairly new to the marketplace, expect to pay much more for them initially. They will, however, last 10-15 years, which is two to three times longer than fluorescent and almost eight times longer than halogen or xenon.

Under-cabinet task lighting for this kitchen is generated by Kichler's energy-efficient LEDs.

Island lighting

Another type of task lighting designed to be used over an island is, aptly called, an island fixture.

This Minka Lavery island fixture in bronze will hang beautifully in a traditional kitchen... Choose one that matches your style.

Lighted pot racks are another option for island lighting. They not only illuminate your island, they also serve a decorative and functional purpose, adding bonus style and storage to your kitchen.

Add style, light and storage to your island with a lighted pot rack, like this whimsical charmer from 2nd Ave. Lighting.

Layer three - ambient lighting

Another layer of light is ambient lighting, which can come in the form of up lighting, cove lighting, interior cabinet lighting, niche lights, under counter-edge lighting, and toekick lighting. Ambient light is low level lighting that creates a mood or scene without necessarily being seen.

Up lighting

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I use up lighting when the upper cabinets don't go all the way to the ceiling and there is less than three feet between them. The up lights, (often fluorescent, but I have also used rope lights), give lift to the space and softly reflect back into the room.

Kitchens with ceilings more than three feet from the top of the upper cabinet can still benefit from up lighting, but the reflected light will be significantly reduced. If the kitchen is large enough for an island cabinet, it is often large enough for a ceiling cove.

Lighting Pro Tip:
Cove lights in the kitchen are much less expected than in the dining room, which only adds to the richness and beauty of this technique.

If the ceiling is at least 10 feet, then a dropped ceiling can be put in around the perimeter of the room with a pop-up in the middle. Crown molding or a ledge is added at the lower ceiling line and then cove lighting is installed, again to give lift by illuminating the higher ceiling.

Here, kitchen cove lighting is installed in a contemporary design by Seaview Electric.

Interior lighting

Interior cabinet lights and niche lights are used to show off what is being displayed within, like beautiful serveware or pottery, but they can also serve as night lights when left on by themselves. Energy-efficient lights are ideal for this purpose.

Interior lights from WAC Lighting show off your collectibles in a cabinet or a niche, as shown here, and provide night lights when used on their own.

Counter edge and toekick lighting

Lights that install below a countertop overhang and in the toekick area of your base and tall cabinets add unexpected and delightful drama. Under-counter edge lights are a relatively recent form of ambient light, and require a thicker and deeper countertop edge to house and hide the lights.

Lighting Pro Tip:
Rope lights are primarily used for counter edge lighting since they are flexible enough to follow and bend around any curves, but LEDs would also be perfect for this application.

Under-counter lights can also serve as task lighting, since they will effectively illuminate the interior of a storage space to make finding contents easier.

Toekick lighting located underneath the base cabinet storage section makes the cabinet look as if it is gravitating in space. I haven't used this technique as much in the kitchen as I have in powder rooms since it makes a great night light. This could be useful for households with older, vision-challenged residents who may make after-hours kitchen visits.

Layer four - accent lighting

Accent lights, when applied in a kitchen setting, are best expressed with pendants. Although pendants often produce enough light to be considered task lighting, their main purpose is to be seen rather than to see by. Pendants are often very vivid and charming, and may be the only "color" in a primarily neutral room.

Pendants can be installed individually or a monorail could be installed with the pendants suspending down from the rail. Pendants not only liven up a room they can also serve to beautifully divide the kitchen space from an adjacent great room or family room.

I designed this kitchen with black cabinets, stainless appliances and neutral black-tan-grey quartz tops at my client's request. She selected orange pendants and matching paint to kick it up a notch.

Final thoughts on kitchen lighting

Besides the fact that layering lights is more interesting, layering puts the lights where and when you need them. From overhead to evenly illuminate the entire space or with dimmable pendants to give a gentle glow to say good night at the days' end.

About our guest post lighting pro

Vicky M. Lodge has been in the design business for more than 30 years and holds degrees in both architecture and interior design. She specializes in lighting. Vicky has taught architectural drafting at her Alma Mater, Design Institute of San Diego and a lighting class for San Diego State University. She has been the guest speaker at lighting seminars, and her designs have been published numerous times in San Diego Home and Garden Magazine. She is currently the owner and designer of VML Design & Lighting in Lakeland, Florida and San Diego, California.


Please comment below if this information has been helpful to you. It'll help me convince Vicky to write Lighting 101 - Bath Strategies for us!


  1. Beautiful interior design kitchen, my favorite lighting plan is the last and the third one. It looks beautiful.

  2. You’re a brilliant, creative interior designing. I love the lighting patterns and the small chandeliers on the kitchen, very eye catching.

  3. This is great advice. I don't think people realize the importance of lighting, but it can really make or break a space!

  4. wow! love the lamp lights! they will surely create a unique Bathroom looks that is warm and inviting. personally my dream kitchen has these lights from VGK " Kitchen Lighting " this blog is full of wonderful designs and positive thoughts on the remodel

  5. Oooh, you’re such an inspiration. I love this blog!


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