This open plan kitchen flows into the informal dining room as well as the family room. We wanted the lighting in the kitchen to match that of the rest of the house so that it was visually integrated into the other spaces at night. Indirect lighting was placed on top of the upper cabinets provide a flattering fill light. The custom light fixture over the dining table offers both accent light and ambient light. The recessed adjustable low-voltage fixtures highlight the clients large collection of art and sculpture.
Kitchens have evolved into the new centers for casual entertaining. Now it’s more likely that guests will congregate in the kitchen as the meal is being prepared, often lending a hand while sipping on a glass of wine instead of waiting passively in the living room. New homes are being laid out by architects and builders to accommodate this change. As a result, the trend is toward an ‘open plan’ house, where the rooms flow together. The solid walls between the kitchen, dining room, and family room have disappeared. This newly defined space is often referred to as a ‘great room’.
The impact on lighting design is that the kitchen should now be as inviting as the rest of the house. It too, must have controllable lighting levels, so those guests look good and feel as comfortable as they do in the other parts of the house. This definitely changes some of the lighting methods that have been around for a long time.
Sadly, we still see new kitchens, even expensive kitchens, with a single source of illumination in the center of the room. Whether this is incandescent or fluorescent, it is essentially a ‘glare bomb’ that provides little in the way of adequate task, ambient or accent lighting. As our eyes adjust to the glare, the rest of the kitchen seems even darker than it actually is. We see only the light source, and little of the surrounding rooms. There is no single light fixture that can perform all the required functions of lighting for a space. Here, as in almost everywhere else in the house, it is the layering of various light sources that creates a comfortable and flexible lighting design.
Decorative Lighting Makes a Comeback
In the 1970’s, builders seemed compelled to put a run of track in the center of the kitchen. Track lighting is best used as a source of accent lighting. If you try to use it to light the inside of cabinets or down onto the countertops, your own head can get in the way, casting shadows onto the work surface. The old surface-mounted light in the middle of the ceiling can cause the same problems.
In the 80’s there was a shift toward using a series of recessed downlights installed in a grid pattern in the ceiling. This was a little better, but still by themselves, they cast harsh unflattering shadows on people’s faces and your own head still eclipsed the work surface.
Today people want family and friends to feel as comfortable in the kitchen as they do in the rest of the house. Decorative fixtures can play a big part in making the kitchen a welcoming place. They are the architectural jewelry that helps set the tone. Decorative lighting adds the visual sparkle to a space. They cannot provide all the functions of lighting. They represent just one of four types of light sources that need to be considered. Along with decorative lighting, there is task, ambient and accentlighting. A well though out combination of these four types of light are what create a cohesive lighting design for the kitchen, as well as other rooms in the home.
The first step towards successful light layering in the kitchen is the introduction of lighting mounted below the wall cabinets. This type of lighting provides an even level of illumination along the countertops. Since it comes between the work surface and your head, the lighting is much more shadow-free. This is one form of task light.
These linear light fixtures come in a great variety of styles and lamps (this is the lighting industry’s term for bulb). What we commonly see is a fluorescent strip light mounted at the back of the cabinet. The drawback to this placement is that when people are sitting down in the breakfast area or the adjacent family room, the light source can hit them right in the eye.
What has been on the market for a while now are linear task lights in LED versions that mount toward the front of the cabinet. They project the illumination toward the back splash, which then bounces light without glare onto the work surfaces and not out toward the center of the kitchen. This works well when the countertop is a material with a non-reflective surface, such as a matte-finish concrete or tile, hones or flamed granite, or Corian™.
General lighting plays an important role in the overall lighting design for the kitchen, just as it does for the other main rooms in the house. It is this soft fill light that helps humanize the space.
There are a variety of ways to provide ambient lighting. One way to get that all important ambient light is to install a single pendant (hanging fixture) or a series of pendants along the centerline of the space or over the island.. They should have a semi-translucent quality such as a wood veneer or alabaster. They will also add a more human scale to a kitchen with high ceilings. The translucent type fixtures can often act as both ambient light sources and decorative lights at the same time.
If the cabinets don’t go all the way up to the ceiling, another ambient lighting option is to mount linear dimmable LED or fluorescent lights above the cabinets, provided there is open space between them and the ceiling. This can be a wonderfully subtle way of producing the much-needed ambient light. If the cabinets don’t have a deep enough reveal on top, a fascia (a wooden trim piece) can be added to hide the fixtures from view.
The last consideration for the kitchen is accent lighting. You might have a few art pieces that can stand up to an occasional splash of marinara sauce. They deserve to be highlighted. This helps make the kitchen part of the overall open home plan. One tasty effect is to dim the ambient and task lights in the kitchen down to a glow, letting the accented art catch the attention once the party has moved to another area.
A Good Checklist
Many facets of your kitchen design will determine the way it is lighted. Not only do such variables as ceiling height, natural light, and work surfaces affect the placement or amount of light used but there are other factors you should consider as well. Here is a list:
Color— Darker finished surfaces are more light absorptive. An all-white kitchen requires dramatically less light (40-50%) than a kitchen with dark wood cabinets and walls.
Reflectance— A highly polished countertop acts just like a mirror. Any under-cabinet lighting will show its reflection.
Texture— If your end design includes brickwork or stucco, you might choose to show off the textural quality of those surfaces. This is accomplished by directing light at an acute angle to the textured surface. Recessed fixtures that are located too far away from the wall will smooth it out (which might be a good idea for bad drywall jobs).
Mood— Floor plans are more open now. Guests will flow from the living room to the kitchen to the dining room. The kitchen should be just as inviting as the rest of the house. Make sure that there is enough ambient light in the kitchen. This softens the lines on people’s faces and creates a warm, inviting glow.
Tone— The warm end of the color spectrum works well with incandescent light, but cooler colors are adversely affected by the amber quality of incandescent light. Whites turn yellow and reds can turn orange. Make a color temperature choice that works well with skin tones and room colors.
Code— In California, designers must conform to Title 24 (the State Energy Commission’s requirements for new construction and remodel work that exceeds 50% of the existing space). It states that 50% of the wattage must come from fixtures that have an efficacy of at least 40 lumens per watt. California is not the only state with such regulations. In the near future, more states will be affected.
Windows— Windows that let wonderful light stream in during the day, while showing off landscaping, will become black reflective mirrors at night, unless some thought is given to exterior lighting. Outside lighting will visually expand the interior space out into the exterior
Sloped Ceilings— Even if there is enough space above a sloped ceiling to install recessed fixtures, special care must be taken to select units that don’t glare. Some recessed lights are made specifically for sloped ceilings, while others have a 90-degree aiming angle to accommodate the slope.
Pot Racks— A pot rack may look just perfect over that center island on the plan, but it’s extremely difficult to light a work surface through cookware. If a pot rack is demanded, consider installing recessed adjustable luminaires to cross illuminate the counter surface of the island or position them above the center of the rack. Still the shadows cannot be eliminated, so having the option of increasing the ambient light is a way of combating the glare.
Door Swings—Make sure that switches are on the unhinged side of a door. Otherwise, you will have to reach around the back of the door to turn on the lights.
Of course, many aspects of this checklist apply to other rooms in the house, so feel free to refer to the list as you go from area to area.
The Bottom Line
An inviting kitchen is the true heart of a home.