Lighting is often described as the jewelry of the home. But it’s more critical than that, especially in kitchens, where it’s all about slicing, dicing and reading recipes. So maybe the new catchphrase should be: “Lights are the eyes of the home.”

“Kitchen lighting is so crucial and should be one of the first things people think about when they’re designing or remodeling a kitchen, but it often gets last priority,” says lighting consultant and interior designer Lisa Duncan. “People spend tens of thousands of dollars on their kitchens, but then you can’t see the new improvements or what you’re doing if the lighting isn’t right. Then I come along, and drywall has to be ripped out.”

Instead of doing an overhaul of her decades-old kitchen, Sasha Paulsen updated the lighting in her favorite room. Her dark kitchen, with only a can light above the sink and another above the prep area, was a problem. She couldn’t always see what she had, especially in the corners under her cabinets. With Shirley Allen of the Light Shop, Paulsen rethought the types of lighting in her kitchen.

Over the sink: She swapped the can for a glass and nickel pendant that provides better illumination, which is key for washing hands and cookware (she has three racks of pots and pans). Bonus: It’s much more attractive.

Above the table: She replaced a 1960s scalloped metal fixture original to the house with a “more inspiring” metal sculptural one with white shades. The shades eliminate the glare of a bare bulb.
Under the cabinets: Lights were installed under the cabinets to illuminate the corners, making them more usable. And Paulsen sees a big difference when she’s performing prep work, such as slicing vegetables with a sharp mandolin.

“It’s changed my whole cooking and dining experience,” says Paulsen. “And the process of kneading dough and baking bread, too.” Not only do under-cabinet fixtures provide proper task lighting, they add pleasant ambience for home entertaining.

“Adding under-cabinet lighting is the No. 1 thing you could do if you want to update your kitchen and make it more functional,” says architectural and kitchen designer Billie Deatherage. Deatherage always includes dimmer switches in her remodeling and new construction plans. “They are inexpensive and can give you the control to make your kitchen go from production mode to entertainment mode quickly. And they save energy.”

Paulsen loves the difference a dimmer switch makes in her kitchen. But one of the challenges with kitchen lighting is that it adds heat. Lighting consultant George McMillen sees the problem all the time. “People will remodel their kitchen and love it in the fall and winter, but then spring and summer comes and suddenly, it’s too hot,” McMillen says.

So McMillen is using more LEDs (light-emitting diodes) — particularly under-cabinet lights versus xenon and especially halogen because LEDs don’t produce as much heat, and they’re more energy-efficient. Consumer Reports recently tested 60-watt incandescent bulbs and their energy-saving equivalents. The magazine’s conclusion: You can find a CFL or LED that will give you the brightness and light quality you like, and it will save you around $50 over the life of each CFL and anywhere from $65 to $400 over the lifetime of each LED. “The challenge with LED is the color — it can look too warm or too cool,” he says. “But the technology is getting there.” Designers and lighting consultants are steering away from the matching pendants above an island. “They’re almost like a gate,” says Allen of the Light Shop. “You want to move them out of the way so you can see what’s happening in the kitchen.”

There’s a new focal point for lighting in the kitchen: the sink. Sasha Paulsen replaced a can light with a statement fixture. “Look how beautiful kitchen sinks have become — and functional with the built-in cutting boards and colanders,” says interior designer Dianne Boren. “You can actually see to wash your hands and the dishes.” Boren has a dimmer control for her sink light and others in the kitchen. She likes how it glows.

Kitchen and architectural designer Billie Deatherage in Kansas City makes sure all her kitchen projects have under-cabinet lighting. “It’s so important for task lighting,” she says. “But it’s also a great ambient light for entertaining.” She advises installing under-cabinet lighting toward the front of the bottom of a cabinet. If it’s installed in the back, the light doesn’t distribute evenly and creates bright spots and shadows.

Geri Higgins is seeing more kitchen ceiling fixtures that have integrated exhaust fans — an alternative to the large range hood. Styles range from contemporary to crystal chandelier. Elica’s “Star” ventilation light is $4,265 at Portfolio.

If you don’t like the hot spots that recessed can ceiling fixtures make on countertops, consider frosted glass fixtures. Shirley Allen advised interior designer Dianne Boren to use them in her kitchen. Boren likes the results.

Shirley Allen advises designers and clients to install sconces above kitchen doors exit-sign style. “They act as night lights for teens getting in at night or for late-night snackers.” Interior designer Dianne Boren’s kitchen has a sconce to the door leading outside and another to a hallway. “This is an under-the-radar lighting detail, but it’s functional and pretty.”


By Stacy Downs