Dos and Don'ts of Kitchen Lighting
March 12, 2012 - 9:05am

Al Thomas, CLC, of Seattle Lighting

Thomas: I view the kitchen as one of the hardest areas to light because the design approach must fulfill two needs: It must fulfill a functional need to provide adequate light for the tasks involved, but it also has to be aesthetically pleasing and complementary to the surrounding spaces. The kitchen has become the hub of family life, and with the open floor plans popular today, it’s not visually divided, as kitchens once were. You can make a family room feel warm and inviting, but to carry that feeling into the kitchen so that the areas are seamless becomes more of a challenge.

Over-lighting is a common problem. The tendency in most kitchens is to use a series of recessed cans in a grid pattern across the ceiling. You see this in Architectural Digest and all over; it’s a very common approach. The sad part is that so much thought and effort goes into creating these magnificent spaces with cabinets that look like furniture and European professional series ranges, and then the grid of light makes the space dull and uninteresting because, in a uniformly lit space, nothing stands out.

 A better design approach, [although] it’s counterintuitive, is to create focal points and contrast. There are two contrast ratios I work with: primary and secondary focal points. For a primary focal point, I want six to 10 times the ambient light level. For the secondary focal point, I want three to five times the ambient light level. Why do we have these two? While the space that’s uniformly lit is nondescript, a space that has everything lit is confusing. It’s like seven spoiled children screaming “Look at me”; you don’t know where to look first.

 In most kitchens, I’m probably going to make the island my primary focal point. So, when you walk into that space, boom!, that’s the first thing you see. And then, as your eye absorbs the space, the secondary focal points are brought into focus. As a result, you have a visual hierarchy that’s very comfortable and aesthetically very pleasing.

 My definition of ambient light is enough light to dispel the darkness. Ambient light provides a foundation for the other functions of light—task, accent and wall lighting. The key in most kitchens is where you provide ambient light. Everything ultimately ends up being very task–oriented. The pendants above the island are used to light that area; the recessed downlighting, perhaps positioned along the perimeter of the kitchen, lights the countertops; and undercabinet lighting provides supplemental work light. So, how do you introduce ambient light to the space? One way is to not use pendants as the task lighting. Another layer of lights, probably recessed cans, will provide the task lighting. Therefore, the pendants can be set to a nice, soft, warm glow and be very comfortable at eye level.

 A well-designed kitchen is about making sure the rhythm of the light pattern is in sync with the rhythm of the space. It’s one of those subtle little details, but when you get it right, you can see the difference.

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