Dressing in Layers
Laura Van Zeyl

A recent post from lighting designer and blogger James Bedell lamented that Pinterest was ruining kitchen lighting design. By showcasing beautiful images of these rooms generously bathed in full daylight or studio shots of impractical fixture picks for kitchens, the site was propogating the myth that decorative fixtures will provide sufficient illumination for an area where many tasks — some even involving sharp utensils — must be performed when the sun is off duty.

Pinterest is pretty and, let’s face it, probably prompts a lot of people to think about changing the lighting (among other aspects) in their kitchens — a good thing. But real life isn’t lived on an inspiration board. And a better understanding of available lighting products and techniques will enhance the aesthetics and functionality enjoyed in a dream kitchen.

The key to lighting any room, of course, is layering. You need ambient lighting for a room’s general illumination. This should provide a comfortable light level for seeing your way around a space, without glare from the source(s). You also need task lighting, especially in a kitchen. This sheds light on work surfaces so you can see what you’re doing. Undercabinet lighting, including super-sleek LED options that have emerged, is much more effective for this than, say, a recessed downlight above your head that just casts a shadow on the activity you’re bending over. That’s my personal peeve in kitchen lighting.

Good ambient and task lighting will get the job done, but the “special sauce” that increases the perceived value of a room is accent lighting, which creates visual interest by highlighting textures or architectural elements. To really make a difference, accent lighting should be at least three times brighter than the lighting surrounding it. And it makes a kitchen a million times cooler.

The fourth layer is decorative lighting, which can sometimes do double-duty as an ambient or task layer as well, depending on how the light is directed or diffused. And it can be used to underscore a room’s color scheme or design style, but despite all of the glory it gets on Pinterest, it’s never going to be enough to light a useful kitchen entirely on its own.

I said an audible “amen” when I read in February 2014's Design Forum (page 30) how important kitchen designer Wendy Johnson, CKD, considers lighting. If you are at Design & Construction Week, be sure to check out Johnson’s work in the Ultimate Kitchen, sponsored by Professional Remodeler and Food & Wine magazines as part of the on-site Show Village. Thanks to WAC Lighting for providing products for this display, and to Philips for creating an enlightening all-LED experience in the other Show Village show homes.

About this author

Laura Van Zeyl

Laura Van Zeyl is the Publisher/Editorial Director of Residential Lighting and Home Fashion Forecast magazines, and has been covering the lighting and home furnishings industries since 1993. In 2014, she was named one of "100 Women of Inspiration" by Today's Chicago Woman magazine.

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