Just like you need good reading light in bed, you need good working light in the kitchen. Trust us: You don’t want to try to pull off dinner in the dark.
Sure, you can slap up a few lights here and there and call it a day, but position them wrong and they could light up the whole floor but leave your important work stations—the counter, sink, and range—completely in the dark. Or you could install all ambient and no task lighting, leaving the area under your cabinets dim and shadowy. Not to get too dramatic here, but if you don’t have the right amount of lighting in the kitchen, you could be looking at spills and broken glassware at best and maybe even a trip to urgent care at worst.
But because the kitchen is also a space of gatherings, lingering during cocktail parties, and Tuesday night dinners for two at the counter, your lighting needs to be warm and flexible, too. Just like everywhere else in the house, layered lighting is key, and the National Kitchen and Bath Association says light in the kitchen should come from many adjustable sources.
Which is all to say: You’ll need exactly the right mix and a super-thought-through plan to light your kitchen for every possible situation. Luckily, that’s our M.O.
Ambient lighting is your main source of light: It provides even, all-over light from the ceiling. Think of flicking on the main light switch and boom, the kitchen is brightened all over: That’s your ambient lighting. You can use a few common types of lights to get that effect; pick and choose one or more:
Recessed lights are set into your kitchen ceiling, with a downlight inside that can be either movable or immovable. They’re available with a bunch of bulb options, like LED, halogen, fluorescent, and incandescent.
**Pro Tip: Be sure to plan out with care where your recessed lighting will go, so it looks neat and considered, not like your ceiling has polka dots.
Flush-Mount or Semi-Flush-Mount Lights
Flush-mount lights are installed completely flush to the ceiling while semi-flush-mounts hang slightly lower, but both keep a pretty low profile—and they come in almost endless styles. They’re good for making a statement and spreading plenty of light, too.
**Pro Tip: We suggest opting for a standout semi-flush-mount instead of a fancy chandelier in the kitchen: It’s more practical and allows more clearance, so no one will bump their head while cooking. (It works much better in small spaces, too.)
Pendant lights hang down from the ceiling via a chain or cable and come in a ton of styles. You might want to include one (or a few) above a peninsula, island, or even the kitchen sink: for looks, but also because pendants add a nice soft glow for working, cooking, or eating.
Pro Tip: “Pendant spacing is determined by how large the lights are and how many there are over an island or peninsula,” says Jessi Economos, founder and principal designer of JEID Studio. “I would suggest hanging the lights slightly off center—more towards the seating portion of the island—so you won't hit your head while prepping food.”
Just like a task light on your desk, you need task lighting in your kitchen workspace. Think of it like bright, targeted lighting that illuminates worktops still left in the dark by ambient lighting. “Only offering overhead lighting will create shadows,” says interior designer Larah Moravek, partner at Dutch East Design. “Always have under-cabinet lighting to illuminate the counter surfaces as well as the cooktop.”
We’re calling this category strip lights, but it includes any kind of long lighting—bar lights, tape lights, and rope lights—that attaches to the underside of your wall cabinets to help light your countertops. All of them cast wide, even light.
Puck lights also adhere beneath the wall cabinets, but they’re shaped like hockey pucks instead. The main difference is that puck lights cast round circles of light, not an even glow—which can look dramatic, but might not be great if all-over brightness is what you’re looking for.
**Pro Tip: If your range sits in the middle of your workspace, you might be better off with puck lights instead of strip lights, which don’t require you to cross the wiring over the cooktop.
Last but not least there’s accent lighting, which can be pretty much any of the above types of light fixtures—but positioned to highlight a specific, special element of the kitchen, like the toe kick, inside of the cabinets—particularly glass-fronted ones, to show off the displays inside—or even a piece of art on the wall. Got something you want to highlight? That’s what accent lighting is for.
A Note on Dimmer Switches
Consider putting a dimmer on all of your kitchen switches, as long as the transformers in your fixtures allow it. It’ll save some energy, extend the life of your bulbs, and allow you more control than just an on/off switch, whether you need full brightness for Chef’s Table-level plating precision or mood lighting for a dinner party.
And Speaking of Switches
Building code states that you have to have at least one wall-switch-controlled light, and that the switch has to be at the kitchen entrance, so it’s easy to flip on as you walk in.