What’s New With Kitchen Lighting Design?

Why Kitchen Lighting Design Can Make Or Break Your Kitchen

It’s not at all uncommon for people to spend tens of thousands on a kitchen makeover yet almost totally overlook one of the key elements in any kitchen design and arguably one of the aspects most crucial to getting a really great look. We’re talking about kitchen lighting design. This is something that can utterly transform the appearance of, what is for many people, the heart of their home. It is also a relatively cheap and easy way to change how any room looks, but kitchens are especially susceptible to lighting upgrades for two main reasons.

Firstly, the are full of interesting, reflective objects and surfaces. Look around and you see tiles on the walls and floor; metallic hob, sink, oven, pots, pans and utensils; glass and china; bottles and jars. These are all items that love to be lit, and done properly can literally make your kitchen sparkle.

Secondly, kitchens invariably use an awful lot of lighting because they’re a highly functional and versatile space that, ever more these days, has to perform many varied roles: Food preparation, dining, relaxing and entertaining, conducting family business, informal workshop and so the list goes on.

As a result the kitchen is “on the stage” so to speak for many hours each day and, as with any performance, how it looks is in large part determined by how it is lit. It’s easy enough to try this yourself – start with the two extremes: in a room where it’s fairly easy to change the main light bulbs, fit first seriously underpowered ones (below 25W should do the trick) then install really bright bulbs (100W plus should suffice). Horrid wasn’t it?

So it should be obvious now that while too little light is hopeless, you can also have way too much a good thing and bleach out all color and warmth. Either way you will also give yourself eye strain and a headache, or worse, since it is well known that poor lighting affects your health. So what you want is the “Goldilocks” factor where light levels are concerned – not too bright, not too dim, but just right. But this immediately presents its own set of problems.

While it is clear that putting say 500 watts into a few central spots in the ceiling will indeed illuminate the kitchen perfectly, it’s not exactly comfortable and hardly conducive to chilling out over a nice glass of crisp white (or whatever your own preference is of an evening). But if you then drop the brightness to more tolerable levels you of course find that you can no longer see well enough to perform culinary tasks.

The solution is to simply spread the light around and rather than have a few very bright lamps, opt for a decentralized arrangement with many lower powered ones that are also physically adjacent to where you need them. Each zone will then be well lit for its own particular purpose, without also trying to shoulder the burden of lighting up the rest of the room.

Getting Down To Basics

To carry this off you also need to consider the basic principles of home lighting design which I shan’t reiterate in detail here (follow the link if you want chapter and verse on lighting designs). In brief though, this means providing a mix of: good, controllable (i.e. on its own dimmer switch) ambient light; targeted task lighting; and decorative/accent lighting to inject a bit of personality.

Basic Kitchen Lighting Design Elements

The most common (for the very good reason that it is also the most effective) way to create ambient light in a kitchen is by fitting recessed ceiling spotlights. No more really need be said about this one.

Task lighting is similarly pretty straightforward. The main task areas are the hob, adjacent work surfaces (or kitchen island) where food preparation is carried out and the sink. All you need therefore is lighting that illuminates these spaces in front of you (if the light shines from behind then you just cast your own shadow over the proceedings).

Popular locations (because they work) are thus underneath wall cabinets and the hob extractor unit (these often have factory fitted lights, but they can be pretty ropey and benefit from an upgrade).

Decorative and accent lighting (there is a subtle difference, but for a kitchen they serve much the same purpose) are the trickiest elements to get right since these are the lights that appear to be most on show. Although ambient lighting is in many respects like the foundations of any lighting design, ironically the art of getting it right entails ensuring that no-one ever notices it. Task lighting is primarily functional in nature and, let’s be honest, everybody’s looks much like everybody else’s (pay attention, we’re still on the subject of lighting).

Kitchen Under Cabinet Lighting

For decorative lighting you can use bold pendants, brightly patterned light shades, introduce something apparently out of place (a classic Tiffany lamp in an otherwise contemporary kitchen lighting design perhaps), put small feature lights in glass fronted cupboards or above/below shelves, pick out the shape of the counter top or make the units appear to float above the floor.

Kitchen lighting ideas are seemingly endless, but this is definitely where you get to make your own design statements, so offering prescriptive advice would be somewhat pointless and counterproductive.

However, while all these different types of lighting really do help create a stunning look that is both immensely practical and visually pleasing at the same time, there is a price to pay and that is the cost of running it all.

Up until quite recently it was common to use 50W halogen lamps for recessed down lighting. In even a fairly modest with say 10 lamps that’s 500 watts just to provide the background light. You can easily see how a well appointed kitchen might be consuming thousands of watts, and with the price of electricity where it is today, that’s not exactly small beer in terms of the financial impact.

So What’s New Exactly?

Well all manner of wonderful kitchen lighting options are available these days ranging from the simple but effective, like these cheap and cheerful chic pendants that actually cost less than some LED bulbs (of which more in a second), to some quite exotic and far from cheap fittings.

Chic Chandelier

Certainly, one of the main driving forces of late has been low energy energy lighting and in particular LED light bulbs and even more specifically LED spot lights.

For anyone who has halogen down lights providing their ambient lighting then switching to LED has hugely beneficial financial implications. If you want to dig around in the detail then pick an LED lighting savings calculator and figure out the implications for your own personal situation. But in broad terms, you can easily replace a typical 50 watt halogen lamp with something like this Edison GU10 LED that consumes a mere 6 watts by comparison.

Put in simple terms, the running cost is 12% that of a conventional lamp, or if you prefer, for every £100 you would otherwise spend annually on electric lighting, by switching to LED you would spend £12 instead (leaving £88 in your pocket to spend on other, nicer things),

As regards light quality, there’s not really much in it when using quality LED bulbs such as the aforementioned Edison. They are about as bright as regular 50 watt lamps (and for sure a lot brighter than the next most popular – 35W) and slightly more crisp and cool.

LED Strip Lights

There’s no hint of the blue that old style LEDs exhibited, it’s just that because halogens are distinctly on the yellow/pink side of things then the pure white of an LED seems a little less warm when compared side by side. One thing you really do want to avoid though is cheap LED light bulbs which are simply not up to the job and hence a waste of time and therefore also money.

LED lights are not only well suited to ambient ceiling lighting in kitchens; they make excellent under cabinet task lights and can also be used for accent effects. In these situations what you want are LED strip lights that are available in two basic formats: either as rigid lengths not unlike slimline fluorescent tubes, or as flexible LED tape that can be anywhere from 1 to 5 metres in length.

Both types can be cut and joined as required and are often affixed using little more than double sided sticky pads since they weigh so little. You can also opt for different types of white (warm or cool), specific colours and colour changing depending on the effect you’re after. Many people use them to backlight floors and ceilings by hiding them behind plinths or toe-kick boards.

Then there are display lights inside cupboards and the like. These may only be 10W or 20W each but they can mount up rather sneakily – fit half a dozen inside a glass fronted display cabinet for example and all of a sudden that’s 120 watts. The easy solution is LED G4 bulbs which not only use ten times less electricity but don’t get hot either.

Philips Ecomoods Pendant Ceiling Light

Moving away from LED but still most definitely in low energy territory, Philips Lighting supply a range called EcoMoods of which this particular EcoMoods pendant light is a nice example.

This looks great above a table or kitchen island or as a central ceiling feature. It provides excellent diffuse light, looks stylish and can be adjusted during fitting to get just the right drop from the ceiling.

It also kicks out 300 watts worth of light for just 60 watts actual consumption, so it’s fairly cost effective to run (if not exactly cheap to buy), and frankly as a fluorescent light it kicks the old fashion ceiling strip light clean into the weeds.


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