Layered Kitchen Lighting: How Doubling Down On Your Lighting Fixtures Can Make A Big Difference

The difference between a kitchen that looks good and a kitchen that looks great isn’t how you decorate the space, it’s how you light it. Even the best designed kitchens feel lackluster with inadequate lighting, while a few stylish, well-placed lights can make even an ordinary kitchen come alive. And, of course, good lighting plays a role in how well you can see while you’re working. So if you think you can get away with one flimsy overhead light, you’re wrong on two fronts: not only will inadequate lighting keep your kitchen from looking its best, it’ll also keep you from making the best use of your space.

Overhead Lighting

Replacing a single bright lighting fixture with lots of smaller ones spaced evenly throughout the room will give you better over-all illumination and help combat the shadowy corners of your kitchen (by Turan Designs)
Replacing a single bright lighting fixture with lots of smaller ones spaced evenly throughout the room will give you better over-all illumination and help combat the shadowy corners of your kitchen (by Turan Designs)

The bare minimum lighting for a kitchen is one bright light stuck right smack dab in the middle of the ceiling, meant to cast light over the whole kitchen at once. The problem with this setup is that the light you get is never quite where you need it. In order to get all-over coverage, the light is located as far away from your actual workspace as possible, and in order to be bright enough to reach the far walls, the light these fixtures produce is often excessively harsh and bright. Replacing a single flush-mount fixture with several can style recessed lights is a good first step. They produce a more moderate, even light, can be positioned strategically near your work surfaces, and illuminate your kitchen from all angles, rather than just from a fixed point in the middle. Bonus: if you put them on a dimmer switch, they can double as mood lighting when you don’t need bright lights to see by.

Task Lighting

Centering your kitchen's primary task lighting around the perimeter of the room rather than in the center of it is an easy way to improve your task lighting (by EB Designs)
Centering your kitchen’s primary task lighting around the perimeter of the room rather than in the center of it is an easy way to improve your task lighting (by EB Designs)

If you do a lot of cooking, it can also be worthwhile to actually install separate lights directly over your workspace, either mounted to the ceiling above the cabinets or mounted to the underside of the cabinets above your counter. These lights are purely functional, chasing back the shadows and making it easier to see while you’re working, but they can be particularly worthwhile if you have deep cabinets or a kitchen that doesn’t get much natural light. That said, good task lighting should illuminate key areas of your kitchen, like a spotlight. The lights built into range hoods are a good example: they make it easier to see while you’re cooking, but a good one will also add a warm glow to the area around your range.

Under Cabinet Lights

Under cabinet lights aren't just functional, they also do a great job bringing out the detail in your backsplash and adding depth to your countertops (by 2Go Custom Kitchens)
Under cabinet lights aren’t just functional, they also do a great job bringing out the detail in your backsplash and adding depth to your countertops (by 2Go Custom Kitchens)

Under cabinet lights offer a nice combination of style and function. They can be used, as I mentioned above, for brightening up your counters and making it easier to work. But spaced throughout your entire kitchen, they can also be used to draw attention to the small strip of wall between the bottom of the cabinets and the countertop. This works best if you have textured walls or a decorative tile backsplash; a few small cabinet lights mounted beneath your cabinets not only chase back the shadows, but will make your kitchen seem to glow, highlighting the color and texture of the wall.

In and Over-Cabinet Lights

Small spotlights - whether they're aimed at your dishes or the architectural features of your kitchen - can bring out the subtly stylish details of your space (by Millennium Cabinetry, photo by Beth Singer)
Small spotlights – whether they’re aimed at your dishes or the architectural features of your kitchen – can bring out the subtly stylish details of your space (by Millennium Cabinetry, photo by Beth Singer)

The same goes for in-cabinet and above-cabinet lighting. In this case, they aren’t remotely necessary or functional, but they can add depth and character to your kitchen. Open or glass-fronted cabinets that are illuminated from the inside are incredibly eye-catching. Like spotlit museum displays, they draw the eye and turn your everyday dinnerware and dishes into something that stands out and feels worth looking at. Alternately, small lights placed on top of your cabinets are great for accentuating the height of your kitchen, especially if you have gabled ceilings or exposed beams. Both types of light draw attention to areas typically lost to shadows, and give your kitchen a soft, warm, inviting glow.

Using Lighting As An Anchor

Big, eye-grabbing lighting fixtures placed directly over a table or island can help differentiate between the different zones of a greatroom (by Great Spaces!, photo by Reed Lewis)
Big, eye-grabbing lighting fixtures placed directly over a table or island can help differentiate between the different zones of a greatroom (by Great Spaces!, photo by Reed Lewis)

In a large kitchen, or one with an open floor plan that connects to a larger greatroom, layering different types of lighting fixtures can also help give your space definition. Good over-all lighting will ensure that no part of your kitchen is dark, but hanging a large, decorative lighting fixture directly over a kitchen table, dining table, or kitchen island will help set it off from the rest of the space, even if there aren’t any physical barriers between the different “zones” of the room. In the same way a good area rug can tie together a living room set, a hefty light can make a few pieces of furniture left adrift in a large space really feel like they belong there.

Statement Lights

When your task lighting blends into the background, a few decorative lights can really steal the show (by Neil Lerner)
When your task lighting blends into the background, a few decorative lights can really steal the show (by Neil Lerner)

Good layered lighting is mostly about the lights you don’t see: recessed lights, hidden spotlights, tiny accent lights, and so on that give you full lighting coverage and fill the gaps left by larger single fixtures. But the flip side of that is that if you don’t need to rely on a single fixture for functionality, you have a lot more freedom to get creative with its style. A prominently placed chandelier, a large island light, or even a series of decorative pendants can be a major design feature of your kitchen.

When the hidden fixtures take care of the actual lighting part, a big, bold fixture can really stand out and shine, giving you the best of both worlds.