The kitchen is the heart of every family gathering and daily living, though a space that unfortunately is most neglected when it comes to lighting! Don't we all see many kitchens with one fluorescent strip or ceiling fixture that is located in the center of the space and is supposed to meet all the lighting needs in the kitchen?
So you may ask what's wrong with this. Well, we're missing on so much, the atmosphere is cold, flat and uninviting, more like an office or hospital would feel! Because the light comes from one central location, we might cast shadows on the task areas like top counters- just where it is most important for us to see well. The space underneath the cabinet's looks like a black hole and it's not much fun being in such an environment of lighting. In other cases there may be many poorly located 6" diameter recessed cans that contain glaring lamps and may provide what's called "enough lighting". When you look at the kitchen the first thing you see is an unappealing space with a ceiling full of glaring holes and without much character, and again most of times we still have shadows in the wrong places and uneven non balanced light.
When designing kitchen lighting you might want to think a bit more sophisticated and believe me, you'll be glad you did. Think layers of lighting, think task lighting, think ambient lighting, think accent lighting, and think decorative lighting.
"...a well illuminated space makes the people who use it feel comfortable and able to perform tasks easily."
Take a good look at the space and learn to see what are the opportunities the space provides and how would you choose to answer each of the above categories of lighting.
Ambient kitchen lighting is the general illumination in the space. Many times, I like to achieve it through the use of reflected light from different surfaces, for example if we put an attractive low voltage track on the ceiling along the front side of the cabinets we may achieve two goals, one is the illumination of the cabinets themselves and the other is that the reflected light (which depends also on the cabinets color) will add to the ambient lighting of the kitchen space. The use of track lighting is not the only solution of course, but it provides more flexibility and if done right it also looks great. In certain areas like California, there is an energy code that limits the fixture types that you can use for ambient lighting by requiring a certain light output per watt, which limits the selection to mostly fluorescent sources. Consult your local designer for attractive solutions.
Kitchen task lighting is achieved with a combination of strategically placed overhead ceiling lights and the use of under cabinet lights and wherever possible. I feel that the choice of under cabinet lights is important, take in consideration that the purpose of the under cabinet lighting is to provide continuous and bright lighting. Try to hide the lights behind a valance or in a recessed space below the cabinets, so you can't see them and put them as close to the front of the cabinet to minimize the reflected light that may come from shiny top counters. I personally like the use of the linear xenon lamps low voltage strip fixtures for this purpose, also work well are the same type of fixtures but with halogen lamps, its just that the xenon lamps have longer life hours (up to 20,000 hours) and normally run a bit cooler then the halogen. Fluorescent fixtures are widely used and are a possible solution but I personally do not like the feel of the light in such applications and also these lights are not dimmable unless special dimming ballasts were specified.
Decorative lighting I like to use lighting pendants over the bar or and over islands. Pendants are a good way to create an imaginary divider between other living areas and the kitchen, they also provide opportunity to Decorative Lighting, Multi Lamp Pendants make the space look more sophisticated or rich in color and may be used also as a source for task lighting. Pendants do not have to be big, especially over a bar; they could be as small as 3-7" diameter. Choose the shape and color that you like and that fits well in the style of your space. In certain cases you may have an empty wall space that may provide an opportunity for a nice wall sconce.
An interesting lighting layer can be added by placing linear lighting on top of the cabinets when there is a space between the cabinets and the ceiling, I usually use 24V xenon lamps strips which provide very warm dimmable and continues light output. See picture above to appreciate the effect.
Down lighting use smaller aperture cans, which conceal the light source and minimize glare and locate them for maximum benefit, I personally do not believe in lighting the kitchen floor which is done quiet often. Low voltage cans with internal transformer offer many advantages when used right and usually blend better in the ceiling than the standard line voltage cans, they are also more energy efficient and provide longer lamp life and bright crisp light.
Low voltage track and cable lighting systems - use these system creatively and you'll find that they are a lot of fun and may take your space to a new level. You will find that they are usually easy to install, provide more flexibility, you can bend some of them to fun shapes and run them to where the light is needed and they may add the needed interest and become a focal point in the kitchen space.
I hope that the information provided here will help you to create a better living environment for you, your family and friends, a well illuminated space makes the people who use it feel comfortable and able to perform tasks easily.