Expert Guide on Kitchen Lighting

12 min read

Expert Guide on Kitchen Lighting - Architessa

We heard you wanted to learn a few new things about kitchen lighting, so we have enlisted the help of Kelly Emerson, a kitchen design expert from Aidan Design. Emerson shares her knowledge in this in-depth blog, guiding you through types of lighting, interesting history, lighting sources, and more. Emerson is scheduled to be featured in the upcoming months for a kitchen lighting segment on NBC. Architessa is grateful for the opportunity to capture her expertise on the topic.  


When you begin to think about remodeling your kitchen, what do you think about first? How many times has your answer changed? Once? Twice? The list can feel endless for many homeowners. Often, you don't know where to start, with all the ideas racing through your mind.

Online research and asking a family member, friend, or neighbor is great to do when you begin to search for your kitchen remodeling team. Ultimately, hiring a kitchen design professional to guide you through the process will help you navigate the many questions that come your way.



Kitchen spaces should overindulge in lighting, with adjustability everywhere. Everyone experiences light sensitivities differently; adjustable layers of light should be incorporated throughout a kitchen to accommodate this variation.  

The approach for lighting your kitchen is much different than for your bedroom, living room, or other spaces in your home. Kitchens should have sufficient and flexible lighting, planned as if there is no natural daylight. This allows for the right level of lighting for both day and night.  

Homeowners often mention problems with their existing kitchen lighting because it's likely problematic. It can become a topic of conversation early in the design process. Understanding how the kitchen design and layout will change, along with your appliance selections, is paramount to understand first. 

Be sure to have a final kitchen layout before working on your kitchen lighting plan. Incorporating a multi-layered lighting plan will feel less intimidating and overwhelming when there are new kitchen areas to light. The visual below shows the multitude of necessary lighting to consider.

Kitchen Lighting Diagram

 Image Source


As many say, the kitchen is the heart of the home, and we lean on the kitchen space to have multiple uses in our daily lives. Kitchen lighting is not only important for visibility within the space but also helps light areas where tedious and repetitive tasks take place (chopping, baking, making pasta from scratch, etc.). Adequate lighting and visibility help to alleviate strain, stress, and eye fatigue and keep you safe.

While many homeowners still request to keep their kitchens contained to a singular room, more homeowners ask for open concept kitchens, integrating them into dining, living, and family rooms. This connection of spaces invites guests into the kitchen more when entertaining. Lighting can enforce a kitchen design that tells people where to go and can set an elevated mood and ambiance when hosting a gathering. If you already have your lighting chosen, ensure it's installed correctly. An improperly positioned light will be less effective.  


A source we share with many homeowners we work with to determine light fixture placement is Visual Comfort's online lighting tips. These are especially helpful because inspirational photos may only show some of the lighting in the actual kitchen. Things are not always what they seem. In some cases, photographers remove recessed lighting to make them magazine-worthy. This means your inspirational photo is missing key pieces of lighting, something a qualified designer has knowledge on.  

Types of Kitchen Lighting

Visual Comfort's Online Lighting Tips



Typically, we confirm the lighting finish later in the selection process since cabinetry, counters, and tile are established before lighting. We coordinate lighting finishes with the other material finishes in the kitchen, such as plumbing and cabinet hardware selections.  



I almost always walk into a dated space and discover lighting that no longer turns on or switches to nowhere. In a lot of cases, the under-cabinet lighting that was once operable cannot be replaced within the housing it came in, or it's not even there.

Electrical code and requirements have evolved to help kitchens function better. Incorporating those electrical upgrades and requirements in a remodel is to the benefit of homeowners, especially with today's technological advances. 


Single Decorative Light in a Kitchen

Singular Decorative Light in Kitchen on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art



The residential lighting choices we have today are vast compared to what was available to us decades ago. Innovation in lighting often takes time to reach the end user. You may not realize that recessed lighting has been around for decades as it was developed in the 1940s and 1950s for commercial applications. It took time to enter residential applications. 



You may be surprised to learn that LED lighting is also an innovation created as early as the 1960s. It only entered residential applications in the early 2000s. LED lighting options are now available and consistently used in LED recessed lighting, LED strip lighting, and even more decorative LED light fixtures. LEDs are not only energy efficient but also long-lasting. As a designer, LED recessed lighting and LED under-cabinet lighting have become the standard.

Decorative flush mount and semi-flush ceiling fixtures were the main options for kitchen ceiling lighting early on. While recessed lighting has become the primary source of lighting in kitchen remodels, homeowners and designers are still incorporating decorative ceiling lights in their renovated spaces today. Like with trends in fashion, there is always a return to design choices that work. 

Recessed lighting is more affordable than decorative ceiling lights; however, the spread and cast of a singular decorative ceiling light is often greater than a singular recessed light, making them more useful in certain applications. 

Remodels in condominiums can also limit your ability to install recessed ceiling lights due to the available space between floors. Shallow recessed lighting can often be an option to consider. If you forgo kitchen recessed ceiling lights, choose a decorative ceiling light that is within budget and meets the needs of your design and aesthetic. 


Kitchen Lighting Guide

Image Source



As mentioned in lighting applications above, a recessed, strip, or surface mount (ceiling or wall) fixture are the forms of lighting most available to us. Many of these forms can light areas in multiple ways and direction based on how the fixture is designed. One would hope that a singular lighting type can offer the all-in-one lighting needs of your kitchen space. My experience confirms a kitchen needs more than one lighting type to achieve the optimum lighting design for the end user (which is all of us!)

The three types of kitchen lighting are:

  • General / Ambient
  • Task
  • Accent



General lighting is achieved by designing recessed downlights evenly throughout the ceiling expanse, all on a dimmer.

 A recessed light with a 4" diameter and 36-48" between one another is the general guide I follow (making certain exceptions in unique circumstances). The larger the space, the larger the range of spacing. Too many ceiling lights close together can make a ceiling look like a slice of Swiss cheese! Some recessed lights are available in a larger diameter, which I stay away from. I have mixed in smaller diameter options when requested by a homeowner. 

For finish, white trim/flange and white baffles are recommended so they disappear into a painted white ceiling. This advice would change if the ceiling is not white, as more designers and homeowners are specifying both color and wallpaper for their ceilings.

General / Ambient Lighting Trend

A recent trend in kitchen lighting is incorporating small decorative ceiling lights that sometimes replace recessed lighting entirely. This trend may be around for some time. As mentioned above, decorative lights are more costly, so an installation of this kind can increase a lighting budget. The below project showcases the smaller decorative ceiling lights over an island. 


White Carrara Honed Marble Slab Backsplash

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography, Backsplash Tile: White Carrara Honed Marble Slab



Task lighting is primarily achieved in kitchens by incorporating under-cabinet lighting. Under cabinet lighting's purpose is to light the counters as you work in your kitchen and to shine a light on the beautiful backsplash wall. While some designers like the under-cabinet lighting to be dimmable, we prefer under-cabinet lighting without that option, as this lighting's job is all about function. Dimmable LED strip lighting is great for living and bedrooms where the purpose is more mood than task. 

Mounting the under-cabinet light towards the front of a kitchen wall cabinet is essential. Mounting the LED strip towards the back of the cabinet against the wall will not sufficiently light the counter surface and may cast misleading shadows of light onto the kitchen backsplash. 


Brightly Lit Kitchen
Brightly lit kitchen

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography


Seeing a before and after visual when installing cabinet-mounted lighting shows how light makes the space come alive. Placement of the light under cabinets is really important as well. Placing the light too close to the wall will spotlight any imperfection shown. A perfectly installed tile backsplash will soon become imperfect, and painted walls and drywall will come to life with flaws you never noticed before. The below centered photo shows the lighting installed far from the wall, which is the perfect location for under-mount lighting. See these case studies on lighting and tile for more information.


Kitchen backsplash no lighting
Kitchen backsplash lighting

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography. Right Photo: Example of LED Strip Lighting – Hafele, Left & Middle Photos: Backsplash Tile: Architessa - Artistic Tile – Calacatta Gold Marble Studs Polished  


While cabinet lighting in kitchens I design is used more as task lighting than for mood and ambiance, leaving just under cabinet lights on certainly sets a mood after winding down from a night of entertainment. With floating shelves becoming a common design element in kitchens in recent years, routing your shelves for LED strip lighting will also help illuminate your working countertop areas and beautiful tile backsplash.


Carved Tile Backsplash
Carved Marble Tile

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography, Backsplash Tile: Architessa - Artistic Tile – Cararra Honed Marble


Task Lighting Trend: Grothouse, a company that leads the industry in providing wood countertops for kitchens, offers floating shelves. They partnered with Hafele, which leads the kitchen lighting industry to provide integrated shelving lighting solutions. This partnership makes it easier to implement task lighting underneath floating shelves.

We've had many homeowners forego routing shelves for LED strip lighting, which can be a missed opportunity to light a beautiful backsplash selection. 


White Kitchen Backsplash

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography


For areas where lighting is needed for task or ambiance and under cabinet lighting /LED strip lighting cannot be easily installed, we often recommend recessed wall washer ceiling lights or decorative directional lighting (i.e., pendant or sconce). They can have the flexibility to adjust the direction of light within the fixture itself. Nadia Subaran, lead designer and owner of Aidan Design reminds us that "lighting can also be art," as shown in her dining room project below.  

Note: The wall washer is an industry term for pivot recessed lights because they wash the wall with light.  


Wood tile backsplash

Nadia Subaran, lead designer and owner of Aidan Design, reminds us that “lighting can also be art,” as shown in her dining room project, pictured left.


Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography, Backsplash Tile: Custom Wood Tiles



Decorative wall sconces above windows or a sink, as shown in the below images, provide task lighting for counters below.

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography, Backsplash: Danby – Honed Marble Slab

White marble slab backsplash kitchen


Your hood, or hood insert, provides task lighting as well. Custom wall hoods can have unique lighting elements designed into them, like the small diameter recessed light to the right of the cooking area in the project below. 


Traditionalist Kitchen

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography



Accent lighting can often come in recessed wall washers that provide spot lighting to highlight an area that isn't otherwise lit. It can be an articulating wall library light for artwork or decorative sconces framing a focal element. It can be supplemental light, but accent lighting often has multiple functions, including accent, task, and even general. 

As in the image below, wall sconces installed to either side of a kitchen window become a focal point; however, they are meant to light the backsplash tile space in front of you, the countertops below you, and the space around you. 


Brightly Lit Dining Room
Beige Tile Backsplash

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography, Backsplash Tile: Architessa – Pratt and Larson Textured Ceramic Tile


As a designer, the goal is to create kitchen spaces that feel like seamless extensions of comfortable and sophisticated living spaces. Incorporating items like decorative lighting to break up all the hard materials and surfaces in a kitchen is a highly effective way to produce that feeling. 


White herringbone backsplash

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography, Backsplash Tile: Architessa – New Ravenna Raj Mosaic 


Homeowners and their kitchen designers work together to create more focal elements surrounding the cooking area, deciding how detailed those are. Even if you choose the classic range and stainless hood is the way to go, consider lighting all surrounding areas. Yes, there are the general recessed lights in front of the range and lighting from underneath the stainless hood, but what about the pockets of space to either side of the hood? The images below showcase what pivot recessed lights (wall washers) can do to light a beautiful backsplash that goes to the ceiling. 


Kitchen Lighting Comparison
Kitchen Lighting Comparison
Kitchen Lighting Comparison

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography, Backsplash Tile: Architessa – Sonoma Tilemaker Arabesque Ceramic Tile 


Accent Lighting Trend: An accent trend that we are incorporating into kitchen projects is library wall lights over a piece of artwork or on an empty wall in the kitchen. The below Aidan Design project features a classic painting that hovers in a location that is in between prominent and hidden, next to a Tabarka terracotta backsplash from Architessa.


Classic Interior Design

Aidan Design - Photo Credit: Robert Radifera Photography, Backsplash Tile: Architessa Tabarka Studio Paris Metro 4 Dark Charcoal on Lavan with rubbed edges Field Tile. 



Several lighting companies sell general, task, and decorative lighting. A recent introduction to recessed lighting, which is slowly becoming the standard, is a recessed light that can change the color temperature within the fixture itself. 

This introduction has not only made it easier for designers and contractors to specify the lighting, but it has also made it easier for the homeowners as well. Coordinating the color temperature of all your lighting (general, task, and accent) is more easily done than ever before. 

Several lighting manufacturers offer their lighting in varying temperatures, and below is a chart that shows you the color temperature options. 


Light Temperatures


Light Temperature Scale



In news as recent as this month, most incandescent lights will soon be a relic of the past. New energy efficiency rules will no longer allow the purchase of incandescent bulbs at stores nationwide. 

The Department of Energy estimates that Americans will be saving millions of dollars on utility bills without incandescent lighting. While incandescent lights provide a warm color temperature, other bulb types, such as LEDs, are available in a similar warm color temperature that people respond just as well to, as seen in the above chart.

As a designer, I want to bring warmth to lighting, so my recommendations are always in the range of 2700-3000K for recessed LED strips and decorative lighting.



Outside of online searching, there are lighting retailers and local lighting showrooms you can visit. I recommend consulting your kitchen designer, contractor, or lighting designer for all your lighting needs. Dominion Lighting and Visual Comfort are both great partners in the DMV area, with varied resources and staff to help. Purchasing through local shops is my first recommendation, but the convenience of online purchasing is always helpful as long as you read reviews and confirm it's a reputable company. Several lighting websites can make false promises and under-deliver.


bright white kitchen interior design

Image Source: Dominion Lighting


In my experience, designers work with homeowners on decorative lighting selections and purchasing a kitchen project. Contractors work with their lighting representatives to help source the general (recessed) and task (under cabinet) lighting for homeowners with the consultation of a kitchen designer. Often your kitchen designer, who may or may not be supplying the cabinetry, can also provide under or in-cabinet lighting. Along with Grothouse mentioned above, several cabinet manufacturers are partnering with Hafele and similar companies to integrate LED strip lighting into cabinetry, whether into wall cabinet box sides or motion-sensor lighting options that turn on as you open a cabinet drawer. Some homeowners will take lighting a step further by adding automation controls into entire smart home systems or through Amazon Alexa and similar systems. Smart lights are becoming increasingly popular and can be controlled by your phone or voice commands.


Thanks for reading, and be sure to take a look at our kitchen Pinterest board for tiled kitchen design inspiration.




Kelly Emerson - Senior Designer at Aidan Design, 

Kelly has worked in both commercial and residential aspects of design. She started Emerson White Design to tackle interior design projects early in her career and, before joining the Aidan team, was a Design Consultant at Architessa working with design professionals and homeowners.

Kelly’s most recent experiences and knowledge of ceramics, stone, and glass materials contribute to the tailored design of every Aidan kitchen. Despite a true appreciation for all the finishing touches, Kelly thinks it’s the foundation that counts. She believes that designing well-organized and functional spaces will inspire people to achieve beauty and structure in their personal and professional lives as well.

Photo Credits: Robert Radifera Photography

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