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How to Brighten Up Your Sad Kitchen Lighting, According to Interior Designers

Photo: Hoxton/Tom Merton/Getty Images/Hoxton

In most homes, the kitchen isn’t just where you cook, but where you eat, read the paper in the morning, and hang out — and each of those different tasks requires different types of light. So even though it’s nice to have a bright light when you’re prepping ingredients on the counter or cooking on the stove, those same lights can feel garish when you’re serving a meal or entertaining friends and family. “A modern kitchen requires the ability to shift light levels between efficient work space and a romantic place of gathering for nourishment,” explains Robin Standefer, co-founder and principal at Roman and Williams, and that requires a bit of creative thinking and intelligent design.

To help find the balance between beautiful kitchen lighting and kitchen light fixtures that are actually practical, we asked four interior and lighting designers to share their favorite kitchen lighting idea, from the most labor-intensive to the easiest.

The quickest and easiest way to improve your kitchen lighting is to swap out your light bulbs. “I cannot advocate enough how important the quality of light is in a kitchen,” emphasizes Noele de Leon, senior lighting designer at WeWork. And since kitchens are often colorful spaces, she recommends installing bulbs with a high color rendering index, or CRI, a measure of how accurately the light shows the colors of objects as compared to natural light. The higher the CRI, the closer to natural light it looks, and the better everything basking in its glow appears, including your food. “Soraa has a Radiant line of retrofit bulbs just for this occasion,” she says. Bonus: Soraa’s bulbs are LED, so they’re super energy efficient and ecofriendly.

Another easy way to transition your lights from cooking and prepping to serving and eating is with a dimmer. “It’s not profound, but is effective in controlling layers of light and therefore the atmosphere,” says Stephen Alesch, the other co-founder and principal at Roman and Williams. “This sort of flexibility means having the ability to crank light levels to their maximum when you need to work or prep, while also being able to slowly introduce darkness for warmer, more intimate settings.” De Leon recommends the dimmers from Lutron, which also made an appearance in our roundup of the best energy-efficient light bulbs.

If you’re for a more high-tech option, Lutron also makes an internet-enabled dimmer switch called the Caseta. That additional smart functionality means you can schedule your lights to dim or brighten at specific times, based on your routine. So if you always serve dinner at 6 p.m., you can set your lights to automatically dim to dinner-appropriate lights the moment the serving platters hit the table.

However, if you’re truly terrified of installing a new dimmer in your wall (or maybe are on a lease where that kind of upgrade is prohibited), you can get much of the same smart functionality with these smart plugs, recommended by Kellie Sirna, principal of Studio 11 Design. You can turn your lights on and off from anywhere with your smartphone, and because it’s compatible with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, you can also control the lights with your voice, which would be especially helpful if you’re trying to adjust the lights while also taking something hot out of the oven.

“Areas of a home kitchen that requires additional lighting is, hands down, under cabinets,” says Standefer. “A continuous source of light — ideally a very warm LED that creates an ambient glow — below cabinets is spectacular for illuminating the countertops that serve as primary prep areas.” But this functional light can also add to your kitchen’s overall aesthetic, especially when paired with an overhead light. “The overhead fixtures themselves act like a catalyst for other light sources — like the under-cabinet lighting — and increases both the layers of light available for functionality while also increasing the levels of interest in the space to highlight the objects in your kitchen you love most.” Plus, adds de Leon, “it can also set the mood and call some well-deserved attention to the backsplash tile.” These light bars from GE come in a variety of lengths, so you can pick whichever size will fit your cabinets best, and because it uses LEDs, it’s also energy-efficient.

For those ready to overhaul and upgrade the actual light fixtures in their kitchen, all of the designers I spoke with recommended to focus on overhead lighting. One thing that’s important to remember when lighting a kitchen is that things can get messy, especially near stove tops, so de Leon recommends “using a light that can easily be wiped down with a damp cloth.” That means sticking to metal and glass, rather than trendier open-weave pendants or fussy chandeliers. One of de Leon’s favorite solutions is this slim light fixture from Louis Poulsen.

This more-readily-available LED pendant from Wayfair has a similar profile to that of the Louis Poulsen.

From $3,740
From $3,740

For a fixture that’s less starkly modern, but still round and flat, Standefer and Alesch designed this Felix pendant light — described on their website as a “big metal dish with a glass diffuser.” They describe this light as being “excellent for completing tasks,” especially since it will provide a “good flood of light over your range of vision.”

A more affordable option is this metal pendant light from Amazon, though it has a slightly more utilitarian look.

The milky glass globe on this light fixture also diffuses light, which makes it seem less harsh and more natural and easier to switch between bright kitchen lights and soft dinner ones.

You can also find a similarly styled chandelier, if you’re looking for an overhead kitchen light with a little more visual interest.

If you do like the feel of basket-woven chandeliers, this glass pendant with wood detailing is a nice compromise for the kitchen. It’s easy to wipe down but still incorporates some nice, natural materials.

If you don’t want to mess with your overhead lighting or fixtures at all, but still would like an easy way to shift the mood, “strategically placing candles or tabletop lighting to glow on the table can also work wonders,” notes Sirna. Alesch agrees: “Dinner and entertainment demand warmer light — it’s just naturally more appealing. Introduce candlesticks and candles for a more inviting and seemingly private gathering.” These highly reviewed flameless candles are made with real wax, so they still look fairly realistic, without the potential fire hazard.

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How to Brighten Up Your Sad Kitchen Lighting