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Is your kitchen glaring at you?

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By Domenica Marchetti
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Light has been on my mind a lot lately. Perhaps it's all that sunshine glancing off the snowdrifts recently deposited by Mother Nature.

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Probably, though, it's because whenever I'm in my kitchen, I am pinned beneath the clinical glare of a monstrous 45-by-16-inch fluorescent light fixture situated over my island. Just a few feet away, a second one (22 by 22 inches) stares down from above the sink. The effect is far from soothing, and in fact rather unsettling, as though my kitchen were a morgue and my island an autopsy table.

The good news, as I contemplate a kitchen overhaul in the (hopefully) near future, is that lighting in kitchens has changed a lot since the previous owner of my home remodeled the space some 15 years ago.

"We're seeing a lot of kitchens being created with layers of light," says Ken Anderson, president of Task Lighting in Kearney, Neb. Those "layers" come from myriad sources: general lighting through small recessed ceiling fixtures; task lighting over the sink or range and under cabinets; and accent lighting. "Every time you turn on a switch you can change the look of your room," Anderson says.

Kitchen designer Mary Galloway of Onesta Design in Alexandria agrees, saying she views the kitchen as a place of many scenes set, in large part, by how it is lit. "You think about someone cooking, someone eating, someone snacking at midnight," Galloway says. " . . . Your lighting needs change depending on the scene."

Recessed lighting, which provides the general lighting in many kitchens these days, has come a long way, says designer Jennifer Gilmer of Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath in Chevy Chase. Most types now use smaller cans than the once-standard six-inch size, and incandescent bulbs have been replaced by more efficient lights.

Indeed, just as we've seen the proliferation of tiny, bright LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs on trees and roofs during the holidays, so are these energy-efficient lights making their way into the kitchen, not only in recessed lighting but also in task and accent lights.

"They produce a tremendous amount of light, and they're very small," says Anderson, whose company makes numerous LED fixtures, including under-cabinet and interior cabinet systems. While they run at least twice the price of their incandescent counterparts, Anderson says, under-cabinet LED bulbs use about one-fifth the energy and last up to 50,000 hours, compared with a typical 800-hour lifetime of incandescent ones.

More and more kitchens are also adding accent lights -- those that draw attention to a particular appliance or decorative piece, the inside of a cabinet, or the so-called toe-kick space just above the floor -- though the latter seems to have its detractors. "I would say that 50 percent of our customers love the toe-space lighting, while the other 50 percent see no point in it," says Anderson. Its primary function (and appeal) is that it can softly light the kitchen at night, he says.

Pendant lights continue to be popular. They are "a good way to add color and some bling," Anderson says. Gilmer says the sheer variety in styles makes pendant lighting a good option for almost any kitchen. In fact, it was a pendant light that helped solve a puzzle for one of Gilmer's clients. "This particular person has contemporary tastes, but we needed something that would fit in with the traditional look of their Georgetown brownstone." In the end she chose a pair of spare, vessel-shaped frosted glass and chrome pendants to hang above the sink and adjacent cream, black and gray mottled granite countertop.

Gilmer is also fond of track lighting, which she says is "making a comeback. . . . They're sleeker and they run off a thinner track." It is a practical choice for apartments where recessed lighting may not be an option, she says.

The question to consider with all these lighting options is how do you manage them? The answer, increasingly, is with a wireless radio-controlled system. It is a costly feature: Prices for such systems start at about $500, not including the cost of components such as dimmers and switch plates or labor. But Galloway says these systems are especially energy-efficient, and they allow you to program any number of settings -- prepping, dining, entertaining and so on -- to achieve the desired effect with one click. "Because there's more lighting coming into kitchens, you almost need to have a system like that in place," she says, "otherwise you'll end up with a bank of 15 switches on your wall."

Though even that would beat my current, perpetual "autopsy" setting.

Domenica Marchetti is the author of "Big Night In" and "The Glorious Soups and Stews of Italy." Follow her on Twitter (@domenicacooks).


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