Kitchen Lighting: Brilliance on a Budget

Lighting is an element that can make or break a kitchen. The good news is that adding quality lighting to your kitchen doesn’t have to involve big, expensive fixtures or exhaustive remodeling, as long as you think carefully about what you want to accomplish and then use a little creativity. These tips will help you do both, so your kitchen can be shining with style in no time.

Use Fixtures That Perform Multiple Functions

“I’m a big believer in using the ‘layers’ technique for designing kitchen lighting,” says Frankie Cameron, account manager for, a lighting retailer based in Mendota Heights, Minn. These four layers, Cameron says, represent the functions that lighting performs in the kitchen: 

  • The ambient layer — The general overhead lighting in a room.
  • The task layer — “Ambient lighting often doesn’t provide enough lighting for specific tasks you want to perform,” Cameron says, “so you have under-cabinet lighting, for example, or a light over the sink or over an island.”
  • The focal layer — Used to highlight objects such as pieces of art, architectural details, etc.
  • The decorative layer — This layer is used purely for fun. It’s “meant to enhance the overall interior design,” Cameron says.

Your best bet for budget lighting is to try to find pieces that perform several of those functions at once. Richard Landon, owner of RL Design, LLC, in Bellevue, Wash., and winner of Best Overall Kitchen in the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s annual design competition, did this in his own home by combining ambient, focal and decorative lighting in one smart fixture.

“I bought an interesting s-shaped 4-foot-long fixture from IKEA,” Landon says. “I took out the ugly pendant lighting over my dining room table and put in this really long, curvy thing where I could aim individual lights at the walls in different directions. That would work in the kitchen, too. If you have a single fixture in the middle of the ceiling, go buy a light that’s very interesting and eclectic from a budget place where you get good quality for a low price.”

Landon particularly likes monorail lighting, which is a stylish modern twist on traditional track lighting that allows you attach different individual lights to one long, curving track. The track is suspended from a single point on the ceiling and its curve can often be manipulated to suit your space. “If you hunt around you can find less expensive ones,” he says. “My dining-room fixture is similar to this, and I bought it for $49.”

Bring Light Down to Your Level

Looking for a quick budget-minded lighting makeover? Try mid-level task lighting. “If you want to do something interesting in your kitchen,” Landon says, “get some lighting in the mid-zone by using ready-made halogen fixtures. Attach them to the bottom of your cabinets, turn them on and you’ll feel like you have a whole new kitchen.” Over your sink, he suggests, replace the customary single light with a funky fixture with arms, or a couple of hanging pendants, for an inexpensive but dramatic change.

“Having light down lower is mood-elevating,” Landon says.

Take Your Time

“Frugal” need not be a synonym for “frumpy” when searching for the right fixture, but to find unique lighting that meets your budgetary and design needs, you’ll need to lurk a while in stores or online. “The Internet is your friend for budget lighting,” Landon says, “and if you want do things cheaply, you have to spend the time looking for the right piece.” Try the online catalogs of your favorite budget retailer — and don’t forget to browse eBay.

Think Long-Term — Not Short-Term — Savings

Although the initial cost of energy-efficient fixtures may be slightly higher than those that use traditional incandescent bulbs, keep in mind the true costs of higher energy consumption and more frequent bulb replacement when you’re budgeting for lighting. “We’re seeing lots of new under-cabinet lighting with [more efficient] halogen and xenon bulbs,” Cameron says. “But what’s really becoming popular is LED lights. The technology is advancing, making LED a more affordable option.”

LED, which stands for light-emitting diode, is a lighting technology that is long-lasting and extremely energy-efficient.

“The initial cost is more expensive than incandescent,” Cameron says, “but the light bulbs last something like 60,000 hours.” That’s nearly seven years of continuous, cool-burning light.

Do It Yourself

Labor is another hidden cost of adding kitchen lighting. “The best advice I can give anyone is to learn how to do lighting yourself — take a class, take a seminar,” Landon says. “If you need someone to help you, go to one of your smaller, family-owned lumber stores and ask the guys at the counter for a handyman they trust. They’ll often be less expensive than the ones who operate out of the larger stores, plus they’ll treat you fairly and talk to you straight.”

The bottom line: Plan carefully when it comes to design ideas, function, energy efficiency and cost of installation. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the dramatic kitchen lighting results you can get on a modest budget.

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