When you’re renovating a kitchen, a lot of thought goes into the floor plan, especially when it comes to the placement of a kitchen island. The size and arrangement of this surface has a big impact on how you’ll move in the space, whether you plan on primarily using it as a countertop for eating dinner with your family, working your way through a new cookbook, or setting out snacks for company to enjoy. But what goes above the island is also an important factor to consider.
“Island lighting is something that we like to start thinking about really early on in the process as we create the design for the kitchen,” says Santa Barbara-based interior designer Olivia Martinez, who runs Hearth Homes with her sister-in-law, Kate. “It’s always such an integral part of the overall kitchen aesthetic and design, and has the ability to transform the space in so many ways.”
It can feel overwhelming to consider all the different possibilities for your kitchen lighting (whether you keep it simple with a single pendant light, opt for several smaller lights, or try something truly stand-out), but there are a few steps you can take to make the decision easier. Here, designers share how to choose the right kitchen lighting for your space.
The size of your room and the size of your island matter: It’s definitely easier to add a large accent piece to an already-spacious kitchen, but that doesn’t mean you have to go totally basic in a small kitchen. “If we have a smaller room with less natural light, we’ll typically try to find something with a transparent shade that bounces light effectively, and keeps sightlines as open as possible,” Martinez says.
It’s important to keep in mind what other lighting you have in the proximity of your island, especially if your space has a more open floor plan. “You don’t want your island pendants to compete with a statement dining fixture, but to act more as supporting cast members,” Massachusetts-based interior designer Elena Letteron of Germain Interiors says.
And the height of your ceiling also comes into play. Letteron gravitates larger fixtures when working with a space that has high ceilings, and opts for sleeker lights in smaller scale spaces.
Pendant lights look great hanging over an island—but if they’re too low or two high, they might not live up to their design potential. Luckily, there’s a simple rule of thumb you can follow to get them right: hang them so that the bottom of each fixture is about 30 to 36-inches above the countertop, according to Martinez. There are some instances in which you might want to hang them a little higher, though, like if the fixtures are especially large or your family happens to be very tall. If you’re ordering lighting online, make sure that the height of the fixtures you pick is adjustable.
The number of light fixtures that you hang over your island will also depend on the style of the fixtures and the length of the island. If you go with a more dramatic piece, you’ll likely stick with just one pendant, but simpler lamps can look great in pairs or even in sets of three. To figure out the best spacing for multiple lights, Letteron generally recommends spacing them about 24 to 30-inches apart—though that may vary slightly case by case. “When in doubt, I’ll do a mock-up by taping out the size of the island and making paper cut outs of the fixture to determine placement,” she says.
Martinez finds the right spacing for lights by first determining the center of the island and measuring out from there. As long as fixtures are equidistant from the ends of the island and aren’t too cramped together, they’ll look right.
Photography courtesy of and design by Chris Loves Julia
Strike a balance
Thoughtful lighting can totally change the way your kitchen feels, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. “When in doubt, less is more,” Letteron says. “Fewer, more impactful lights make a cooler statement.” Both designers love the look of a single modern, linear light over a kitchen island to create a striking focal point.
But if you go with simpler, smaller lights, there’s also power in numbers. Martinez is a fan of incorporating three to five lights above the island in more minimalist kitchens. It all comes down to a balance.