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Lighting 101 – Lighting Work Surfaces

July 23, 2012

Good Task Lighting Detail (from

Task lighting or undercabinet lighting is an important part of any modern kitchen or office. Unfortunately it’s done improperly just about as many times as it’s done right. As an example, there’s a popular pin on my Pinterest feed (that I decided not to show or link to) that drives me crazy to look at. According to the pin they didn’t want to interrupt their tile backsplash, so they ran conduit under the counter to keep the lines clean. This also meant they didn’t have to make any weird cuts to the tiles and freed them from having to run wires in the walls that weren’t there to begin with – major savings most likely. Finally, it allowed them to put lots of plugs. All this is very practical. In fact, I think it’s an interesting solution. The picture above is similar except for one crucial detail. They reversed the locations of the plugs and task light.

I can almost hear the conversation in my head. “We have to hide the conduit as much as possible!” “But the task lighting goes there! How will we fit it all?” “I know – let’s push the task lighting to the back wall!”

Well… the thing is now you have two glare issues, and a few shadow issues, and, um… well, basically your lighting isn’t actually lighting anything you need it to anymore. Yes, I’m being a bit melodramatic, but light is always going to get first billing ’round here. Task lighting is an indispensable tool, in my opinion.

What’s wrong with putting the task lighting close to the back wall:

  • 1. The closer you are to shiny surfaces the more glare you’re going to get at more angles. In the case of the pin I refuse to link, the backsplash was a pretty but very shiny subway tile. Pushing it back raises the reflection closer to a direct sight-line, instead of pushing it closer to the bottom of the backsplash.
  • 2. By pushing the light towards the wall it’s now more probable that they will have a direct view of the light itself when sitting at their breakfast table. I’d have to do beam studies to be sure, but it’s worth mentioning.
  • 3. The biggest problem in my opinion: The light is behind the usable work surfaces and will create shadows. Anything you plug in will block the task light, because light doesn’t bend. Trust me – if I knew how to bend light I’d be polishing my Nobel in Tahiti. And to make matters worse your body is creating shadows from the ceiling lights, which is why you have task light to begin with. See my illustration.

You can figure a 120 degree spread of light for most task lighting. In the Good, 2D lady has a lot of light on the front of the blender. She can clearly see the buttons and what is inside the blender. In the Bad, flat surface prep work will create less shadow, but she will still get a shadow from something as short as her hands or a knife. much less a tall blender. It’s even more of a problem because your eyes adjust to the brightest thing in your vision. In this case that’s the shiny countertop and backsplash behind your work surface.

When you’re planning out any remodel, decisions that solve some issues will cause new ones. If the problem of seeing plugs and/or conduit is a bigger problem for you than optimizing task light, that’s your decision to make. As a lighting designer, to me light is paramount. It doesn’t matter how pretty something is if you can’t see it properly. Ideally, you’d put the task lighting as forward as possible. Not in the middle either! How many times have I seen the light put smack dab in the middle of a niche making whatever’s underneath look like a prop for the next big horror movie. Push it all the way forward! The goal is to live comfortably in a space you can be proud of and making educated design decisions will ultimately make your DIY designs better.

*UPDATE: Thanks to Michelle Chiang for reblogging. Check out her own blog for even more interior design ideas. 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2012 3:17 pm

    Great post. As someone who is trying to buy a home that will need a kitchen overhaul, this sort of idea is really helpful. I would never have thought to put a power strip under the cabinets.
    When we install under cabinet lights, they are always as far forward as possible. I sort of knew it was because of the shadows, but you did a great job of explaining it in detail.

  2. July 25, 2012 12:24 pm

    I nominated you for 2 awards! xxx Kristin

  3. August 12, 2012 6:07 pm

    Reblogged this on MICHELLE CHIANG and commented:
    Great information on task lighting!

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