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Lighting a kitchen with help from three experts

The humble kitchen, that place of dish-scrubbing drudgery and midnight snacks, has become a glamour spot in many of today's homes. Granite countertops, Viking stoves, shimmering glass tiles - there are plenty of investments to put in the spotlight.

So it should be no surprise that the market for kitchen light fixtures has grown and good design is now more affordable, says Jason Landau, owner and chief designer at the New York-area design firm Amazing Spaces. Today, he says, 'you can get pretty high-style lighting even at your local Home Depot.'

But choosing new lighting can be more complicated than other home improvement projects. You can't really test out samples, as we do with paint or fabric swatches. And there's a range of variables - from style to cost to energy efficiency and safety - to consider.

For those approaching the project without input from an interior designer, here are a half-dozen tips on good kitchen lighting from Landau, interior designer Sue Pelley and the DIY Network's 'Sweat Equity' host Amy Matthews:

- Observe the room in daytime and evening, keeping goals in mind.

Consider the available daylight and how light may bounce off light-colored or reflective surfaces, she says. One crucial detail: Determine where you'll be standing while cooking to make sure you won't create a shadow in your work area by having your head between the light source and work surface.

- Think vertically.

Check ceiling height and the distance from cabinets to counters. With high ceilings, lights must be fairly powerful and illuminate a wide enough area. The spread of light from different fixtures and bulbs will vary, says Landau. Lower ceilings bring up the question of heat: 'With halogen lights in a 7.5 foot ceiling, you may start feeling like your head's gonna cook,' he says.

For chandeliers, the rule of thumb is five feet off the ground regardless of ceiling height, says Pelley, a spokeswoman for Interiors by Decorating Den. 'But people put fixtures either too high or too low, just like art on the walls,' she says.

- Save cash by combining beauty and function.

Under-cabinet lighting gives a soft glow, while also illuminating preparation areas and drawing attention to textured countertops, says Pelley. 'It's a place people don't think about lighting, but I love it.'

All three designers advise using dimmers, especially for the room's main lighting. Dimmers are usually inexpensive and offer huge flexibility, allowing each fixture to contribute both bright light for cooking and a soft glow during parties.

- Choose a few elements to highlight.

Use light to feature a decorative backsplash or piece of artwork, says Matthews, or to illuminate the inside of cabinets with glass doors. It adds depth and can draw attention to favorite glassware or dishes. Using these accent lights alone adds a 'night light' mode for the kitchen.

Rope lights are a relatively inexpensive and easy way to do this. Many rope lights plug into an outlet, rather than being hardwired into walls. That gives flexibility and saves money, but you may need to install an outlet near the ceiling or behind a cabinet.

- Consider a range of technology.

Some showrooms have a light room where they can demonstrate different types of light, such as incandescent or halogen, Landau says. It's important to determine which is best for you, so Landau also suggests checking out the types of light used in friends' kitchens.

If you're leaning toward a particular type of light, bring lamps from elsewhere in the house that are the same type, says Matthews, to see how they affect the colors and textures in the room.

Environmentally friendly compact fluorescent bulbs, which run cooler and use less energy, are one option. 'They don't look that bluish white anymore,' says Landau. But not everyone likes their coiled shape, he says.

- If your kitchen is an open plan, consider the way light will flow into and out of surrounding rooms.

Your kitchen should be lit as a distinctive space, but be sure the fixtures and type of light won't clash with an attached family room or dining room. 'You wouldn't want a really contemporary kitchen, with funky lighting, next to a traditional Italian chandelier in the living room,' says Landau.

Keep in mind the finishes on the fixtures you choose: 'The big finish right now is wrought iron and painted finishes are big,' says Pelley. Pewter and satin nickel are also popular, she says.

Above all, these designers suggest taking your time: 'Like any part of home improvement,' says Matthews, 'shop around. Don't buy last minute, or just because you think you need to get it.'