Lighting the Low-ceilinged Kitchen

Sometimes you have to look for clues to period lighting. I suspect this kitchen had a 9′ ceiling, considering the apparent length of the ceiling fixture rod, but you can achieve a similar look with a flush-mounted fixture. A less common light fixture is the lamp on the top of the Hoosier cabinet, which would have been this kitchen’s main preparation space. (Drawing: The Kitchen Plan Book, circa 1920, published by the Hoosier Manufacturing Company, New Castle, In.)

The older you get, the more important it is to have adequate light, whether you’re working at your bench or the kitchen counter. Natural light from windows, glazed doors and skylights is ideal, but in pre-dawn hours and evenings, or on overcast days, you need more.

If your ceiling is 8’ or lower, as ours is, choose light fixtures with headroom, as well as illumination, in mind. (I really really wanted to have 9′ ceilings on the main floor of the house, but that would have increased the cost…and I had to mind my budget.) Fixtures that hang too low can cast a blinding glare, let alone pose a risk to your noggin. Lights recessed in the ceiling maintain maximum headroom and are an excellent choice for general illumination; some varieties allow you to angle the light toward a particular spot such as a stovetop or counter (though in such cases, you’ll want to make sure you won’t cast a shadow on the workspace when you’re working).

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If you’re interested in a period look, bear in mind that lighting standards have changed dramatically over the decades. Many of our grandparents cooked in rooms with much less light than we consider necessary (or at least, desirable) today. The kitchen of my 1925 bungalow had a single-bulb sconce in the mulled trim between two small sashes over the sink (similar to the set-up in the drawing at the top of this post – look closely! – and also to the one on the cover of Jane Powell’s Bungalow Kitchens, above) and a central fixture in the ceiling. When I bought the house in 1995, the ceiling fixture was one of those fluorescent coils I now recognize as cool, though I thought it ghastly when I moved in. (Nor was it the original fixture; it had been added during a mid-century update.)

A mid-century style fluorescent ceiling fixture. (Image: Home Depot)

A third fixture, a 1970s pendant wired through a wall and hung on a coppery chain, illuminated a small corner where a breakfast table had presumably once stood. This three-light set-up is typical of many 1920s kitchen I’ve seen in vintage plan books. It may have been fine for people who cooked during the day, but it’s frustrating for those who cook when it’s dark.

Reliable sources for period lighting guidance include vintage catalogs for products such as flooring or cabinets, as well as periodicals such as Old-House Journal, or books such as Bungalow Kitchens and Bungalow Bathrooms.

Architectural salvage shops and yards are a good source of original fixtures; you can often find pieces that are unique. For safety, you should have antique fixtures rewired with modern wire (and where applicable, plugs). An easily accessed, reputable source of antique lighting already rewired to contemporary safety standards is Rejuvenation.

A ceiling fixture I bought at an architectural salvage shop. The fixture itself is metal; someone painted it white. One day I may strip it, but for now I’m just happy to have the hand-painted shade that came with it.

When a fixture will hang over a sink, headroom is less important. Just make sure the bright light won’t be directly in front of your eyes.

Another find from a salvage shop, this pendant with a subtle lavender tint to the glass shade hangs over our sink. (It’s not turned on in this shot.) The bottom of the shade lands at 74″ from the floor. If that had been too low for us, we could have shortened the chain that suspends it.

If the fixture will go over a table, it can hang lower without posing a problem for headroom.

The ceiling here is 95-1/2” high. This fixture, which is quite a long one, hangs down 15”, leaving 80” of vertical clearance–no problem at all, when it hangs over a table, and high enough to avoid posing a problem even if the table weren’t there. A two-lamp sconce illuminates the stove. (The gaping round hole in the ceiling is still-unfinished vent.)

Closer to the ceiling: this “Otis” fixture, one of several low-profile models from Schoolhouse Electric.
Here, kitty kitty! Another ceiling hugger from Schoolhouse, this time with a gray tabby shade.

OK, so schoolhouse fixtures have become trite by this point. The sources mentioned here have plenty of other styles, including a burgeoning range for mid-century modern and later aesthetics as late-20th-century design regains its moment in the sun.

Wall sconces can illuminate work areas, as well as provide ambient lighting for the room. Many old-house kitchens had sconces over sinks or stoves. Some had a sconce on the wall at each doorway, too. Just make sure that any light fixture near a sink or stove is UL rated for damp locations.

The Alabax sconce from Schoolhouse
Lauri Hafvenstein installed a pair of antique sconces for lighting over the sink in her 1917 house in Washington, D.C.. (Photo: Lauri Hafvenstein)

Also consider concealed lighting in the recess below upper cabinets, which provides ideal illumination for work at the counter.

The kitchen of Bruce Chaffin and Jana Moore incorporates under-cabinet lighting, recessed lights in the ceiling, an exhaust hood with integral lighting for the stove and ambient lighting above the upper cabinets, too.

While this is by no means a comprehensive list of lighting options for kitchens with 8′ ceilings, I hope I’ve provided some food for thought. These and many more are covered in Kitchen Think.

–Nancy Hiller, author of Kitchen Think and Making Things Work


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