The kitchen island pendant can be the jewelry of the kitchen, an important fixture to help with your everyday tasks and so much more. To help narrow down your choice from the seemingly infinite range of beautiful options, here’s a guide to choosing the type and style of pendant that suits your tastes and needs.
Pendant lights come in many forms, and different decorative styles can achieve similar practical effects. For this reason, it’s wise to start by considering what functional type of lighting you want to achieve, rather than the type or aesthetic style of fixture you desire.
The type of illumination you need from your pendant will depend largely on what types of lighting are already available in your kitchen. A space with many large windows may not need much more ambient light during the day, but you may need task lighting for the counter while chopping. A kitchen that already has many pot lights in the ceiling may just need a little decorative sparkle to catch the eye. Consider what other lighting is available, and let your pendant lights help fill in the gaps.
Lighting comes in four basic forms, and all four can apply to your kitchen: task, ambient, accent and decorative. Let’s review all four.
1. Task lights. This is lighting that illuminates a targeted area to help you see clearly while working.
If you want your pendants to help illuminate kitchen tasks like chopping (or to brighten the pages of a cookbook), you’ll want a fixture that aims the light downward, preferably with an open or translucent bottom to let a high degree of light out.
Keep in mind that open-bottom fixtures paired with powerful bulbs can create a harsh spotlight. If you’ve installed a fixture and the light is too severe, consider using a lower output bulb, or install a dimmer to allow for moodier lighting when the chores are finished.
2. Ambient. General lighting that gently illuminates the whole room or area, rather than targeting a spot (the opposite of task lighting), is called ambient lighting.
If you want your pendants to help brighten the whole room, bigger is not always better. A large pendant light with a single bulb won’t add more light than a tiny fixture with the same bulb, so consider using multiple lights spread across the area, or fixtures with multiple bulbs for an even glow.
It’s also worth noting that some of us are more serious chefs than others. If you tend to use your island more for mingling and snacking than for prep work, draw inspiration from restaurant tables and choose a softer light that creates an intimate
3. Accent. Accent lighting highlights a design feature, such as an art piece or a beautiful material.
Typically, pendant lighting isn’t used as a targeted accent light the way, say, a picture light would highlight a painting. However, if you have a beautiful wood or stone countertop, a wash of light will help bring out the various tones of the material. Pinpoint lights can also help bring out sparkle in flecked stone or polished metals.
4. Decorative. This is lighting that exists to be a decorative feature: either the fixture itself, the sparkle or shadow it produces, or both.
If you already have sufficient task lights and ambient lights in a room, feel free to choose pendants that glow softly and make a big impression without casting targeted light.
If you want your lighting to really be a star feature, look for lights that cast an interesting shadow on the ceiling, as shown here. This is especially effective with a slightly high ceiling that deserves to have the eye drawn up.
A Light That Can Do Everything
Of course, it is possible for a light to fit into more than one category. A light can be decorative and engaging while still providing functional downward task lighting and some upward or outward ambient lighting to help brighten the entire space. If you know in advance what roles the light needs to fill, though, you can make sure all your goals are accomplished while selecting a light that also looks great.
What Height is Right?
There are two approaches to determining what height to place your lights, and they again rely on the primary functional role of your pendants.
Task lights meant to clearly illuminate the island will lose brightness if placed too high, so these are usually hung 30 to 36 inches above the counter. This can place them somewhat in the line of vision, so people often choose slim fixtures that don’t intrude on conversation.
If bright bulbs are hung higher than this, keep in mind that you may be able to see inside the cover, even up to the bulb.
If you want your lights higher, use a long, narrow shade opening that won’t expose the bulb from as many angles, or supplement the task lighting with other sources.
Decorative statement fixtures can be hung higher to sit above the sightlines and be less visually intrusive, although it’s still important to hang them far enough below the ceiling to look elegant.
Judging this height can be trickier, as each situation will vary. However, as a general rule, a light should hang at least 12 to 18 inches below the ceiling plane for a typical 8-foot ceiling. In taller rooms, you should add 3 inches or more for every foot so the light doesn’t look like it’s unnaturally hugging the ceiling.
For fixtures where a decorative chain is part of the look, hanging it lower will expose more of the chain, so you can hang it as low as task light height, or somewhere in between. Keep in mind that many pendants have a significant minimum distance they must hang, and some have no range at all and can only hang at one set distance. So it’s best to check before you buy.
Some Thoughts on Style
Often a pendant light is not going to be the only visible hanging fixture in a room, especially in an open concept space with a dining area nearby. In such a case, it is fairly typical to have the pendant lights make a more subtle statement while a dramatic pendant or chandelier takes the starring role.
You can match your pendants across multiple spaces or contrast them. It’s generally safest, however, to choose just two types of pendants (such as a simple pendant and a chandelier style, as in the previous photo) lest you develop a mismatched “lighting showroom” style.
When contrasting different pendant styles, especially in close proximity, try using a similar or matching metal finish between them, or another shared material, so the lights relate on some level. This will make the contrast look intentional and considered, especially in a more traditional space
You can also try connecting your lights to other materials in the room. Try using a brass or copper finish for the lights and repeating it on your cabinet knobs (or a stylish faucet), or even picking up on colors in unrelated items like seats, fabrics or tiles. This makes the entire design concept look integrated in a fun, modern way.
As mentioned before, larger pendants (when hung high) will make the inside of the shade visible. In this case, an interesting finish on the inside will add an extra bit of drama to your look. This will tint the light, however, so try a warm shade to get an inviting glow.
If you like an oversized fixture but don’t want it to eat up so much visual real estate, consider pendants with large clear glass shades. These will carry the dramatic scale that makes a high-end statement but with a lighter look and often a lighter price tag than a more intricate fixture.
White opaque or translucent glass is another way to get a breezy look, especially in the popular transitional style of decor. It balances modern and traditional sensibilities, so it really can work in any style of room, especially with a hint of crisp metal trim.
LEDs aren’t just for hidden undercabinet lighting. They can make cool modern pendant fixtures as well. A light like this one makes a great task light with an even strip of light to cover a large area without harsh shadows, and it also gives a cool modernist vibe.
To get the appeal of a chandelier without the immense size, choose a mini chandelier or a pendant with multiple small lights. For a traditional-leaning space, a light with simulated candles brings a sense of sparkle without the fire hazard.
I’m a huge proponent of adding a little midcentury flair to any space, and these designs have stood the test of time, so you don’t have to worry about them being trendy. Classic midcentury lights always look modern (or even a little futuristic) and bring a space with minimalist cabinetry to life.
To get a touch of cottage or chalet style, a light with a cage adds a sense of indoor-outdoor appeal. This also works well in an industrial-tinged space, playing into a restaurant kitchen vibe.
For a classic look that works virtually anywhere, try a humble bell-shaped light in a solid material (such as a shiny metal or a matte paint finish) or a glass schoolhouse light. A classic cylindrical drum light also can never go wrong and can suit any budget.