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).
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 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.
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.
If the fixture will go over a table, it can hang lower without posing a problem for headroom.
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.
Also consider concealed lighting in the recess below upper cabinets, which provides ideal illumination for work at the counter.
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.