Lighting and Ventilation

Where you have activity, you need light. For islands, that means dedicated lighting—you can't count on ambient light to illuminate your workspace, and you don't have upper cabinets to hide task lights, as you do elsewhere in the kitchen.

As with most task lighting, you want the light to come straight down onto the island. The most common choice is recessed lighting, which is relatively easy if you have standard-height ceilings but trickier with high ceilings. If the distance from the countertop to the ceiling is greater than 6 feet, you'll need to use fixtures or bulbs specially designed to project light down rather than spread it out.

Another option is pendant lights, which hang from the ceiling. Be careful with these, though. It's easy to end up with them at the wrong height, which can either block your view from the island or blind you with a high-intensity bulb shining directly into your eyes. Whatever type of lighting you choose, make sure it can be dimmed when you don't need maximum illumination for working.

Life would be a lot easier if you could just ignore ventilating an island dedicated to cooking — but you can't. The most common scheme is to install a downdraft fan behind the cooktop; in some cooktops and ranges it's incorporated into the appliance. That solves the visual problem of an overhead hood messing up sight lines. But even the best downdraft fan is not up to the worst cooking odors. If you really want to lose the fried fish smell, include a second exhaust fan mounted in the ceiling. It will also help limit the amount of moisture condensing on the inside of your windows in the winter when you use a tall stockpot.

The other option is an overhead hood that extends up through the ceiling. Because it's exposed on all sides, it must be completely finished (read expensive), and it becomes a dominant element of the design. You can opt for manufactured versions, or get a hood custom-built and finished in just about any material. The big caution here: It's easy for the mass of a hood, placed low enough to be effective, to ruin the joy of having open space above the island.

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