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My three priorities for brightening up our farmhouse kitchen lighting

Find out why these black iron cage lights were selected for a farmhouse kitchen.

Lighting was a tough one in our kitchen design. Not because I didn’t know what I wanted…but because I knew exactly what I wanted down to minor details, and it took months of searching to track down. Our farmhouse kitchen lighting design started with three key priorities.

Priority #1

Ironwork. The main lights would have to be made from black iron. While Early-American Colonists didn’t have electric lamps, they did have ironworkers. Blacksmiths lived in every community and provided all sorts of everyday essentials. Plus, they handcrafted special items, like a peek-a-boo door on our 18th century beehive oven.

Of course, as soon as I knew they’d be black iron and Colonial-street lamp-inspired, I got a vision of cage lights…no glass, on chains…stuck in my head.

Now, in the two years since I was on the hunt for this exact style of light, they’ve popped up everywhere, but back in 2017, it took me two months of online searches to find these lights. I was particular about the number of light bulbs in the middle and about the loop that connected the light to the chain. To keep a Colonial look, I didn’t want that loop to have a funky, modern shape. It had to be a simple circle.

Black iron cage lights against a cathedral ceiling with reclaimed beams

Nothing is easy.

The lights are two feet tall. When they first arrived I was really nervous that they’d be too big. My husband and I lugged one of those lights up a 10′ ladder several times to test the size relative to the scale of the new kitchen. It worked.

On the day the electrician finally came to install them, I was so happy I skipped around all morning waiting for him to show up. We had been living with half of our downstairs gutted for four months, and finally, it would have light again! He took the first one out of the box and saw that a bolt at the top had snapped. The bolt on the next one snapped, too. In all, cheap, metal bolts snapped on four of the six lights.

Find out how I prioritized and recreated a blacksmith-forged ironwork lighting design for my Early-American farmhouse kitchen renovation.

What now?

Thankfully, I knew of a local vintage lighting shop that repairs and rewires lamps. We stuffed the four broken lights into my car, and I brought them to the kind, reasonable people at Connecticut Lighting Center’s Restoration Gallery. This is not a paid ad for them. I am a long-time customer of theirs who appreciates their honesty and collection of vintage lights. Gorgeous Art Deco antique lights. Crystal chandeliers. Love it. They fixed my lights in a few days for a reasonable price.

The electrician installed the six black iron cage lights between the reclaimed beams in our new kitchen. This farmhouse kitchen lighting is a key design statement when you first walk into the room, and that’s really the point.

You should think about two things when choosing your farmhouse kitchen lighting:

  1. Is it a statement light or do you want it to be subtle?
  2. How will it draw the eye around the room?

Priority #2

Unobstructed view. The back wall of our kitchen is meant to be a focal point. As a result, I didn’t want any pendant lighting to obstruct the view through the center of the kitchen. Pendants can be beautiful. I just didn’t want them to catch the eye on it’s way to the range and historic brick surround.

But, I did like the idea of having spot lighting on the island. And, sometimes you don’t want all six iron lights on, even though everything is on dimmer switches. It’s just too much.

semiflush black iron lights

The compromise was two semi-flush lights in the center beams, which cast a warm, subtle lighting in the kitchen. My husband found gorgeous vintage-inspired light bulbs that create a star-shaped pattern of light on the white marble countertops. I like to put simple mason jars filled with handpicked flowers right in the center of the stars. I wish the light bulbs were a whiter, brighter light, but my husband prefers the soft, warm glow.

Priority #3

Draw the eye to the back wall. Immediately after noticing the six overhead lights, guests should look to the back wall. To enhance that visual sequence with lighting, we concealed under-cabinet puck lights in each of the four upper cabinets. The only other lighting in the kitchen is in the hood vent above the range and on the range itself.

Notice something different about those cabinets? No toekicks. Find out why I made that choice:

How (and why) there are no toekicks under my kitchen cabinets

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How (and why) there are no toekicks under my kitchen cabinets

Find out how I chose freestanding cabinets for my farmhouse kitchen remodel. No toekicks.

Let’s rewind to the year 2011. I had a new baby and a very old galley kitchen. One morning, I took a gallon of milk out of the fridge and as I set it down on the counter, it slipped and splat on the floor. The cap popped off. Milk was glug, glug, glugging out, and some of it slipped under the toekick on our 1980s cabinets. Untouchable. Can’t clean under there. I vowed that someday when I finally got a new kitchen, there would be no toekicks under my kitchen cabinets.

And then, about two years later my Dad dropped a huge, warehouse-club size olive oil in that kitchen. If you are not familiar with American warehouse-club sized olive oil, it’s the equivalent of about three soccer footballs full of oil. Some of the oil spilled under those pesky toekicks, too. Sealed the deal. I was done. No more toekicks.

Early American furniture did not have toekicks. Cabinet toekicks rose to popularity in the 1960s. Here is why and how I didn’t put toekicks under the cabinets in my Early-American farmhouse kitchen renovation design. #kichendesign

I focused on designing an Early-American farmhouse style kitchen. My house is over 230 years old. Even though I wasn’t willing to swap out my range for a giant fireplace hearth (so unauthentic of me), I wanted to limit the elements that weren’t around back then. Toekicks fall into that category.

What exactly is a toekick?

I didn’t know either, until I started thinking about renovating my kitchen. Underneath most kitchen and some bathroom cabinets, there’s this strip of wood, usually 4″ tall (a little over 10 cm), along the floor and the cabinets are placed on top. The strip of wood is the toekick.

Why my farmhouse kitchen cabinets dont have toekicks.

Benefits of a toekick

It’s not all bad. There are some good (and self-reinforcing) reasons why toekicks were invented and became so common.

  • Clean look
  • Covers mess underneath cabinets
  • Most cabinets already come with toekicks
  • No additional modifications
  • Installers are very familiar with toekicks

Drawbacks to a toekick

  • Rose to popularity in the 60s, 70s and 80s
  • The room feels larger if you open up space below the cabinets
  • If something falls into a crack, it’s gone till you demo
  • Liquids can slip under
  • Can’t clean under the cabinets (for like 30 to 50 years)
  • Mice make little nests in there (don’t ask how I know this, but it’s firsthand knowledge)
  • With spills, scuffs and dirt, you have to clean them or they look dingy
  • Not historic or farmhouse style

What replaces a toekick?

Realistically, there’s two choices. You can either put the cabinets on feet, like any other piece of furniture, or you can build up the molding at the base of the cabinets. We did both because we had to.

Most of our cabinets are on furniture feet. We had the cabinet maker craft the boxes without the toekicks. Then, the contractor installed them resting on a 2×4 along the back wall, which you can’t see. Finally, he nailed the furniture feet into place. Since our house is far from level, he spent extra time adding to and cutting down the feet to level off the cabinets. But, believe it or not, most of the weight rests on the 2×4 along the back wall.

Cute story. When I first told the architect, Rob White Architect, that one of my must-haves was no toekicks. He was speechless. He doesn’t go speechless often.

It was the first time any homeowner had made the request. Rob’s great though. He pivoted immediately and saw my vision. I appreciate that. Actually, he more than saw my vision. He and I both independently chose the exact same feet from a furniture catalog of a zillion options. That left me speechless.

No toekicks in this farmhouse kitchen where the white cabinets look more like furniture.

The fridge is hidden inside of an imposing wall of cabinetry. We couldn’t actually put the fridge on furniture feet or the wall of cabinetry. Instead, we built the molding up at the base of the fridge. You can see it in the background of the next photo.

We also couldn’t put the heavy island on furniture feet. Our island is hiding a bunch of pipes and a dishwasher on one side and is inset on the other side to create a countertop that we can slide stools underneath. We built up the molding on three sides of the island. On the fourth side, under the sink…I admit it…true confession…there’s a toekick. But, it’s small and hidden.

I inherited a table that we put at the end of the island, which gives us back the furniture feel. Phew.

Kitchen table at the end of a gray island and wide plank floors

My prediction

I predict that you will start to see preferences swing away from toekicks. I just have a feeling. They look awesome. You can clean under the cabinets easily with a dry sweeper or a mop. Also, unexpected benefit, a robot vacuum fits easily underneath.

If you’ve considered a robot vacuum before, I am pretty happy with mine. It’s not really a name brand, which means it’s a little cheaper. But, it’s easy to empty and simple to set up. My five year old can work it, no problem. The only thing is, it is not very good at docking itself to charge so I usually have to carry it back near the docking station before I press the “home” button. It’s great on hardwood or tile floors. It works pretty well on area rugs.

Hope you had fun learning about toekicks and a different way to think about them.

I am working on a whole series for the blog about my Early-American farmhouse kitchen renovation. Go ahead, follow along.

Early American farmhouse kitchen design