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Choosing Kitchen Colors

Wall colors, backsplashes, cabinets...oh my! So many colors to choose from in this hard-working heart-of-the-home. Let's talk about how to select colors that will function beautifully today and into the future, no matter the trends.

Amy Krane: Welcome to Let's Talk Color.

Amy Woolf: I'm Amy Woolf, principal designer at Amy Woolf Color and Design.

Amy Krane: And I'm Amy Krane, founding designer at Amy Krane Color. We're both professional color experts who specialize in Architectural Color. We met while training and years later the conversation is still going strong.

Amy Woolf: We both live our lives immersed in color and design. We often agree, but sometimes we don't because color is personal. Color truths, however, are universal.

Amy Krane: In each episode we'll unravel the mystery of choosing color for your home or business, both inside and out.

I'm sure you've heard this all before, the kitchen is the heart of the home, but of all the rooms in a house, none have changed as much over the decades, and even the centuries. At first, it was just a place to prepare food out of sight, the kitchen's now become the nexus of the home, the place where people and families congregate, where hosts entertain while preparing food, where homework is done and TV is watched, and now even business meetings are conducted via Zoom.

Amy Woolf: Kitchens inherently have so many finishes. There are so many selections to make. From cabinet color, you need to think about your flooring, your countertops, your tile, and then we've got the wall color on top of that. So there's a lot of puzzle pieces that need to be fit together. I often find clients will call me in to pick a paint color to sort of knit the whole thing together, and it really makes a lot more sense to consider all of your colors ahead of time to put together the whole color equation and not just expect to pick your paint color last after everything else has been selected. Maybe for better or worse, I usually ask my clients to start with some inspiration. Maybe it's a backsplash tile that they've fallen in love with. One of the kitchens I did recently, my client fell in love with a cornflower blue range from France. So clearly that was the inspiration piece. Maybe it's a piece of art work or even the view outside your window. But find a place to start and then pivot around that as you begin to make your choices.

Amy Krane: More often than not, folks call me in for the wall color when they haven't made those other decisions, and I feel it makes sense for the wall color to absolutely be last. With some exceptions, I start with the cabinet color because that drives the whole palette for me, there's the most cabinet color in the room, then I go on to countertops, then backslash, and finally the wall color, that's always last. And things like hardware and lighting get decided at the end. They're sort of the jewelry in the room...

Amy Woolf: For me, the process is never linear. I like to use the image of a spiral where I like to pick one thing first and then sort of go around the circle, picking subsequent items and then keep moving around that circle, revisiting previous choices to make sure everything still works. And you know, I agree with Amy, cabinet color is so important. More important than ever, right now, as we're starting to see painted cabinets really take off. We've been looking at white kitchens forever, well not forever, but they've really had a big moment for the last 15 years or so. And now color is really coming into the fore, so yeah, that can be your starting point as well.

Amy Krane: I think the style of the kitchen has to be considered. It's very important that the style of the kitchen feels part of the whole. You know, you can't just come up with one style for the kitchen and not have it relate to the design and architecture of the rest of the house. You need to keep a home as a cohesive whole.

Amy Woolf: I think that's super important when the kitchen is open to the rest of the house, as it so often is.

Any Krane: Oh, absolutely. Picking colors for an open plan house is very difficult, and clients have a lot of problems with it. I don't even think it's that easy for designers either. You know, I always say that if the architecture doesn't afford you a logical point to make a color switch on a wall, do not do it, no matter how badly you want the family room to be one color and the kitchen to be another color. I'm talking about, wall color here, don't do it if there isn't the right place to split it up because it looks artificial and it ends up looking really weird. You've got to keep it all really seamless. And if your concern is it being boring… for instance, you don't want one whole big space to be the same color, keep in mind all of those finishes and materials that are going to bring color into the equation. Like your appliance color and your sink color, your backsplash and all of the other elements that go into an open plan room, not to mention all the furnishings that are in the adjoining room. You can have one constant wall color for open spaces and really get the variety and excitement that you need just by applying color elsewhere, not to the walls.

Amy Woolf: If you think you are going to want to delineate spaces based on their function by using different colors and you're building or remodeling, I think it is wise to look for ways to make an architectural distinction between spaces, whether it's a little angle or a break in the wall or a well-placed column or door casing. It can be very minimalist and still maintain that open feeling of a space. But every time you have an architectural delineation, it allows you to switch colors with more ease and grace, and not everybody wants a whole open floor plan, all one color. In fact, I find a lot of clients wish they could do more. Sometimes we end up with the accent wall as a way to solve that problem, but yeah, when you have these long continuous walls that stretched from kitchen to dining room, sometimes dining area into living space, one contiguous wall, we are not going to do more than one color on that wall. That is for absolute sure. I'm in complete agreement.

Amy Krane: You know, some color palettes go hand-in-hand with certain kitchen styles. The thing that comes to mind is this modern farmhouse kitchen, this modern farmhouse that has become so popular in the past 10 years. I think even folks that have more typical suburban architecture also veer towards the modern farmhouse look, and it's debatable whether you'd want to do that or not. But you know, I always say, make yourself happy. But this modern farmhouse look and the modern farmhouse kitchen kind of went hand-in-hand with certain coloration in a kitchen, and I think it all started about 10 years ago with the all-white kitchen. Then over the next 10 years... This is how I see it having changed: Upper cabinets went away to some degree, and I think that's one instance where fashion overtook practical considerations. But the all-white kitchen was pretty cold and stark in the beginning, and over time it morphed into a warmer white kitchen where walls or cabinets became a little bit more toned and warmer whites were used. Then wood was re-introduced back into the kitchen, which is interesting because for eons, different tones of wood were part of kitchen cabinetry. But the wood came back as a sort of light, natural wood. And it became part of what was going on. Maybe the light wood was in the cabinets. Maybe they were part of the two-tone cabinet thing where some were wood and others were painted. But wood was brought back in. It might have been in the floor, but it also could have become butcher block counters or the base to the island, or just maybe the bar stools you put on the island. Then color was brought in from patterns in cement tiles, which became so popular about five, six years ago. Pattern and color were used for backsplashes and for floors, but there was always the prevalence of the subway tile, specifically the white subway tile, which I think really drove that white kitchen train. Most currently, I think a lot of people are taking their countertop stone and they're bringing it up as a backsplash and even lining the walls with it- going all the way to the ceiling and around windows.

Amy Woolf: I think the interesting thing about the return of wood and the popularity of wood finishes in kitchens right now is that we've moved away from the wood stain colors and I want to point out a lot of people think wood is neutral and it's really not... It's got an inherent color to it. In the past, wood kitchens have had a lot more color. We can think of red oak, we can think of the rich sort of mahogany leaning finish on an oxidized cherry that gets very red. And I think the shift that we've seen more recently is towards wood that, now I'm going to contradict myself, is more neutral. Even though I'm going to always insist that wood has a color. We've been seeing wood color tones that are less orange, less red, less yellow, less pink like in maple, and really moving towards these sort of grayed down cerused oak finishes and walnut finishes, which have been popular for a long time. But these are cooler, lighter and really more neutral woods which, as Amy said, gives you a lot more latitude for color elsewhere, in other finishes like the backsplash, light fixtures, and what have you.

Amy Krane: You know, I think the return or the coming of that un-stained looking natural wood, very often being white oak, kind of went hand-in hand with the prevalence of all things natural and organic. I'm using "organic" in quotes, because let's face it, it's not organic. But that whole feeling in the past, let's say eight years, of things being bespoke, hand-made, artisanal, back to nature, back to the farm lent itself to finishes like this. Natural looking wood showed up in interior design all over the house from your live edge dining room table to your tree stump coffee table, and then into the kitchen as part of the cabinetry. And I think it's actually pretty, very lovely. This is my personal taste here, but I'm personally not a fan of having a lot of wood stain surfaces in the home. I like it in the floor, but not too many other places. But I have a real affinity for this white oak. I think it's, as you're saying, more neutral and it's very beautiful to me. It's funny what you said about wood being a color. I have this conversation with clients at almost every consultation, whether it's about a kitchen or not. I say, don't look at what the floor material is, even if it's wood. We don't have to talk about it being cherry, mahogany or whatever, just look at the surface as a color. It's the largest plane of color in the room and it's going to have a really profound effect on the colors that you pick for the walls and everything else. The floor along with what kind of light there is and the source and direction of the light. The floor color bounces up off the floors, onto everything else, and it really does and should affect the colors that you pick for the walls in any room. But wood is a color... I'm with you.

Amy Woolf: I learned this the hard way. A very long time ago, before I started my formal study in color, I was getting informally trained by my own design choices. I lived in Florida at the time and was remodeling and bamboo was new to the market. It seemed green and a good choice. And it felt right for Florida as well. We lived somewhat near the beach, not quite on the beach. So we put down bamboo, and before you knew it, I had 2000 square feet of a yellow floor, which is fine for me because I'm a color lover and it worked, we had great rugs. But early on, there was certainly a learning curve for me in terms of how to play with that floor, how to make it work. My floors now are locally milled cherry, and one of the reasons I chose them is because they are neutral, they have not oxidized with the water-based finish on them. I think going back to what you said, Amy, I think there's an interest in having materials and colors that feel as closely connected to source as possible. So that unfinished vibe of the white oak, and we can think about fabrics, even those Moroccan-influenced rugs that we see that are so popular, those are all the original un-dyed wool, close to the source. And so I think that's what we're seeing here. This return to wanting things to have a connection to their roots, to their source, to where they really came from without too much human-made overlay. And that said, let's talk about painting cabinets.

Amy Krane: Okay, I just wanted to say though, that's such a great point and that I think that it might be an outcome of all the technology in our world, we're more and more removed from human interaction. Now, even before covid you'd face time with people and everything is so convenient. We communicate in ways other than face-to-face. People are removed from one another, and I think after the 50s and 60s with this prevalence of so many synthetic materials, which were such a miracle and we're so convenient, I think it's like a natural swing, like a response to all the synthetics and all of the technology in our lives. There's a need to connect with people, and as you said, having the provenance be nature, the provenance of your materials, your furnishings, be nature, not man-made.

Amy Woolf: I talk about this a lot in some of the color forecasting work I do and also sometimes with clients. About colors that feel man-made, synthetic, the word you used is a good one. Versus colors that feel like they could be derived from nature. You can have two bright pinks, and one of them clearly is a bright pink that would show up in your garden, and another one is a bright pink that clearly feels synthetic, it could be computer-generated, it doesn't really have a base in the real natural world. And even though they're both bright pinks and will be exciting, pops of color... Can't stand that word "pops", but you know what I mean, one is gonna feel inherently more humane when it's coming out of nature. I agree. Yeah, let's talk about painting over all that wood that we just talked about how much we love!

Amy Krane: Okay. Yeah, alright. Painted cabinetry is definitely coming back. Started with the white cabinets of yore and now it's totally turning into a color situation. And I think that's great. White became gray, became to two-tone and then in the past few years, maybe the past three years-ish, turned into the darker hues. Like the blues and the greens, which I really love. There's two great blue paint colors for cabinetry I want to mention. If you want to go with a darker blue for kitchen cabinets there's Hague Blue and De Nimes Blue from Farrow & Ball. And greens are fantastic as well as well, no matter what company the paint color comes from. I like your grayed down sage greens. I like your deeper, hunter greens and I really adore the olive greens.

Amy Woolf: I'm thinking about painting my kitchen this summer, I had wanted a painted kitchen 12 years ago when I built this house, and the builder wasn't offering... Well, there was paint on offer, but it was hunter green and red and colonial blue, which just weren't going to fly... Maybe hunter green, I don't know. Anyway, so I'm thinking about painting this summer, and two of the greens I'm considering are Farrow & Ball Treron, which is one of those grayed down, slightly warm-ish greens, and I'm also looking at Oil Cloth from Benjamin Moore. I'm starting to amp up my colors in my own house. I'm feeling that pull like everybody else, and even these colors over the course of a couple of months of looking at them don't feel like maybe they're bright enough. But you know, my kitchen gets southern light, and that's an important distinction. In a kitchen that gets a lot of bright natural light, your colors are really going to come alive. If I were in a north facing kitchen, I would definitely be doing more saturated color, less grayed down, brighter, because the north light is naturally dimmer. In this southern kitchen of mine, everything shows: Every speck of dirt, every ding on the counter top, every nuance and a color is going to come flying forward, so... I'm measuring carefully. Do you know how hard it is to be a color consultant then have to pick your own colors?

Amy Krane: Yeah, yeah. Oh my God, it's so true. On so many of those interior designer forums that we're on, Amy, you see so many designers talk about. “I could do it till the cows come home for my clients, I could do it 24/7, but when it comes to my own house help!” I don't know why that is. I just, I don't get it. I mean, I'm in agreement. I'm the same way, but I don't get it. I don't know why it's so hard.

Amy Woolf: You know, a couple of years ago when I was doing my summer cottage, which was built in 1958, I was using Julia Child's turquoise kitchen, that's now in the Smithsonian, as my inspiration. And she had natural wood boxes and then the fronts were in a color that's really close to turquoise. Turquoise Mist I think from Ben Moore. I'm pretty sure that was the color that came closest. And I remember about halfway through the project, I started to sort of lose my mind and I called you and you were like, "No, stick to the plan." So yeah, we designers also need our own designers.

Amy Krane: It looks adorable. You've done such a great job on your lake house. I really do love it.

Amy Woolf: Well, it was trendy for 1958, which was what I was looking for. I really wanted the house to feel like 1958. I think that also goes back to your early comment, Amy, about kitchen color design style suiting the architecture. This is an old cabin, and I did not want to to plop a brand new kitchen into an old cabin. I wanted it to feel seamless. I think we do need to think about that, and certainly color is part of that whole trend. Like, where are we in time? And what colors make sense? I do have clients ask me, they want colors that feel updated, but classic, new and fresh, but will never go out of style. Which is really an oxymoron.

Amy Krane: It is totally oxymoronic, I'm sorry! But I understand. They don't want that dated look and you know, that that's a great segue into the trend concept. Can you really be 100% trend-proof? Personally, I don't think so. I think even if you pick something which you believe is classic- maybe you think the all-white kitchen is classic, it’s not trend proof. The white subway tiles, no matter what you pick, even if you think it's classic, eventually everything looks dated. I'm sorry. It just does. That's just the way of the world. Fashions change, trends change, tastes change, and a whole bunch of years later, and that could be a different amount of time, your kitchen really may look dated and you just have to accept it. I say, go with what you want, go with what you want within the context of what's happening in your life now. If it's your forever home do what you want, but know the pitfalls of doing what you want. Just make an educated choice, but I say, make yourself happy and that's it. And the trending thing can't really be avoided. Something that's classic like white is going to last longer than probably these dark blue cabinets. But if you love them, do it and just be prepared. Just know that in 10 years, maybe, it will pin you to the year 2020. Accept.

Amy Woolf: I'm frankly already nervous. I've been thinking about this green kitchen for, I don't know, six, eight months? During the pandemic. I'm already getting a little nervous that maybe it's arched. Maybe we've seen it enough... I don't know, Amy, what should I paint my kitchen cabinets?

Amy Krane: Well, maybe you should use a color, but make it a neutral version of it. Oil Cloth is a very, very grayed green. I think it's a really excellent choice though it may not be your absolute favorite, perfect green. Like if you were not going to make a many thousand dollar investment in changing the color, I'd say go for it- pick any color -but I do think it will pinpoint a moment in time. And I think if you go for something that's more of a gray green, you see the green, but it's more neutral and grayed, it may last longer. I love Oil Cloth. I think it's a great color. I did a stunning kitchen, the end of last year. It was a really interesting homeowner who had just bought an 1800's house in rural Connecticut and she wanted help with all of her wall color. She said to me, my directive was, let's be trend-driven and modern, and I was like, “whoopie!” So we went with Farrow & Ball, Studio Green, which is... I'm sorry Amy, you got squeamish about hunter, but it's a hunter green and it's beautiful. It's almost a black green. It was a big open plan space that married the family room to the kitchen, but it never felt too heavy because there was one whole wall of windows which she kept on obstructed by any window treatments. It was surrounded by nature. So you had tons of light pouring in with no window treatments on one wall, you had a stone fireplace on another wall, you had multiple openings to other rooms on the other wall. The 4th direction faced the kitchen. So there was a lot of room and light and the dark green didn't get heavy. The kitchen only had lowers, it didn't have upper cabinets. So you had the Studio Green on the bottom cabinets, you had it on the trim, you had it on a little bit of wall space in the kitchen. But most of the kitchen walls were the quartz stone which was a carrara looking white and gray, brought up off of the countertops onto the backsplash. Without any upper cabinets, the backsplash went up to the ceiling, so it was a really big open light room, and it was really, really sensational. We re-finished her oak floors so they were that very natural light oak and it's really beautiful. But she acknowledged right up front, modern and trend-driven. So she knows 10 years from now, this is going date her house, but maybe she'll be in another house then... It was fun.

Amy Woolf: You know? It sounds fabulous. I feel like I haven't seen pictures of that yet, so I will need to fix that problem and I do think studio Green is obviously fabulous and clearly not the hunter green that my builder was offering. I think a color like that works because it's just on the lowers. Uppers and lowers just wouldn't work and yeah, and I know some people have addressed that issue by doing what we call the tuxedo look, where they put a color or a darker color on the bottom and white on the top. I don't know, to me that feels like a trend whose time has passed. I always like to say "make the lowers the color of dirt if you've got kids and dogs and snuffly noses." I liked that tuxedo kitchen because I thought it had some functional value in it, but I do think as a trend that it's kind of come and gone. What I'm seeing more is two tone where the split is vertical from piece to piece. Kind of making what looks like an un-fitted kitchen as opposed to cutting it straight at the waistline, one color on top, one color on the bottom, so...

Amy Krane: Good point. A really logical place to do that, if you're lucky enough to have an island in your kitchen, is to make the island base a different color. I think it really makes sense, and if your island base is another color, it furthers that whole idea of it being an un-fitted kitchen. That's another place where people can perhaps keep the painted base of the island the same as the cabinets, but change the countertop there. I really love that look. Two tone tuxedo kitchens... I never knew if tuxedo meant it had to be black and white or just two tone. But... I'm totally with you. I kind of think it's over. Also from our training, Amy, and we've talked about this before, it makes really a lot of sense when you're indoors, to have a darker color closer to the ground, to the earth. So I find it confusing when people put the darker cabinets on top. They won't put a black on top and white on the bottom, thank God, but it gets a little bit more confusing when people are mixing wood tone and painted because I think they're ignoring the value [lightness/darkness] of that wood tone and sometimes putting darker wood on the top. I don't like it.

Amy Woolf: Then people call us and think we can come out and fix it with a paint color.

Amy Krane: Let's talk about pet peeves cause we love to do that. One of my pet peeves is, we've talked about this in every single episode, but it's so there -clashing whites, clashing colors, especially with the all-white kitchen. And when the all-white kitchen became a warmer white kitchen, where people weren't using stark white for everything and started using a different tonality in the paint, the tile, the counter top, and maybe even the cabinet they ran the risk of clashing whites. You've got to be really careful and knowledgeable about mixing whites. (See episode two!)

Amy Woolf: I wouldn't say this is a pet peeve of mine exactly. Let's say it's more my being pedantic, which is that I'm a big believer in lighter colored countertops simply for the reason that they bounce more light into a space. When you think about when light is coming in, either from overhead from our electrical lighting or from outside from exterior lighting, that light is coming in from overhead or at an angle, and where is it bouncing off of? Is it bouncing off the walls? No, it's bouncing off the horizontal surfaces and the horizontal surface most close to the lighting and the windows is our countertops. So I'm really a fan of lighter countertops that reflect more light into the space, that give you a brighter backdrop for doing the work because let's face it cooking is work. It's fun, but it's work. And I'll out myself here as I approach 60, age 60, you know our eyesight ain't what it used to be. So young clients, 30-year-olds, they don't really need to think about it. Let them have a black counter top if they like that look, but in terms of functionality and really kitchen always needs to function first and foremost, I really think lighter countertops are the way to go.

Amy Krane: In general, I agree with you, I really do. I have two thoughts on this topic. One is that if you're the kind of family who is into very natural materials and you acknowledge that they may lead to etching and chipping and marking, and you don't care because you like the patina, then go for something dark like soapstone. There's a lot of folks who come to me and say, "We want soapstone." Soapstone is very dark, and I think it's very beautiful, and if you can live with the imperfections of it, like one would with a marble, then I think it's beautiful. High contrast is a big thing for you, Amy, you've mentioned it many times. I'm less turned off by contrast in general, than you are, but I don't care for those white cabinets with the dark counters, whether it's soapstone, quartz or anything else. That's too contrasty for me.

So there's something else that isn't exactly a pet peeve. I can't say that because it's a valid choice for some, but I just don't care for it. I am very, very particular about mixing metals, and I do so minimally. The only two metals I like to mix are gold and black, brass and black. I do not care for silver with gold, whether it's nickel, chrome or stainless. I don't like it in my bracelets and rings, and I don't like it in my house. But I really could be minority here. It seems lots of people like mixing metals. I just don't care for it. I think black is such a neutral, it's the ultimate neutral. It looks pretty great if you want to mix it with brass, but otherwise... Uh uh.

Amy Woolf: I think if there's context for that kind of mix it’s ok, whether it's in a handle or a knob on one of those fabulous French ranges that are often polished, nickel and brass combined. I think if the French can get away with it, then I'm on board. I wouldn’t be inclined to mix nickel and brass in a faucet. I don't know if they even make those. I mean if they have, I've blocked it out. But I tend to agree with you. I think less is more. I think that's getting a little too crazy. I think another thing that's really interesting about finishes across plumbing brands and materials and lighting is that not everybody's finished is going to actually match and look the same. Even though it's kind of trended out, I think the oil rubbed bronze was the best example of this. There were oil rubbed bronzes that actually looked almost purple, they were kind of burgundy, maroon-looking, and other oil rubbed bronzes that had a great deal of brightness and brassiness to them, sort of an under layer, but still it was quite prominent. Some of them were black, so I think we can't get caught up in semantics and names. We need to be sure that we're actually looking at things and making sure that they work together. So... Yes, really good point.

Amy Krane: So thanks for listening. I hope you've learned something today about kitchen color. Join us next time when we dive into another aspect of color for the built world.

Amy Woolf: And if you want to find out a little bit more about your hosts, Amy and Amy, or tell us what you'd like us to talk about... Share your questions, input, insights or anything you'd like to tell us, we're here for you at... Let's Talk Paint Color dot com. See you next time.


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