9 Smart Kitchen Upgrades That Avoid a Full Renovation

Article originally posted by Architectural Digest

Even if you’re dedicated to your regular takeout habit, your kitchen is still an important focal point of the home for gathering and making a good impression on guests who traipse through for a visit. That all-too-familiar, ’80s-era set of kitchen cabinets? The dreaded boob lighting? Untouched kitchens are rife with potential interior design red flags. But if you’re renting, or a full-on renovation just isn’t in the cards for your home, there are ways of swapping out features here and there without knocking down any walls.

To start, Jessica Williamson, owner and principal of JTW Design in Richmond, recommends that people make a list of the features they don’t like about their kitchen, ranked from the most egregious to the least. “That will help you assess the alignment of priorities with the investment level you are comfortable making,” Williamson says.

Whether “ugly drawer pulls” or “morgue-like LED lighting” top your list, Williamson and six other AD PRO Directory designers have expert tips for kitchen upgrades, stat—no sledgehammer required.

A soft baby blue color (made from a custom mix of blue and gray paint) seen in this Lucas/Eilers Design Associates project plays off the shiny gold hardware to give the whole place a sense of cheerfulness. Photo: Julie Soefer

Give your cabinets a facelift

One of the most cost-effective ways to refresh your kitchen is by reviving dated cabinets with a new paint color. “We believe refinishing cabinet drawers and door faces in a fresh coat of paint, [especially] in combination with thoughtfully replaced hardware, can create the most successful difference in elevating a kitchen space,” says Henderson, Nevada–based designer Brittaney Elise. Her studio loves to incorporate Portola’s Patagonia in a satin finish to create a clean, off-white palette.

For a similarly neutral aesthetic, Sarah Brady, founder and principal of Salt Design Company in Red Bank, New Jersey, recommends neutral taupe colors such as Farrow & Ball’s Drop Cloth or Benjamin Moore’s Pale Oak. For smaller spaces in need of a more dramatic hue, Brady suggests Farrow & Ball’s Down Pipe or Benjamin Moore’s Dark Olive.

Mi and Gei’s Forme No. 04 knobs in a BE. by Brittaney Elise project. “We’ve incorporated the satin nickel into recent projects from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to Amsterdam,” says Elise.
Photo: Tiani Shaye Bender

Switch up your hardware

Swapping out old hardware for fresh handles and knobs is another way to modernize your kitchen without doing all that much. Brady prefers traditional finishes such as polished nickel, black metal, or un-lacquered brass, which she says can add a luxurious feel to the space. “Think of [hardware] as the jewelry of your kitchen,” she adds.

One of Elise’s current favorites is Mi & Gei’s Forme No. 04 metal knobs. “They are truly one of a kind, and we love a collected aesthetic that incorporates eclectic touches,” she says.

Or, for a more rustic feel, Oliver Haslegrave, founder of New York City’s Home Studios, suggests wood pulls for a warm, natural touch that “contrasts beautifully with metal elements.”

Bring your countertops into the current day

One of the biggest upgrades a homeowner can make to their kitchen before selling is refreshing dated countertops, which can easily hike up the value of your home without a full remodel. Brady emphasizes that while swapping out your counters can be costly, it will make a huge difference in how modern and sophisticated your kitchen feels. She prefers traditional materials and natural stones to ensure longevity that transcends trends. “Warm-veined marble or soapstone are excellent choices that add an updated elegance,” she insists.

Elegant flush-mount lighting elevates this kitchen designed by Home Studios. Photo: Brian W. Ferry

Invest in sleeker lighting

Better kitchen lighting doesn’t just make it easy to eye your ingredients as you’re slicing and dicing—it can also help your space look more cohesive and feel more modern. Haslegrave suggests flush-mount lighting, especially in metal finishes like brass or copper that you can coordinate with other metal elements in the kitchen and your existing decor. “We recommend installing flush-mount fixtures in strategic areas like over the island, dining area, or main workspace,” he says.

Brady also looks to modern pendant lights, chandeliers, and under-cabinet lighting to improve the aesthetics and functionality of a space. Both designers note that installing dimmer switches can also control the ambiance of the kitchen, whether you need more illumination for prep work or are perfecting the mood lighting for a dinner party.

The open storage in this kitchen designed by Elise makes room for trinkets, small accessories, ceramics, and books. Photo: Tiani Shaye Bender

Open things up for display

Adding more storage is never a bad idea, especially if you’re considering options that allow for displaying trinkets and personality-driven picks. Replacing some upper cabinets with open shelving can add a custom touch, says Steffie Oehm, principal at San Francisco–based design studio Alter Interiors. Otherwise, integrating more open shelving can make your kitchen feel more spacious and open, Haslegrave adds, thus providing easy access to frequently used items and allowing you to display your favorite dishes, glassware, and decorative items for added hints of personality.

Raise the roof

And beyond sprucing up walls and cabinets, consider the effect of blanketing your ceiling in a contrasting or complementary hue. Painting your kitchen the same shade on all sides, including the ceiling, can create a cozy cave-like effect while a contrasting color can dial up the drama. “Since kitchens don’t always have a lot of wall space, it’s important to consider the ceiling as the fifth wall,” explains designer Sandra Lucas of Houston-based Lucas/Eilers Design Associates, who suggests either painting it or wallpapering it for bigger impact.

Two tiers of blue and white kitchen tiles add layers of visual interest to this Alter Interiors design project. Photo: Alter Interiors

Tile it up

Tile is frequently used as a backsplash enhancer to bring in color and character to a kitchen. Rather than relegating tile to the area behind your stovetop, consider creating a full wall of tile, or mixing it up with two different types to draw the eye in. “Quality fixtures, hardware, and attractive tile always make a substantial difference in the overall look and feel of the space,” Oehm says. “Extending tile up to the ceiling behind the open shelves can enhance this effect, creating a stylish visual moment with a relatively small amount of tile.”

Don’t just paint, but plaster your walls

A slick of paint might be your first line of defense against a drab kitchen situation, but Haslegrave reminds us that plaster, as a durable, humidity-regulating material, makes for another alluring yet practical alternative. “Plaster walls add texture and depth to your kitchen, creating a rich, artisanal finish that paint cannot replicate,” says Haslegrave, who prefers a neutral color palette to highlight the natural beauty of the plaster.

A copper-cladding hood creates an elegant pop of color in this pale blue kitchen designed by Home Studios. Photo: Brian W. Ferry

Swap out your cladding hood

Better-looking appliances and cookware, like a metal-clad hood, can also become a striking focal point in an otherwise subdued kitchen. “An unfinished metal hood will age gracefully, developing a natural patina over time and creating a unique, evolving feature,” muses Haslegrave, who is partial to copper and zinc finishes.

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