A minimalist modern kitchen design using vintage St. Charles cabinets

retro modern st charles kitchen greenRemember Pam’s post about the 1964 custom green St. Charles kitchen for sale in Chicago? They are not for sale anymore — owner Mark and his wife are in the process of gut remodeling the entire house and have decided they will keep these awesome reto kitchen cabinets for reuse one way or another. But can this couple incorporate these cabinets into the minimalist-modern kitchen design they have in mind? Read on for my suggestions…

This story is exciting for me — right up my alley — since my personal decorating style is retro modern. I jumped at the chance to help introduce a little retro into what would have otherwise been a super ultra modern kitchen design.

Mark writes:

The house is mid-century modern – built in 1949 by L. Morgan Yost. The architect studied Frank Lloyd Wright and knew him but didn’t “copy” his style. But he writes that his work is heavily influenced by FLW because he learned about all the amazing things he was doing at the time.

We are restoring the house to its original condition while, at the same time, modernizing all the utilities. We have removed all the plumbing, electrical and HVAC. We are installing heated ceramic/porcelain floors throughout the house  and replacing all the windows. We considered a flat grey concrete floor for the entire first level but, for the time being, have decided against it. This house has a strong Japanese influence and is truly unique in the North Shore of Chicago. The goal is install a kitchen that does not attract attention, but fits into the design of the home – and the design will be very minimalist. 
My wife loved your Frank Sinatra Kitchen story and has printed it and showed it to designers to support her ideas that these cabinets can be contemporary (again). We have considered concrete, glass and stainless steel countertops – but first we have to get the floors done and then drag the base cabinets back into the kitchen and start to get a feel for how they look and the configuration.
There are going to be some serious challenges – such as sink cabinets and incorporating wall ovens seamlessly into the design. 
The biggest challenge is the minimalist approach. We can’t have the kitchen stand-out. It must “fit” and we are building a large laundry room upstairs – so if the retro-kitchen idea fails, we will have a very cool “St. Charles” laundry room.

It sounds like Mark and his wife are very much into modern minimalist design, but since they have developed a love for these retro 1964 St. Charles kitchen cabinets, it seems like they could be persuaded to use them, if the right solution presented itself. It is always tricky trying to fit vintage cabinets into a different configuration.. That’s why, for this remodel, I’ve suggested combining the vintage green steel cabinets with wood kitchen cabinets in a complementary wood tone — to frame around the wall ovens, or make a pantry area, etc.. Keeping most of the rest of the kitchen neutral and light will appeal to Mark’s minimalist taste, while injecting some texture and a few bits of color and decoration here and there will keep the design from feeling too sterile. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. retro modern st charles kitchen greenA Nelson Sunburst Clock in multi color would be a perfect way to add a bit of bold color to the kitchen. Bonus — it helps repeat the green from the cabinets. Note: I don’t think the green has to match exactly, since the clock will be up on the wall and be separated from the green on the cabinets.
  2. A light aqua blue wall color like Sherwin Williams Green Trance would contribute just enough color to help blend the green with the other neutrals, without being too stark.
  3. For the box around the wall oven, and some additional cabinets (where needed) Omega cabinets with Dunkirk style doors in a light maple or birch would keep the kitchen feeling light and airy and also add the warmth of wood.
  4. For a durable and modern looking backsplash, Modwalls 2×8 subway tiles in Milk would do the trick.
  5. To inject a little more retro, consider adding some wall decor, such as this small white ceramic owl wall plaque from seller JackJetVintage on Etsy.
  6. This simple, ultra modern Kohler kitchen faucet in polished chrome adds to the minimal modern feel.
  7. You can’t get much cleaner looking than a simple white under-mount sink from Kohler.
  8. Another way to make the green cabinets work in the space, is to add more modern dishware, some in pristine white and some with pleasing green accents like this bowl from cb2.
  9. I’d keep the countertops white, but instead of choosing a flat white, these silestone countertops in blanco maple have flecks that create interest and texture.
  10. 1964 custom green St. Charles cabinets.
  11. This high end professional Viking double wall oven in stainless steel would add sparkle to the retro modern space, coordinate with the chrome and add to that shiny new feeling. You could always use a classic white.
  12. The new Omega cabinets that will be added will need some new pulls, but changing out the pulls on the St. Charles cabinets would also up their modern factor. I like this satin nickel cabinet pull because it looks modern, but the bow tie shape references many retro designs.
  13. Pam says they’ve already decided to put down porcelain floors. Initially they were considering concrete, so I used this Quartz perla light grey porcelain floor tile from the Tile Shop for the mock up.

kateI think this kitchen would fit well into a modern and minimal house — even with its retro touches. Alternately, if the light aqua wall paint color wasn’t their taste, a very pale grey would work well especially if Mark and his wife are using the Asian look of the exterior on the inside. With the light grey walls they could also add some small black and red accents, wall decor and dishware with an Asian feel.

Pam took a look at all my ideas, of course, and wanted to note that: Using a medium colored wood for cabinets can provide longevity to  your design. Remember this big conversation about what makes for “timeless design” ? One of the ideas that came through in the comments is that, usually, trends go with the extremes of light and dark — but a medium wood tone has staying power. So for kicks, I adjusted the idea board to show a medium wood tone as well, and hey — I like it, too! Another thought: If there are original, natural wood features in adjacent rooms of the house — match the wood in the kitchen cabinets, for a seamless transition compatible with your minimalist aesthetic.

st charles retro modern green kitchen

For the mood board above: I substituted the light maple or birch wood on the Omega cabinets for their sable finish.

Readers, do you have additional suggestions about how to blend the 1964 green St. Charles wall cabinets with a modern minimalist style?


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  1. Kate H says

    If they didn’t want to do wood cabinets, they could set the ovens in a regular wall and paint it blue (or the same color as the rest of the wall), with shelving above for cookbooks or a microwave. This is a big room and it’s going to be really loud with porcelein floors, so I’d try linolieum (sp?) countertops and backsplashes. Or maybe butcherblock, that’d soak up some noise and also wouldn’t be hard on your glassware. I love the green metal cabinets and can’t wait to see the finished room!

  2. says

    Oh, I hope the owners find a way to incorporate the vintage cabinets that blends nicely with their modern aesthetic! I second the idea of white countertops, as seen in the Sinatra kitchen. Stainless steel counters might work, too, and they’d give the kitchen a sleek, modern feel that other materials might not. There’s a nice example here: http://bit.ly/bN7Zk1, or at least it looks like stainless.

    I also like Kate H.’s idea of setting the ovens into the wall rather than a wood cabinet. And since the goal is minimalism, I’d skip attention-attracting accessories. The pale blue wall color looks lovely, but I’d let the wall color in the adjacent space dictate the kitchen wall color so that the areas flow together naturally without a visual division.

  3. Sarah G says

    For some reason I get the feeling they aren’t going to dig those mood boards…. I don’t think the owl and starburst clock are up these people’s alley. Plus if they had to ‘convince the designers that the metal cabinets can be contemporary’ sounds like they found the wrong designers…

    • pam kueber says

      Hi Sarah G, I think that Kate and I have a difficult time *not decorating*. For an even more minimal look: Nix the accessories, simplify the backsplash, and maybe even make the countertop less full of chippies – just ever so slightly mottled. I do love the use of all the wood, though — especially if there is wood in adjacent rooms, which I think there is. The wood is very organic. It also will soak up sound, to Kate H’s point about the size of this kitchen. Also, I think you could even ‘waterfall wrap’ some of the cabinet ends to further incorporate the cabinets as part of an organic structure.

      • Carol says

        I love the fact that you guys “decorate”. It gives us great ideas! The kitchen is perfect for a minimalist, sans the accessories. I am a minimalist, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE the old metal cabinets. Kate’s idea of the wood to warm the space is perfect.

  4. Error404 says

    It’s a step in the right direction, but I’m hoping they will continue to learn before they act. He starts out by saying he’s “restoring” the house and then continues to describe all sorts of demolition and major change that are at complete odds with any concept of historic restoration.

    For ex: Right now, replacement windows are public enemy #1 with most historic societies and pretty much get you disqualified for any official designation in most states.

    • pam kueber says

      Error404, I think there were lots of updates to the house over time. That kitchen is not from 1949, I am pretty sure!

  5. says

    I really like the 1st board a lot. My husband and I have a minimal aesthetic and that board fits us. I like the idea of concrete floors. What about perhaps a rectangle or brick tile in white?

  6. Kate H says

    I really love this kitchen, BTW, especially that little table that sort of wings out into the room with the curvy chairs. It’s sort of Jetson’s, don’t you think? I like the placement of the appliances — love a sink with a window over it, the fridge on the opposite wall, the hanging cabinets, etc. This looks like an EASY kitchen to work in, and with all those windows, you’ll get good light I bet, even on a gray day.

  7. Steve says

    Classically ‘minimalism’ would mean integrated components in monochromatic white within a very open plan. Since glossy green doesn’t fit that concept, they could repaint the base cabinets in flat white and waterfall the counter material over the ends (great idea, Pam, and I like Kate’s choice of Silestone). A full storage wall incorporating the ovens would also allow them to remove the wall-hung and suspended cabinets, thereby ‘minimizing’ eye-level distractions and opening the space to the beautiful window wall.

    More about minimalism and its design influences here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimalism#Minimalist_architecture_and_space

    • pam kueber says

      I have been noodling this some more. How to reconcile “Asian influence” with “minimalism”??? Again, I am not an expert by any means, but it would seem to me the two are very un-alike. I can’t imagine Brite White as being Asian influenced. But building on painting the cabinets white (as they would have been in 1949), how about the various Philip Johnson houses as a benchmark, white cabinets wrapped in wood in at least two of the houses, that I know of: http://retrorenovation.com/2007/12/21/big-news-st-charles-steel-kitchens-are-coming-back-with-big-bucks-marketing-too/ Use whatever wood species and finish is featured in adjacent room to continue that material and reduce visual complexity. Seems to me, this would be a way to go if Mark and DW want to do a “restoration” inspired by what might actually have been there in 1949. If they want to go brite white, that is a more modern, minimalist direction. All this said, I think there is some quirky happy about keeping the green cabinets as part of the ‘history’ of the house. Which is done in the historic preservation world. Again, though, I know Mark and DW have done a lot of their own research and are very design savvy — just trying to help — create the house you love, the kitchen you love, for yourselves!

      • Ann says

        Minimalism and Asian influence go together pretty well, but it’s not the same as modern minimalism. Think the inside of classic Japanese homes (the wood raised foundation ones with shoji screens for doors and a central courtyard). I would integrate the refrigerator and put a wood panel on the front and do what you could to get a drop in range. I have some pics floating around of 40s and 50s homes with Asian influence from various home magazines. I will try to find them and maybe put them up on Google Drive or something for folks to access. Although older than the 60s, these were often trend setting homes, so I think they could work as inspiration.

        I think Crate and Barrel had a color scheme a year or two ago that used green, white, and wood, and was very good looking.

  8. lynda says

    I like the white countertop look. We used a product by Avonite in our bath redo for our 1977 house. Here is a link:
    We used the frosted glass color. You have to paint the back of the countertop if you don’t want the translucent look. The color of the paint will change the look counter. We just used white. I think the counter has depth to it and seems to fit with a contemporary look. I also like the wood cabinets mixed in and think they should go with the existing wood in the house. I have also noticed some of the wood grain porcelain tiles with the matching grout used on some of the home tv shows. I think it gives a nice contemporary look and would work well with the in floor heating system

  9. says

    The second mood board reminds me a lot of what we are doing in our kitchen install (whiteish silestone, whites, green, dark woods). However, I’m far from minimal and can’t wait to add bright pops of color. I hope they figure out a way to keep those amazing cabinets and keep the design ascetic that they are going for.

  10. Lisa says

    Aw, looks like someone bought that cute little owl:) Can’t help but think it was a reader here, so it will have a good home.

  11. Matthew says

    In my opinion stainless steel kitchen cupboards are the best type of cupboards to have in a kitchen as they are resistant to rust and easy to clean.

  12. Andrew says

    Hi Kate,

    I’m also in Chicago and live in Sandburg Terrace in Old Town. I bought an original unit with the metal Geneva kitchen cabinets. Over the last four years, I purchased three more Geneva kitchens to expand my kitchen. I’ve hit a sticking point with my Kohler under mount sink. I’m having trouble figuring out how to mount the sink inside the cabinet (so is my contractor). I purchased the under mount sink kit from Kohler, but there is a lip on the inside of the cabinet and the clasp will not lay flat. Can you share how you mounted your under mount sink in your kitchen? Thanks in advance for your response.


    • pam kueber says

      Hi Andrew, these were just design ideas. We are not experts on how to mount sinks … Also, I am not sure I even understand your question. An undermount sink mounts on to a solid surface countertop, not a cabinet, as far as I know…

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