$800 retro remodel for a 1980s kitchen


Mr. & Mrs. Vegebrarian channeling American Gothic.

Mr. & Mrs. Vegebrarian channeling American Gothic.

Reader Vegebrarian and her husband had to move into their 1980s split level home in a hurry, when their previous home was on a city block that had been acquired for demolition. But, being forced to move didn’t put a damper on Vegebrarian’s cheery disposition. Making the best of their situation, they decided to makeover their 1980s “blank palette” kitchen to reflect their mid century tastes and inject their happy, fun sense of humor through the use of bright colors and kitschy wall art. They accomplished their mini renovation with some good old fashioned elbow grease and a mere $800 — including tools. Wow, what a difference some color makes. 

Vegebrarian's kitchen before. Please pardon the mess.

Vegebrarian’s kitchen before. She says: “The before shots were taken not long after we moved in, which is why the counters are littered with various items. The photo was take of someone in the kitchen, who had to be cropped out, which is why they are such a strange size.”

Vegebrarian writes:

My husband and I had to find a house in a hurry after the block we lived on was acquired for demolition. Many of the mid-century houses in the city where I live (near Omaha) are tiny, slab houses like my first home, without any of the wonderful mid-century modern features Retro Renovation readers love.  I wanted to stay in the city, so we ended up in a split-level built in the early 80s. It sits on a sunny corner lot and has cathedral ceilings in the kitchen, living and dining rooms.

Mr. Vegebrarian and I knew going in that the kitchen was going to get a makeover and that we wanted to do the work ourselves using eco-friendly alternatives where possible, looking at linoleum, bamboo, and recycled paper counter tops first. And by “do the work ourselves,” I mean my dear husband did most of the work. I am crafty, but I don’t mix well with power tools!


The dining room, which shares walls with the kitchen, is green, which left two beige walls. Ever enchanted by my grandmothers’ kitchens, one of which had day-glo daisy wall paper, I knew beige was not an option! In the end, we went with orange for the remaining walls. I wanted to give the kitchen a 50s feel since time constraints had not allowed us to keep shopping until a mcm-styled house came on the market.

Ultimately, my husband and I decided linoleum had everything we wanted for the counter tops, including a price within our budget. I was inspired by Dave and Frances’ story on Retro Renovation as well. Hubs and I ordered a giant roll of blue-gray Marmoleum and adhesive from a local store called Kelly’s Carpet.

kitchen-counter-retro-modkitchen-counter-detail-edgeAfter looking at a lot of photos of mid-century kitchens, I knew metal edging would achieve the look I was going for. A smooth, aluminum trim was purchased from Eagle Mouldings. The biggest challenge was the “peninsula” with its rounded corners. We called my brother, a tool and die maker, to see if he could shape the aluminum in one of his machines. He came over to investigate, and discovered our particular trim was easy to mold around the curves using his own weight. Afterward, my brother cut all the pieces to spec and hubs snapped them in with a bit of glue for added staying power.

retro-modern-backsplashThe floor in the kitchen/dining area is medium brown laminate, which we will eventually replace. With green and orange walls, white cabinets and gray counters, it took a while to find the right backsplash tile. I only knew I wanted glass tile. One day I spotted an ad for Modwalls (on Retro Renovation, actually!) and decided to take a look. Their Brio Blend #9 was perfect — a blend of all our colors with pops of red and turquoise. I couldn’t order it fast enough. Since we only wanted the back splash to go about six inches up the wall, we got the job done with fewer sheets of tile. We used a low odor, VOC-free grout sealer called Safecoat to finish the tile.

retro-modern-kitchen-humorI am a hoarder lover of wall art, but decided to rein it in a bit in the kitchen. I put up my collection of smiling chalkware fruit, a framed portrait of Cookie Monster, & a few small knick knacks. I smile every time I walk into our retro modern kitchen; all of the colors play nicely together – I think I would shrivel up or dissolve on contact with a beige and granite kitchen!

80s chandelier

80’s chandelier that Vegebrarian wants to replace with a more mid century modern styled fixture.

The whole project came in under $800, including some tools we had to purchase, like router bits and tile cutters. I am really proud of my husband’s work. We learned a few lessons – you need a special roller to smooth down the Marmoleum for even glue distribution, and it is not the best idea to put up tile the night before you are expecting company. We are still shopping for lights to replace the very 1980s fixtures. I want a sputnik for the dining room, but have not decided on a replacement for the kitchen light as the sloped ceiling will require a pendant.

Kitchen materials sources:

What a cheery space, Vegebrarian — you and your husband did a fabulous job. I can’t imagine you could ever feel sad in a kitchen this colorful with a framed poster of Cookie Monster. Thanks so much for sharing your story, photos and resources with all of us here on the blog!


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  1. says

    Wow! The kitchen is beautiful! So you put the marmoleum that is marketed as a floor covering on top of the old countertop and made it your countertop? Such a great idea! Was it hard to make it even?

    • vegebrarian says

      Hi there,

      Forbo actually has a section on their site with products recommended for applications other than floors called Surface Solutions. http://www.forboflooringna.com/Surface-Solutions/Application-Areas/food-beverage/
      By even, do you mean at the edges or getting it to lay flat? We sanded off the old glue to get a smooth surface and tried our best to get the adhesive from Forbo evenly applied. As for the actual edge of the counters, we left an overhang and my husband trimmed it off with a little blade after the glue was dry.

      • says

        I was thinking about the surface. We have a 1962 gold speckled formica countertop (with a matching light fixture). I am torn between wanting to keep it for its historic value and wanting to get rid of it because in places the seams are uneven and yuck gets trapped underneath. This is an interesting idea that I’d never heard of before. Thanks for sharing and for following-up.

        • Mary Elizabeth says

          Mary Ann, I think any countertop that is worn, cracked, has open seams, etc. is a germ factory and needs to be sterilized and then recovered. You can get some terrific new laminate (or linoleum) to cover the counter, and much of it is either a reproduction or is plain enough to echo the period you are looking for. You should be sure to fill in the broken seams with caulk before covering. Also, we made sure to make the seams on our counter occur in a different place from the original. Just because something is original doesn’t mean you need to keep it if it is broken. I think most people on this site agree that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But the corollary to that is, “If it’s broke, replace it with something similar.”

  2. Patty says

    Sweet. I’ve seen flooring used for countertops – decades ago, so you’re authentic mid-century wise.

  3. Sara says

    C is for Cookie, that’s good enough for me! Oh, cookie cookie cookie starts with C! Love your kitchen!!! Especially the orange paint and the backsplash. I love to see amazing transformations on a budget, because I always seem to be on a budget myself.

  4. Robin, NV says

    Nicely done! I actually kinda like the current light fixture but a Sputnik would look great in there.

    I noticed the diamond pattern on the cabinets – have you considered painting those in similar colors to the walls with maybe a third accent color? I just painted diamonds on my kitchen soffits in turquoise, orange, and yellow so I have diamonds on the brain.

      • vegebrarian says

        Wow! That looks great 🙂 I love that light over your sink too!

        I did consider painting the diamonds at one time, but decided to embellish a few of the cabinets with some cherry transfers I found at Hobby Lobby. One of my favorite things about my great grandparent’s house was a set of flower transfers on the kitchen wall.

        • Kathy says

          I’m pretty sure that light over the sink is either exactly or very similar to ours that we bought at Home Depot or Lowes. It was only about $20 too!

  5. says

    Mr. & Mrs. Vegebrarian, what a beautiful kitchen remodel. You guys did a superb job. Also, I love the chandelier; IMO the chandelier looks vintage (from the 1960) and would still look beautiful with your recent remodel. If possible, keep the French looking chandelier; however, I understand that you guys wanted to update to a midcentury styled fixture.

  6. says

    This is a great looking remodel – I love the tile backsplash. It really does tie your colors together and modernizes while still being compatible with mid-century style.

    At my house we have Sputnik lights, but my aunt took them shortly before we moved in so we obtained (better) replacements from a place called Practical Props in Los Angeles. Their site http://www.practicalprops.com – they do a great job and have several other mid-century light styles available. They will do some custom work too.

    If you wanted more info about ours, I put our details here: http://www.houseonrynkushill.com/2013/04/05/its-all-about-the-sputniks/

    • vegebrarian says

      Thank you for the helpful links ~ I was not sure where one could get those star light bulbs and now I know! Sputnik lights are just so much fun ~ and I think the chrome would play well with the aluminum trim.

  7. lynda says

    Cute kitchen. Lots of creative ideas! I see the Michael Miller “50’s kitchen” fabric for the valance. I like the diamond pattern on the cabinets. Not sure I have seen that before. The tile goes perfectly with the rest of kitchen. Good job.

  8. says

    I love your retro kitchen! I am also interested in those diamond shapes on your cabinet doors. I think you could play those up with your wall colors. And I love that you did it on a tight budget. Great job!

  9. vegebrarian says

    It is so fun to see my kitchen here on one of my daily reads! Thank you for all of the kind comments and suggestions! And the Cookie Monster love! <3

  10. says

    Kudos on the kitchen. Just goes to prove you don’t always need a lot of money to make a kitchen look great. I love the colors and how you pulled them all together in the backsplash. Great job!

    • Mary Elizabeth says

      Well, I think that kitchen does talk–and sing! The fruit faces add to the color choices to create a sparkling feel. Yes, that would make you very happy to go into in the morning. Good job on a budget.

      • vegebrarian says

        Thank you. The kitchen really is a pick me up. I love to sit at the table when the sun is shining in through the back door and have all those faces smiling back at me!

  11. Jamie says

    This is inspiring. We’re under contract on a house from the 1940’s with remnants of an awful 1980’s kitchen. I say “remnants” because there’s one section of counter with the sink…and then two smaller sections of (non-matching) counter with lower (non-matching) cabinets that are just sort of floating against one wall: not attached to anything. I’ve been trying to decide if there’s a way I can repurpose the existing cabinets, and use one of those free floating lower cabinets to create a peninsula…but it would mean that the doors on on the outside of the peninsula, instead of facing in toward the rest of the kitchen. But here we are, with your peninsula exactly that way!

    • vegebrarian says

      I actually love having the cabinets on that side! There is another cabinet door on the peninsula near the oven, but the other access point makes it easier to stash a lot more goodies inside. Best of luck with your project.

  12. Susan K. says

    This is a cheery kitchen with great colors & use of space!

    The best part of the story for me, though, is believing I have a kindred spirit in vegebrarian–BEST USER NAME EVER!

  13. Heather Cole says

    I’m especially taken by the trim. I remember trim from the ’40’s that was, somehow, grooved, and impossible to keep clean. Good for you!

    May I ask how you came across the breadbox? Looks suspiciously like you beautified it inimitably, and that it is unique, but one can always hope!

    Thank you for this look inside your adorable kitchen.

  14. Joe Felice says

    Interesting color combo. A little-too bright for my taste, but they pull it together well with the trim and fabric accents. I would like to know how they got the diamond pattern on the cabinet doors.

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