Retro design ideas for Cathy’s yellow and maple St. Charles cabinets

vintage kitchen designsDesignDilemmaReader Cathy is working on remodeling her tiny 1949 kitchen using a set of vintage pale yellow and maple St. Charles steel kitchen cabinets that she found on craigslist. She likes the vintage look but isn’t quite sure what elements would work best with these cabinets. While her St. Charles cabinets are from the early 60s, they have a timeless look about them and we think Cathy could go in any number of directions and still get a fantastic retro-inspired result. She wants our ideas — what do you think she should do?

st-charles-steel-kitchenst-charles-cabinetsCathy writes:

I have an old house (1949) and a very small kitchen. I recently purchased a set of St. Charles cabinets, they are from I believe 1963 or 1964. They are butter yellow with maple doors on the upper cabinets. They came from a much larger kitchen than mine, so my husband can make them work with some extra for the adjacent laundry room.

I am looking to do a late 50s/early 60s style. We purchased the house 14 years ago and the kitchen and laundry room are the last major projects (I want to continue the look into the adjacent laundry room). We had three kids at home when we purchased the house and now we are down to one 18 year old (yay!) so it is finally time for my kitchen. I have come to love vintage/retro in the last few years (due it part to a fondness I have acquired for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet), so I am glad that we didn’t get to the kitchen until now 🙂

I originally planned to get basic generic cabinets and paint them and get hardware for a retro look. While searching Craigslist for a vintage sink, I came across the St. Charles, and I knew they would be perfect. To top it off, the seller literally lives two miles from my house.

So that has changed my ideas around quite a bit, and I’m not sure what color/style counter tops to go with. I definitely want laminate, and was thinking a black, but now I’ve started to rethink and I’m just not sure. Maybe a metal edge? I am planning on a black and white checkerboard floor in vinyl composite tiles. But the colors of the floor aren’t set in stone yet. Also wanted to do a white subway tile back splash.

vintage-steel-kitchen-cabinetsI have also considered painting the maple upper doors, but my husband isn’t going along with that one, so I will probably keep them as is.

The cabinets are in a rental storage unit right now, and they are as my husband would say: jammed jelly tight, so the only photos I have right now are from the Craigslist listing. They show the cabinets in the seller’s house, with the original yellow laminate counter top (which I did not have the option of getting). Of course the configuration of my kitchen is much different, and considerably smaller.

st-charles-cabinet-pull-outRight now my kitchen is pretty much down to the studs, and we are moving just about everything: the sink, the fridge, the stove, adding a window, etc. The cabinets appear a bit darker than they really are in a couple of the photos, they are a pretty light yellow.

I appreciate your time and consideration.

Pam and I have some suggestions prepared for Cathy’s kitchen — ideas for counter top, backsplash, flooring and wall treatments. We’ll be back at noon to share our mood boards.

Readers, what are your suggestions for Cathy’s kitchen cabinets?

Pam’s mood boards:

Cathy, agree with the commenters who said that subway tiles are not post-war vintage style — these are a pre-war style. And, I think that black-and-white checkerboard floors could be overwhelming considering your cabinet finishes. That said, it’s your kitchen — do what makes you happy.

If this were my kitchen, I think that I would try to keep the counter top and floor a single color, to simplify around the two-tone cabinetry, which provides a lot of visual interest already. I’d probably look for an off-white laminate for the counter top. Although, this kitchen really makes me moan for the loss of gold sparkle laminate — I think gold sparkle counter tops would look amazing. Back to laminate choices: I’m obsessive about the “just right white” — I showed Dover White Formica in my mood boards, but I am not sure that would really be just right. You need something that stands out from the yellow, just enough, but harmonizes with all the yellow and maple tones. Here is a story I did with all the laminate manufacturers with product in the U.S. that I know of. Regarding the edge: I might go for a postformed edge, which we now know existed as early as 1952. I say postformed rather than metal edge — because your cabinets have a more modern 60s feel than they do early 50s — and because you already have graphic action going on what with the two-toned cabinets including wall cabinets with molding.

For the backsplash, I would try to match the counter top as closely as possible with simple, matte finish square field tile. I have shown vintage 2″x2″ tile (I think that’s the size) from World of Tile in all my mood boards. I spotlighted World of Tile tile ‘cuz if I had a kitchen to remodel, I think I would do ‘most anything to use some of their New Old Stock vintage tile. That said, you could also use 4″x4″ file tile — which would be very inexpensive — and which is timeless.

After that, the decorating sky is the limit. You can choose a solid floor and wall treatments in almost any combination — however I would keep the colors kind of “dulled”, or else they will overwhelm your yellow cabinets.

My mood boards all show my “basics” — laminate counter and tile backsplash — partnered with different flooring and wallpaper to demonstrate the different varieties of “retro” that can be achieved.

BEAUTIFUL cabinetry — good luck!

vintage kitchen design“Homespun Vintage” has a sort of early 50s look, especially with the true linoleum flooring. Notice how I always chose wallpaper that included the colors in the cabinetry and flooring choices. Wallpaper is amazing for pulling a retro kitchen together. If you do not want wallpaper, you can accomplish a similar effect with curtains and other linens in the room:

  1. Vintage wallpaper from Hannah’s Treasures
  2. Dover White Formica or Abet Laminati off-white (Abet Laminati says it has the largest selection of solid color laminates in the U.S.) with a postformed edge
  3. NOS Romany Spartan 1.5 inch square off-white mosaic tile from World of Tile.
  4. Armstong Linoleum in Parrot Green

60s kitchen design“Sophistikat 60s” uses vinyl sheet flooring in a lightly speckled pattern (to hide dirt.) Tip: Look in the COMMERCIAL sections of floor maker’s websites to find sheet flooring for a retro kitchen:

  1. Vintage wallpaper from Hannah’s Treasures
  2. Dover White Formica or Arpa Laminati off-white with a postformed edge
  3. NOS Romany Spartan 1.5 inch square off-white mosaic tile from World of Tile.
  4. Johnsonite Commercial Vinyl Sheet Floor — Full Moon

70s kitchen design“Feeling a little 70s vibe” reminds me of the original kitchen. It again shows you can choose a muted floor color that harmonizes with the yellow and brown cabinets — then pull it all together with wallpaper:

  1. Vintage wallpaper from Hannah’s Treasures
  2. Dover White Formica or Arpa Laminati off-white with a postformed edge
  3. NOS Romany Spartan 1.5 inch square off-white mosaic tile from World of Tile.
  4. Marmoleum Vintage Blue linoleum

Kate’s mood board:

retro modern kitchen design

  1. Light Sage Green wall paint similar to Sherwin Williams Baize Green
  2. Nevamar Laminate in Cool Chic
  3. Merola Tile Cosmo Pixie Almond .5 in tile mosaic from Home Depot
  4. Marmoleum Walton Cirrus Linoleum in Berlin Red

Sage green, butter yellow, almond and burnt red are a classic vintage color combination. In my mood board, I’ve chosen to use the Berlin Red Marmoleum flooring to balance the warmth and intensity of the upper maple door cabinets in Cathy’s vintage set in the hopes that creating this balance will help the gorgeous wood doors more visually pleasing to her — so whe will decide to keep them their original wood finish. The counter tops have a vintage linen-like texture and the warm almond color will work nicely with the butter yellow cabinets as well as the maple cabinet doors. Instead of a stark white subway tile, the half inch square ceramic tiles in almond both go nicely with the countertop and add more texture to the space —  and feel both vintage and modern at the same time. To finish of the room, I’d paint the walls a light sage green color, which will complement all of the other colors and finishes in the room and add more color interest to the kitchen. Finish this look off with a few bold red and green accessories to tie the look together and this retro modern room is complete.


  1. Robin, NV says:

    Holy moly! I’m looking to do something similar with my ktichen – basically take it down to the frame to fix some electrical issues, add insulation, and get rid of the brick backsplash (sorry Pam) – but I’m going to try my gosh darndest to save my cabinets. I’m terrified to take them down. They’re nailed to the wall (is that normal?), so it’s going to be a delicate process.

    Pam and Kate – love your suggestions. I’d go with either #1 or #4. I love color.

  2. Glamorlux Nancy says:

    We also have a small kitchen with wood cabinets. I thought of *every* option for flooring, and am very happy with our final decision of Armstrong Commercial Connection Corlon sheet flooring (in Ocean Green). It has a very authentic “retro” look, without being overbearing. In retrospect, I think any tile (especially contrasting, like black and white) would have been too busy – especially since we have diamond wallpaper on the bulkheads. Good luck with your project! 🙂

  3. Cathy says:

    A little embarrassing to post the before pictures, but I’m just glad that kitchen is gone! My husband is a plumber (he put in a temporary sink for me) and a great DYI guy. It’s going to take a lot of work, and time.

    I was wondering if you had any suggestions for what type of post formed edge? The laminate people said the cheapest is “waterfall” but I didn’t care for that much. They had several others, not sure what would look best?

    He is building soffits, but I don’t think we will do wallpaper because of the size of the kitchen, it’s so small. But I will do a curtain or valance in the window over the sink.

    My fabulous kids got me a Dishmaster faucet for my birthday. I have a 60s toaster, blender and waffle iron. Also a 50s Kitchenaid stand mixer, I hope everything will come together well 🙂

  4. Jay says:

    Oh how I wished I had collected it when it used to turn up at flea markets at give away prices.

  5. lynda says:

    This is an amazing project to take on. Just keep your eyes on the fabulous vision and good luck. I like Kate’s last choice for a simple look.
    http://samples.wilsonart.com/p-622-sea-glass-4900.aspx pretty for counter. Looks like a pale yellow in the swirl. Check out the Karndean Mosaics too. Doesn’t go with the sea glass Wilsonart– but may go with another choice for the counter. http://www.karndean.com/en/floors/iconic-floors/mosaic-flooring.aspx
    nice retro look. Look at Karndean Loose Lay floors too for really easy diy job.

  6. Julie says:

    Cathy, even if you don’t like the idea of wallpaper everywhere, which can overwhelm some spaces, these vintage wallpapers are amazing works of art. You can use them to line the backs of open shelving, decoupage picture frames, or even just frame them alone as an art statement, which I love. Hannah’s Treasures has an Etsy store that sells smaller remnant cuts i believe. I’ve kept every sample I’ve had my hand on because they’re so precious!

  7. Cathy says:

    Thank you Julie, that is a great idea! I will probably order some once I make my decisions. So many great ideas, I have a lot to think about. So nice of everyone to share their opinions and ideas, it is greatly appreciated 🙂

  8. Janet in CT says:

    And don’t forget stencilling! It isn’t that hard and is fun! I loved that kitchen where the dinnerware starburst in turquoise blue was stencilled on the walls. You can make your own easily enough and it shows YOUR taste and you can mix and match the colors you want to work with.

  9. pam kueber says:

    Regarding the postformed edge: I tend to revert to what was done back in the day — the look that was in place when the cabinets were made. That way, the counter tops historically match the cabinets. You have early 60s cabinets (I’d say) For them, I think I’d used simple postform edges. Here is our story on postformed edges: https://retrorenovation.com/2013/05/28/curved-postformed-laminate-1952/

    See this also: https://retrorenovation.com/2013/03/25/10-ways-kitchen-counter-top-edg-1953/

    Simple rounded edge.

  10. Cathy says:

    Thanks so much for the info and all the references. Because the flat edge will cost me twice as much, I may go for the simple rounded edge, I’ll have to check with the laminate people again, and see all the edges they offer.
    So many great ideas!

  11. anne says:

    I vote for #3 Feeling a Little 70s vibe. Love yellow and blue together! Can’t wait to see the finished project!

  12. Cathy says:

    Hi, Paul. I was just wondering if you could show a picture of your floor? I really like the idea. Thanks!

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