Harmonizing midcentury modern paint colors — Ashley wants our help

DesignDilemmaReader Ashley loves bright colors and retro style. Though her house was built in the 1930s and originally a country style, she wants her great room to have a more 50s/60s vibe — at least in her kitchen/dining/living room area. She’s painted the built-in shelves a burnt orange to match her vintage modern sectional couch and even put up — yes, I said put up — wood paneling along the front wall. With a new Big Chill fridge and some Youngstown vintage steel cabinets waiting to be painted, Ashley needs our help to pull it all together and create her retro modern dream room.

mid-century-great-roomvintage-living-roomAshley writes:

Hey Pam,
First off I just want to say that your site is amazing and I cant even tell you how much this has helped me in the past few years. THANK YOU!

(I apologize in advance because this will be long) I don’t know where to start so I will just tell you everything….

I live in Alabama and we bought our house a little over a year ago. We wanted a more midcentury modern style house but we needed acreage for my husband’s business and shop so unfortunately we were not able to get that. Our home was built in the early 30s and is more of a country style home (I am not complaining anything old is better than new in my book) and has been updated and added on to several times. It has a very open floor plan and the den, dinning room and kitchen are all connected and technically one room.

retro-vintage-kitchenI bought my second set of Youngstown cabinets yesterday after almost a year of searching and need to decide how to do the kitchen to where it will still go with the rest of the connecting rooms and have the mcm look I am going for.

retro-refrigeratorWe painted the den and built ins, put up wood paneling, bought furniture all when we moved in and recently bought a BIG CHILL fridge in jadeite green. With all that being said…Now I am looking at these rooms as a whole and I am not sure what I have done. Are the colors all from the same decade, does my fridge go with my couch and have I wasted all his money and ended up with a disaster. EKKKKK!!!!

vintage-modern-kitchenI am so overwhelmed! I hope that made sense.

mid-century-dining-tableI have attached photos of our den/dinning/kitchen area and photos of the couch, Big Chill Fridge and my drexel dining table. (Those three pieces have to stay) I also want to keep the same color palette pretty much, but I know something needs to be tweaked (just not sure what). I have no idea and I dont want to just start changing things and still not get it right especially since we are about to have our Youngstown cabinets repainted and installed along new laminate countertops.

mid-century-vintage-living-roommid-century-retro-kitchenI am struggling with:

mid-century-modern-couchWhat color to paint my youngstown cabinets and what style and color of laminate to choose that will go with my jadeite fridge and burnt orange/red couch. (The cabinets that are currently in are painted jocular green by sherwin williams and the match the fridge exactly, I had originally planned on doing that color on the youngstown cabinets, but unsure if that really goes with the rest of the space.)

I obviously need to repaint the mustard room past the den…so should I paint it the same color (vegan sherwin williams) as the den and kitchen or change the color all together.

vintage-modern-living-roomLastly, the built-in shelves that flank the fireplace and are in the mustard room (are actually the same color as the couch but the pictures make it look a little brighter than they truly are) not sure if those should be muted down?

Geeze Louise this is long and I hope it makes sense. Cant wait to hear back!

Thanks so much in advance.

Ok readers — let’s give Ashley some ideas. How can she tweak her large space to all coordinate and look more cohesive?

Kate’s advice:

Ashley’s large great room area — including kitchen, dining room, living room and den — has a lot going on and is a big space to plan. I can see why Ashley is stuck — she has several angled walls where they meet the ceiling, long walls that connect rooms, pieces of wall that jut out and have cut outs and lots of corners. My advice for you Ashley — simplify.

kitchen-vintageLet’s start with the kitchen. I think having your Youngstown steel cabinets painted to match that stunner of a Big Chill refrigerator that you have is a great idea. In fact, the color you are thinking about painting your Youngstown cabinets is close to the Sherwin Williams “mint condition” color that I painted my kitchen cabinets. What I think needs to happen on the walls though, is to first — paint the angled bits of wall that meet the ceiling the same color white as the ceiling. Before, when they were bright green, it was drawing too much attention to this portion of the wall — taking away from your cool fridge and cabinets. By painting it white, it will blend in and allow the true focus to be where it should be — on your soon-to-be awesome kitchen.

Next, I would pick a color that relates to your dark orange couch and painted built-ins (hard for me to recommend one since the oranges look so different in every photo) but is several shades lighter. Maybe a coral or peach depending on the specific orange on your couch. Get a bunch of coral and peach swatches and hold them up next to your couch and built-ins to see which one looks best. Then, I would use that color to paint the wall between the bottom of the cabinets and counter top. This will bring some warmth into your kitchen to help it coordinate with the rest of the rooms. Before, with the green on green color scheme, it felt too monochromatic and too “cold” next to the warm burnt orange of your sofa and built-ins.

For counter tops, I would choose a warm neutral laminate with a linen look — like Arborite Weathered Hemp or Earthen Hemp. Get samples of both and see which one coordinates best with your neutral tile floor and wood floor. This will add further warmth to the space, as well as some subtle texture to add interest. Since you have some chrome on your refrigerator and possibly cabinet handles — you could use metal edging like Pam used in her kitchen to complete the look.

Dining-room-retroI would continue the peachy-coral paint into the dining room. The warm color will look great with your warm wood Drexel dining set and wood floors.

Retro-Modern-living-roomFor the living room, continue the same peachy-coral color on the walls. The warm color will look great with the wood paneling, fireplace and other burnt orange pieces in the room. I’d add a neutral area rug — like this one from IKEA — in front of the sofa to visually anchor it and break up the large expanse of wood flooring. Then find a vintage coffee table, like this round Lane model, so you have somewhere to set your drinks. You could also add a few light neutral and light green throw pillows to your couch to bring the kitchen color out into your room. All of these touches will also make your room feel cozier.

Continuing through the room, I would paint all the bump outs near the ceiling the same white like in the kitchen, to draw attention away from them and towards the other elements in the room.

In your den room (previously yellow), you could paint The walls the Sherwin Williams Vegan green that you used before, then paint the built-in the same color as your kitchen cabinets. Put some orange pillows on your futon and a few orange/peachy things on your shelf and you’ll have a space that uses all of your favorite colors in a pleasing and cohesive arrangement.

Pam’s advice:

Ashley, your Design Dilemma inspires me to offer some theoritical design advice: There is, I believe, a “logical” order to making design decisions about a room. Fundamentally, the most expensive decisions are the most important ones. You nail these down before progressing to less expensive decisions. More expensive = hard to change, you want to be very careful, very thoughtful, because unless you are made of money, you want to be able to live with these decisions a long time. Less expensive = easy to change. Repita: The order in which you make design changes: Expensive first, Inexpensive after.

In regards to your design dilemma, I would advise: Do NOT get hung up on the color of your walls — until you have the more expensive designs made first. Wall color is relatively cheap and easy to change — while kitchen cabinets, countertops, refrigerators etc. ARE NOT.

Here is a stab at identifying which expenses fall into which bucket:

Expensive — focus on these first:

  • Architectural changes to the house — moving walls, moving windows, moving doors, etc.
  • Kitchen cabinets
  • Kitchen countertops and tile backsplashes
  • Kitchen floors
  • Kitchen appliances
  • Large pieces of new furniture
  • Custom window treatments

Inexpensive — focus on these after:

  • Paint color
  • Used furniture
  • Accessories
  • Rugs

In the case of your specific questions and dilemmas, Ashley, here is what I think I might do:

  • You did not ask about this — so I realize this is unsolicited advice — my apologies! — but I question the fact that your front door seems to be opening into the smack dab middle of your living room. To me, this placement looks like it is disturbing furniture flow and use of the room. And, it means there is no real foyer area to welcome guests, to put down their bags, etc. You said that the house has been added on to over time, and I am guessing that the den is an add on. My suggestion, if it is possible, is to consider moving the front door either closer to the den, or closer to the kithen; then add a half-wall to compartmentalize it, and the,n move forward with the design of the living room. Admittedly, though, I can’t really see the entire situation. This is just a thought. But I think you get my idea — this is an issue of “fixing the architecture” that I might deal with first, before moving forward on aesthetic issues.retro kitchen
  • For the kitchen, you have already locked into one expensive piece — the jadeite Big Chill refrigerator. So, this is now a starting point for the next steps in your kitchen. I do not think I would go with cabinets painted to match the fridge. I think it would be better to go with another color — one that would make the Big Chill fridge pop like the beautiful hunka hunka that it is.  I have seen ONE example of jadeite greenish steel cabinets here. I like how they appear darker than the jadeite of the sink — and presumably, darker than your fridge. You could also go with white cabinets. Maybe you don’t even need to repaint them if you stick with white? Can you “restore” them in the same way auto collectors polish up vintage cars? Just be sure to test for lead paint first and if it’s there, take precautions accordingly; consult your own properly licensed professional.
    How the jadeite Big Chill looks with white cabinets — click to see the story on this kitchen

    Emily’s jadeite kitchen cabinets — believed to be original finish
  • For countertops, I would consider something wood-look to bring warmth to all the metal in your kitchen. Wood-look countertops also would relate to the wood tones through the rest of the open concept area adjacent. How about Formica’s Butcher Block laminate. I would not edge them in metal, I would choose a simple postformed edge. And here’s another idea I have been toying with lately — real maple was used on countertops in the 1940s. How about maple laminate? Or, if you want to keep the wood tones darker to coordinate with your Drexel and your wall paneling, how about a wood toned laminate in the Drexel shades? I also like the idea of a woodtone countertop because you are mid century in the country.
  • For flooring, how about my kitchen floor, Azrock Cortina Autumn Haze. I think that would look quite nice. Alternatively, look at the sheet linoleum from Forbo and go with a light marbleized linoleum. I just read Jane Powell’s book linoleum (affiliate link) this weekend. A must-have for any Retro Renovator’s collection! She makes a very compelling case for the environmental benefits of true linoleum vs. flooring that contains vinyl/PVC.
  • For paint color for the wall, I went with Kate’s suggestion. And, I tied all the colors together with barkcloth from Melinamade.
  • In the living room, I would nix the burnt orange paint on the bookshelves. They are just too much. I love the Jerry Seinfeld gag where he says that when he has a killer headache, he wants to take just enough aspirin to kill him — then back it off. Same deal with the old saw: When you are getting all dolled up for a night on the town, the minute before you are walking out the door, check yourself in the mirror and take one piece of jewelry off. These cabinets are your aspirin, your one-bling-too-many.  Either strip them and stain them to match your paneling or Drexel, or use a product like Rustoleum Cabinet Transformation to mimic that wood look. I would likely finish the bookshelf in the den the same way, for visual continuity since you have one large open space.
  • I agree with Kate about repainting the mansard parts of the ceiling white rather than a color.
  • You have a big investment in the sectional. So that stays.
  • Paint color for the walls, room to room to room? Once you have all the expensive decisions outlined above completed, the paint colors should come relatively easy. I like Kate’s ideas a lot — as they keep the paint colors in the families of the larger decisions. One final note, the rug to go under the sectional could/should tie all the principal colors of the entire connected space together. It will need to contain shades of jadeite green, burnt orange, light and dark woodtones… I would not make it too light and bright. It should read dark to settle the space.  Maybe a large oval chenille braided rug in a principally brown colorway, with these other colors speckled in. This would also be cozy to lay on, and it has a little bit of country in it, too.

Good luck, Ashley. We congratulate you for being bold with color — you are close! Let us know what you decide!


  1. Roseana says:

    I tend to agree that one of the wall colors should be changed to a neutral. (Look for a buttery cream color, not stark white.) Ditto for moving the TV off the fireplace. It’s two, competing focal points in one tiny area, and the seating for TV watching is a tad too far away.

  2. Jay says:

    Nice spaces! I like green but would keep it to the kitchen/dining space; treating it as one area. I would change the green in the living/TV room. This area seems more 70s to me with the fireplace and paneling. The green walls and the orange bookcases are fighting your couch which prevents it from standing out and being the star of the room. Maybe introduce avocado or mossy green accents and paint the walls and bookcases a more beigey color – as others have mentioned, earth colors. It’s hard with furniture placement since you have openings for traffic on three sides. Can you squeez in a small coffee table w/area rug to help ground the couch in the room? Don’t agonize. it’s only paint. Oh, and if you are up to it, how about removing the left bookcase and mounting the TV over the cabinet. Then you can restore the sunburst clock to its rightful place. Have fun!

  3. Ana says:

    Ashley, you have a lovely house and such cool decor. I went back and forth in my mind when I was trying to think of ideas for you so forgive me if my advice sounds garbled.

    I like the color combo of mint, orange and yellow you picked, but I see the mint color (its intensity, not the color itself) as too strong. When I first looked through your photos, I actually thought your Big Chill was white because it pales so much compared to the wall color. Since you want that and your Youngstown cabinets to be the eye-catchers, the walls need to be toned waaay down. There are a couple of ways to do that. You could pick a color like cream (that harmonizes with the warm orange and yellow you have) or try lightening up the mint you used by a significant amount. Ask at the paint counter to get the color you originally chose at 50% or less (meaning they will cut the color with white paint to lighten it). Prime some sections and some test pots at different levels of color as well as some neutral colors to see what you like best.

    The other thing that struck me is that the rooms don’t have much carryover in the color scheme so they look like they’re not connected. For instance, the yellow room has orange but no mint. The orange room has mint but no yellow beyond the chair. The kitchen has only orange dishes (no yellow). In the kitchen, once you change the wall color, you could paint the backs of the open shelves yellow and add white window treatments with yellow accents and then use orange for accessories (dishtowels, etc.). In the living room, add some throw pillows to the couch with mint and yellow on them. If you don’t keep the mint wall color in there, you’ll need to add more mint — like a rug or statement art or painting the back of the front door.

    Someone also suggested constructing walls, which is something you’d really have to think about. But I understand why it was offered as an option. When I think of mid-century and earlier decor, I think of plenty of color in a room, but the point is they did it room by room. When the dividing walls are taken away, you don’t have a visual transition. So your instinct to add these colors was right, but the architecture makes these three rooms simultaneously want to be three rooms and one room. So my other (completely conflicting) advice would be to paint all the walls one color that coordinates with mint, orange and yellow (maybe a very diluted version of the yellow or the orange) and layer all your decor over that.

  4. Jocelyn W. says:

    I actually think you don’t need to change a thing, paint-wise. I think what’s making you uncomfortable is that the colors don’t have any way to relate to each other, so to speak. My solution to this would be accessories. Say, pillows in the living room in a print or patterned fabric that pull in the green of the kitchen and the orange and yellow of the living areas. This could be one fabric or pillows in a patterned fabric along with solid-colored pillows in the other paint colors. Likewise, you could pick up some tchotckes to display on the shelves that pick up the colors from the walls and the kitchen. This could involve buying some cheap-and-cheerful items from a thrift store and spray-painting them, or searching by color on ebay (look for vintage California pottery – there is lots of it, it’s pretty cheap, and it comes in the colors you need). You’ve already started doing this in the kitchen with your display of dishes; I think you just need to take it further than you have.

  5. Brenda Ss says:

    All the lovely pieces need to be showcased. I think some on here are headed in the right direction. A pale yellow such as butter cream or a very light orange like dream cycle would be smashing. There’s not enough of a contrast with the Fridge and cabinets. To much with the brick and wood paneling with the Jadeite walls. A creamy yellow would go nice with the orange in the built ins and couch. It would also look fab with the minty color of the fridge and cabinets. I don’t think it would clash with the already bright yellow nook.

    1. Robin, NV says:

      Brenda – my first thought was “those living room walls would look great in a nice buttery yellow.” It would pull together the colors in the room yet allow all the great features (furniture, fireplace, floors) to be showcased. Yellow would also look great in the kitchen and would have the added benefit of unifying the space.

  6. Nancy B says:

    You have a wonderful home!! I love color too & understand where you are coming from. It is something that takes time to figure out what is right for you. Go to the paint store & study the color palettes. You know you can achieve great colors/differences by the number of coats of paint you apply. My cabinets are the same color but with different number of coats on top & bottom. Paint samples are cheap-put some on the wall & live with them. In the end, do what makes you happy & “love the house you’re in!”

  7. lynda says:

    Both Pam and Kate have great suggestions. I think I would go with the white cabinets. White seems to always be in style. Also, if the Big Chill does not work anymore and they don’t have the mint anymore, then what?? I like the wood look counters, but use real maple butcher block. I have had them for 37 years now. Add the big stainless sink with the drainboards on either side. I know a lot like those big white porcelain sinks with drainboards, but…stainless is easier. I have the 37 year old Elkay with a drainboard too. I like the vinyl tile or the Marmoleum to complete the look. When you are that far along with the kitchen, then decide on the paint colors. I also like Pam’s idea about painting the wall units with the Rustoleum cabinet paint. Since they are not high use like a kitchen, the new wood “look” will stay nice for many years. Kate has some great color suggestions. To me the softer colors are more pleasing. You can add more vivid colors in some throw pillows and accessories. Moving a front door can be pricey, you may just have to live with that era. Most houses just did not have foyers.

  8. Lori D. says:

    I love the fridge & orange cabinets in the living room. I do think the kitchen green is too intense. It brings the wall ht. down visually. I like Pam’s idea of painting the peak white is a good one. I’d even paint the whole kitchen white & let the mint cabs (do it!) & fridge & colorful china be the pops of color. You could paint the backs of the open cabs a bright color, too. Accessorize with color in the eating area-art, fabric, etc. I think that all the colors you’ve chosen are in nearly the same value. Green & orange do fight but especially if they are the same value.A lighter green in the living room would be better with the intense orange. I think the gold color is not saying 50s to me. Pastel shades would be more period appropriate. Just my two cents, but I do color consultations & have a background in interior decorative painting.

  9. Ashley says:

    WOW! Thank you to everyone that gave their design advice on my kitchen/den area and all the very nice compliments. After reading thru all the comments, especially Pam and Kate’s I feel 100 times better about finishing this space and being able to bring all my pieces together cohesively. This was just what I needed!! I will keep yall posted on progress, my cabinets are off to be redone next week!!! YAY!!

    1. Kate says:

      Glad we could help Ashley! Please send us pictures when you have it all done! 🙂 Pam and I (and all the readers) would love to see what you decided.

  10. char says:

    Hi! I love it the way it is. I love the colors, they go together great and it’s definitely not too busy. The same green in a different value is great! (lighter or darker). The orange in the pix come off as a kind of coral, which was definitely a 50’s color. Orange and turquoise/aqua go great together! You can get a color wheel and look at the range of colors, meaning the colors close by that orange and that turquoise, red orange, orange red, and blue, green, green blue, blue green, that will all fit. I’d leave the interesting jut-out of the walls/ceiling the way they are, I like it, adds interest. The orange is a compliment to the aqua (opposite on the color wheel). As for my personal taste, I rarely go with beige or neutral anything, I love color! The more color the better. Where you don’t want color, use black or white, just choose one or the other, not black and white, too much contrast, unless you go major black and white with bits of color (that might work in your bathroom or hallway?) I like to take the colors and design scheme somewhere into every room, not have something totally different when you open the door. That creates balance. Bravo to you for limiting your palette, I get carried away myself. But then if you introduce another brite color somewhere it will pop out. Lime green or chartreuse used to be a pop out color for me but now i have it everywhere (it still pops out). The only thing I would change would be the fireplace. I go to modern sites as well, and what they call neo baroque, they take old pieces and reupholster or paint in jarring colors. I’d bring that green to your dining room chairs, maybe even a lacquer for a fabulous modern texture. Black lacquer was popular in the 50s. And reupholster chairs with different prints w/ same colors so they tie together but have visual interest. I like to use oilcloth or vinyl around the dining table to clean off easily but you’d have to search for the right patterns (fun tho!) It’s always easy to bring green into a room w/ plants as well. Your plants can also match your color scheme – maybe an orange bromeliad. Or an orange bullet planter w/ a green plant…I’d do something daring with that brick fireplace though, personally, I’d paint it the same mint green – I think it would look fabulous and you would bring a modern focal point to the retro design, like w/ the lacquer chairs.. Maybe you should tone down the burnt orange a bit on the shelves, it’s hard to tell – you can also go with different values on that one, too, w/ same color, just different shade of orange on shelves. That will give it depth. Also every house needs a giant painting of…something….or one of those fabulous giant prints. I actually have a canvas I bought and spray painted green and left it that way, it looks great I just the way it is. Oh…maybe get the larger size blinds, more authentic. I love it –

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