Decorating ideas to add light to a dark kitchen — Renee’s Retro Design Dilemma

1960s-retro-kitchenDesignDilemmaReader Renee loves her 1956 home because of its many mid-century design details such as the walls of windows and exposed brick. What Renee is not loving: the lack of light and the closed off feeling in her mostly original kitchen. She has been pondering how to make the kitchen seem brighter and more open and has considered painting or possibly removing some of the cabinets. Now Renee has asked for our help to choose the right paint color and give her ideas to make her kitchen feel more light, bright and cheery.

retro-wood-kitchen-cabinetsRenee writes:

My husband and I bought our 1956 home because we thought it had a “Frank Lloyd Wright” feel to it, with walls of windows in the living room and master bedroom and lots of exposed brick. I have a completely original 1956 kitchen. It has “carrera marble” patterned linoleum floors, light gray Formica counter tops and backsplashes with stainless steel trim. The wood cabinets were built on site and are very solid, and still fit beautifully.

retro-tile-backsplashThere are two different shades of wood used in them. I don’t think the small tile backsplash behind the stove is original; it doesn’t seem to fit.

mid-century-wood-kitchen-cabinetsI have two dilemmas. #1 – the U-shaped counter design means that while I’m in the kitchen there is a half-wall of cabinets that block the view into the little breakfast area.  As I’m taking these photos, I’m realizing my kitchen isn’t really U-shaped, it’s really a square, about 12 x 13.6’. The little breakfast nook is 8 x 6’. 1960s-retro-kitchenWhen you look at the photo of the kitchen with the sink at the right side, you can see how that cabinet that  is placed over the left hand side of the “U” blocks any views into the breakfast nook. I thought about trying to have that cabinet removed but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. My kitchen is also quite dark most of the time since it faces north/northeast.

mid-century-kitchen-cabinetsIt also blocks a lot of light. What can I do with this? The wood is beautiful.

vintage-kitchen-cabinets#2 = how can I jazz up my kitchen and add some style? It’s rather boring with all that gray Formica and brown wood. Can you suggest something to replace the tile backsplash above the stovetop?

mid-century-cabinetsIf you can only answer one question I think the second question is the most important! I need to inject some new “life” into my kitchen. You might see where I have some paint splotches on the right side – I was trying to figure out a paint color.

I will be painting the kitchen soon and thought I would go with a light gray paint.


mid-century-light-fixtureI also enclosed a photo of the original overhead milk glass light, and the u*** thing over the kitchen that was put up by a previous owner to replace the square recessed milk glass panel.

light-fixtureI can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with. I definitely need some help!


Noticing a contradiction in Renee’s plea for help, Pam replied:

I do want to ask: Are those GRAY paint samples on the wall? But you want to “jazz up” the space which is overloaded with brown and gray, right?

In response, Renee writes:

Yes, those are gray paint samples because I was thinking of painting the cabinets as well, although the wood is beautiful for the most part. I was thinking light gray on the walls and darker gray on the cabinets. Now I’m not so sure. If there’s a way to keep the wood cabinets as they are I am completely open to that idea. I had painted the kitchen green – I wanted a sage-type green but chose the wrong color. What is on the walls now is more of a spring green. I think the original paint color was a peachy coral because I can see it on the walls inside of the cabinets.

Readers — how would you make Renee’s kitchen feel brighter and more open?

What would you use as a backsplash or wall color?

Kate’s Solution: Kate’s sunny yellow and solar tubes

mid century kitchenMy kitchen cabinets are constructed in the same way as Renee’s — custom built-on-site wood cabinets. A few years ago, we needed to remove the cabinet above the refrigerator so that the new, taller refrigerator we purchased would fit in the space. Since the entire wall of cabinets was built as one large piece, it was VERY difficult to remove only one of the cabinets without damaging the neighboring cabinet. My cabinet doors were not in good shape so I knew I’d be painting them and thus, could hide any damage with wood putty and paint. Since Renee’s cabinets are in great shape, and painting or removing these kind of kitchen cabinets is a tedious job, I’d keep them as is and just give them a good clean and polish.

Renee doesn’t like how her cabinets block the view of the breakfast area. While removing the offending cabinets is probably not a great idea, due to the likely difficult nature of the job and the loss of storage space, I did notice that the table in the breakfast area is bar height. I would replace this table and stools with a standard height kitchen table and chair set in a lighter color. This way, people sitting in the breakfast bar will likely be low enough so they can see through the space between the counter top and cabinet and whoever is working in the kitchen will only have to duck slightly to make eye contact.

If Renee’s house is a single story ranch house, adding solar tubes  — like Sarah did in her mid century kitchen — would be a great way to give the business side of the kitchen more natural light. Adding some recessed can lights would also help brighten up the kitchen without interfering with the clean lines of the space.

merola-tile-tessera-square-amberSince you are trying to make the kitchen feel lighter and brighter, I wouldn’t go too dark with paint. I chose a pale yellow for the walls — something like Sherwin Williams “Morning Sun” to add a sunny glow to the space. If Renee wants to replace the white tile backsplash behind the cooktop for something jazzier, I would suggest a small mosaic tile blend like Merola Tile Tessera Square in Amber. Yes, this is a slightly modern choice, but the different textures and colors in the tile blend pick up the warm tones from the cabinets nicely while adding interest to the space. To bounce even more light around the room and break up the monotone wood, I’d replace the wood cabinet knobs with some affordable mid century style chrome dish knobs — with or without backplates — like I used in my kitchen. If new appliances are in your future, I’d replace the black appliances with a lighter color — like white or stainless — which will also help the space feel brighter.

Pam’s solution: Move the cabinets, enlarge the window 

Hi Renee,

My idea does not include a mock up, because I fear it would take Kate an entire day of work. But let me give you my ideas in a numbered list:

    1. I agree with your notion that removing the wall cabinets that hang over your peninsula is a good idea. Obviously, doing so will allow the light from the larger window in the dinette area to flow into the working area of the kitchen. To make this change, you are going to need a skilled craftsperson who can work very carefully with your seemingly gorgeous, original cabinets. As Kate suggests, this might prove a tedious chore — you may need to build ‘new’ cabinets from the old to craft one or two more cabinets along the long wall to the left of the sink — but I think you would have enough wood to work with.
    2. window-design
      Sometimes, “fixing the architecture” can make a transformational difference.

      Before you put this plan in motion, you might also consider whether it’s desirable and of course, possible, to enlarge the window over your sink — which would also mean moving the wall cabinet to the right of the sink. I designed a larger window into my kitchen — and it made an amazing difference. See my story “Should you fix the architecture?” Obviously, there are critical limits to this sort of plan, especially: What’s happening on the outside wall… and of course, the cost/benefit equation.

    3. I very much agree with reader Cellen’s comment this morning: “You have a lighting problem – not a paint color problem.” Something you could do with minimal fuss: Swap out that dinky milk glass light fixture for a ceiling fixture with four bulbs and which can accommodate a goodly amount of wattage. The diffuser (the glass shade part) should have limited opaqueness — you want to allow maximum illumination into that working area of the kitchen!
      As to style, I suspect you like the Prairie style of the pendant/chandelier over the kitchen table.

      vintage light on ebay
      Click link at the left to see these TWO New-Old-Stock lights on ebay.

      However, that Prairie style fixture does not seem to be throwing off a lot of light — you might also consider changing that out to something with more illumination as well as a cleaner, whiter light. If you take both of these suggestions, the two light fixtures could be coordinated — a matching chandelier for the breakfast nook coordinated with the ceiling fixture for the working area of the kitchen…. You know how I like my matchy-matchy, especially in relatively small spaces. Check out these — the style is probably not what you are looking for; but I show them to make the point that you can get fixtures with more bulbs and also ones that shine the light both up to the ceiling and below too (via the diffuser) — I think this style of light would be great for your situation — again, though: One ceiling mounted, one hanging like a chandelier.

    4. Also consider new lighting for above the sink. That recessed can light is not providing much general illumination; better, I think to get a fixture with two bulbs that sits outside the soffit and that throws a lot more light.
      Note: One of the things I *think* I have learned over the years: Recessed can lighting does not throw as much light into a space as an external mounted fixture with several bulbs that illuminate a broad swath of the ceiling AND the area below (through the diffuser). If you NEED light — see if you can make at least one external mounted fixture in each area work BEFORE you default to recessed can lights.
    5. Paint everything gray? I suspect you may be a newish reader who has not read my several rants “Resist the Greige Nation.” I DO enjoy the color gray and seriously, as a decor color, I have no issue with it. BUT, this trend of painting enormous swaths of a room gray as if the nation were living in a mausoleum or a vampire TV show (see, don’t get me started again, I’m trying to be restrain myself this year) — is a 2012 trend — a 2012 fashion.  Mid century houses did not have gray kitchens — they did have warm (not icy) gray tile bathrooms with happy wallpaper, though! I cannot imagine how adding more dark colors to your kitchen will lighten it up. Stick with your gorgeous wood cabinets, they are a treasure!
    6. In fact, the neutral color combination of your cabinets, flooring and counter tops is very versatile in regard to choosing coordinating paint colors for the wall and decorative accents. I love Kate’s yellow suggestion. I also am entertained by the idea of dialing the sunny yellow up to chartreuse — although admittedly, chartreuse is not a particularly “appetizing” color. For our most tried-and-true color palette, see our PDFs of the Sherwin-Williams Suburban Modern paint palettes. For additional, mind-numbing choices: 20 Historic Paint Color Collections.

      Full Swing Textiles makes gorgeous reproduction barkcloth. This Haley’s Comet design and color mightwork well in your kitchen for valances. This fabric has a gray field (since you like that color), it picks up the black in your flooring, and the dark red mimicks the brown cabinetry
    7. Get yee some window treatments — in fact, I might start my color journey by looking for fabric with a decorative pattern that pleases me immensely — and then choose my wall colors from there. Fabric will soften up the space. If you want to minimize frou frou, even simple valances will do. The colors on the fabric should include hints of brown and colors from your floor — fabrics and/or wallpaper are fabulous for pulling all the colors in the kitchen together. How about something like the Haley’s Comet reproduction barkcloth design from Full Swing Textiles. It has a “richness” that to me, suits your kitchen. Wall color in this case would be: the green. Or get more light into your kitchen, yes, you could even paint the walls light gray! That little green Hall planter by your fridge — play up that accent color!
    8. Finally, I do not think the backsplash tile behind your range top is original to 1956. I think those wavy field tiles are a 1980s-1990s thing. If I had the opportunity to retile a backsplash like this, I would run (not walk) to World of Tile to see if I could find some New Old Stock real deal vintage tile to play with. As Kate has suggested, I like the idea of keeping the backsplash tile harmonious with either the cabinets or the laminate (rather than queuing it to a wall color, for example); this will enable you to change out wall colors in the future.

It looks like readers are also providing numerous other excellent suggestions! Thank you, Renee, for putting your neck out there to let us pummel you with all these ideas. Good luck — and let us know what you ultimately decide to do! Your house looks like a real beauty!


  1. Lizzy says:

    I have two houses with midcentury kitchens. Both have natural wood cabinets. both tend to be dark. At Granny’s, we bumped up the lighting every way possible. It worked miracles. This kitchen needs that! And the floor was replaced in the Seventies, from black and white checks to Screaming yellow Armstring vinyl. It works. And really helps.

    At my place in the city, I have an all original, Smithsonian ready kitchen. It’s all wood cabinets, dark, and already that butter yellow. It’s awful. Go brighter. Aqua is great in kitchens with wood cause it plays on the Renaissance painting palette of burnt Sienna and Cerulean blue. It won’t be cold, cause you’ll bring in warm lighting. Not all bleus are cold and aqua id supposed to have a certain sunniness. Like a swimming pool. Any color you want will work, just not gray, and go a bit bolder then you think. I’ve been doing paint swatches in mine…

    Nixing that cabinet would fix a lot too. More daylight.

  2. Renee says:

    Wow, all these comments have been amazing. This is what I have decided so far. I am going to keep the cabinets as they are and clean them with Bona, per the suggestion of one person here. I have purchased enough backplates and chrome knobs for all the cabinets. I am going to have a cabinet maker put sliding glass doors into the cabinet that I was considering removing. I have already purchased a new old kitchen light by John Virden to replace the current ceiling fixture. and I have several retro patterns from Spoonflower that I am considering for curtains. I am going to go with a lime green/aqua/orange color theme.I have started a Pinterest board for my kitchen “Re-imagining my Retro Kitchen” under my name “Renee Yancy” to keep track of all my ideas. I just want to thank everyone for their input. I am totally excited now to update my 1956 kitchen!

    1. pam kueber says:

      Sounds great! Send us pics when your redecorating is complete! Regarding fabrics: Also see our category Decorating/Window Treatments for other companies that may have fabrics you like.

    2. Joe Felice says:

      Wow! Aqua, lime and orange–bold, but beautiful. We all need not forget that, above all else, the ’50s were a time of experimenting and breaking the mold. That is how we got so many of the wonderful ideas, designs and products that we did. People felt free to go where ever their imaginations would take them, and we still need to have that youthful exuberance! It must have been liberating to have been a designer at that time, and just look how many wonderful ones there were!

    3. meb says:

      Alas, I went to look for your account & folder five years on, Renee, and it’s not on Pinterest that I can see. Hope you’re enjoying your kitchen. ?

  3. sandy midmodmad says:

    I adore the wood grain and the tone of those cabinets! Please do not paint them. Adding either chrome knobs with a 50s vibe, or a clear glass or plastic flecked with colour, will add sparkle and contrast to the wood. Here are some other suggestions:
    1) Get rid of all the bulwarks above the cabinets. They are unnecessary, heavy, and weigh your kitchen down.
    2) Install lighting above the bulwarks to wash the ceiling with light. This will add ambience as well as light.
    3) I actually really enjoy the shape and functionality of U-shaped kitchens, as well as the bit of separation from the dining space. Instead of completely eliminating those cupboards, I suggest having a carpenter cut them down so they have a more horizontal axis, keep the wood sides, top & bottom, and install sliding glass doors on the front and back. Install by hanging from the ceiling with strong metal rods or cable. This would look similar to 50s bookcases. It would also allow you to display your favourite 50s dishware, cocktail glasses, etc. And you would have access to these glasses and dishware from both the kitchen area and dining area. The glass fronts and back would let in a lot more light, and the space on top of the now horizontal (rather than vertical) cabinets also lets in light and joins both spaces together.
    4) a. The black appliances really have to go. The fridge sticks out and doesn’t seem to fit. If you can get a fridge that looks like it is built in or better proportioned to your space, it would make a world of difference. b. If you don’t want to replace all appliances at once, I have seen stick-on decals at Home Depot for dishwashers and refrigerators, in several nice patterns. They have at least 6 different decal designs, and some of them are quite cool. (My sister’s kitchen had way too much white, so we found a really nice New York outdoor scene with the foreground being an outdoor cafe, in mostly shades of greys and blacks with red accents in the foreground. Accent colours such as a red toaster, a wall print of a telephone booth with reds (and greys) and a large red paper flower on the wall play up on these red accents.)
    c. White appliances would be far better than your current black. But you might also want to check out a few places that specialize in retro appliances. Some people already mentioned Big Chill. The Northstar line of Elmira Stoveworks is another place, and I actually prefer their designs to Big Chill. Both companies have great colours such as aqua, a pretty mint green, buttercream yellow and loads of other colours.
    5) a. I concur with many who say to paint all or some of the walls aqua. But here’s why: I have a background in fine art and graphic design. Your cabinets have a lovely, distinctive orange tone. The aqua would be a complementary colour to this orange, and complementary colours are opposites on the colour wheel and tend to add “zing” and bring out the other colour. If you don’t want your room to look drab, though, given the darkness of the space and the direction the windows face, I would strongly recommend going with a pure hue of aqua rather than a muted (or greyed down) tone. Pure hues are much cheerier. Benjamin Moore paint chips have a line called something like “pure colours” (I might not quite have the name right, but if you ask, they will understand what you are looking for). I would choose your colour from these chips. We used a strong, pure hue of aqua for my sister’s 50s kitchen in her last house, and it made a huge difference. She originally followed the advice of the painter when her kitchen was redone, and he chose this muted sage-green tone, and my sister always felt this was so drab and dingy.
    b. I would paint only ONE of the walls aqua (probably the back wall: it should be a wall on both sides of the kitchen) and the rest of the walls a nice, bright white with a hint of blue. The accessories could either be in the aqua or another accent colour such as, say, buttercream yellow or tomato-red.
    6) Consider adding on to the back of the counter i.e. extending it a wee bit, with brackets underneath. This way, you could fit 2 or 3 barstool there and add to the functionality of the space.
    7) The glass wall-mounted cabinet across from the table and chairs is wrong for the space. Unmount and install someplace else. For that matter, the table and chairs don’t work in this space, nor does the stained glass pendant suspended from chains (nor does that give you the best light). I can’t find the retro-style pendant on Ikea’s site, but here is another light from Ikea that could work:
    If you really need some shelving here, I suggest an open shelving look, perhaps using the low-cost Ikea lack shelves.
    8) Find a print or photograph that you love, large-scale and not just 8 x 10. It could be anything: e.g. an outdoor scene from Greece, with the red clay vessels against the whitewashed homes along the aqua beaches. Or Mexico. Or Paris. DO NOT FRAME IT as you typically would: instead, block-mount it. This protects the surface of the print with a matte or gloss finish, and kind of laminates it onto a hard backing. No glass or matte or frame needed. It is much cheaper than traditional framing, and looks way more modern.

  4. Nancy C says:

    My last house, built in ’49 had a low cabinet over peninsula. A great carpenter shortened the cabinet so I could see straight under it and put glass doors on both sides of the now shortened cabinet. It made a huge difference and let in the daylight from the table area.

    I know this sounds odd, but I also put a 4-light, 4 foot long fluorescent fixture in the center of the kitchen ceiling. It actually looked “right” and was basically not noticeable. I really, really needed the light. (Used the cool white bulbs.) Also I put a vintage table lamp on the countertop for extra light.

  5. JKM says:

    We have a similar layout in our 1970s home and removed the upper cabinets over our peninsula shortly after we bought the house 20 years ago. It was the best decision we ever made and immediately upon removal both rooms (kitchen and breakfast room) seemed twice as large and bright.

  6. Keith Brown says:

    Check with a cabinet maker about the possibility of adding doors to the nook side of the cabinet. With those doors as well as the ones on the kitchen side having glass inserts so that light can pass through. Also the doors would allow for access to plates & such for when setting up the table for dinner. Lighting the inside with led lighting to “show off” your stuff if you so desire.

    1. Victoria says:

      That’s kind of how ours are set up; someone added glazing to the doors facing the kitchen, the other side was always a sliding glass door.

  7. Joe Felice says:

    There is no rule that says you can paint only-one color. Most have suggested either buttercup yellow or aqua. Why not both? They were both popular in 1956, and they go well together.

    1. Carol says:

      What an awesome idea! Jadeite and butter yellow. Find an old barkcloth print or search Ebay for textiles 30’s – 60’s. It is shocking what great kitchen textiles you will find. Both of these colors are warm and would work very well in a northfacing room. Lighting is key in this room. Refinish the cabints to the more original lighter tone. Use Kate’s idea for the new hardware. KEEP THE FLOOR! That is, if it’s in good shape. You like gray, so keep the countertops too. Tile reflects alot of light , so tile the whole backsplash. Your kitchen will look awesome. Good luck.

  8. Kathy says:

    Would it be possible to take the doors and back off of the cabinet and retrofit to make open shelves or a plate rack. Then you won’t have to deal with as many construction issues, and a back for the corner cabinet could be fabricated.

  9. Valerie says:

    I agree absolutely with the folks who said add more lighting – fixtures with more bulbs, etc. In addition, under cabinet lighting might help. While many people may not consider this authentic mc, I remember my grandmother had a small fluorescent fixture under her cabinets in the area where she did mixing and baking stuff. This was in a house built in the late 1960’s.

    On wall color, I would caution you against anything with gray or blue tones. I love blue, and aqua is a fabulous mc color. However, my experience has been that grays and blues absolutely suck light out of a room. More than any other color! You can’t tell this from a small sample, either. Even a gray-toned beige will do it. For a room facing north/northeast, your light quality is already going to be bluer than a south-facing room. A pale buttery yellow is a very traditional color for a kitchen and would really maximize your light. I also second the shiny chrome hardware idea!

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