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. lisa in Seattle says:

    Don’t forget if you want to replace the appliances you can probably recoup a little bit by selling the old ones on Craigslist. They look like they are in good condition.

  2. mary w. says:

    My first thought was to have openings cut on the dinette side of those cabinets, and use sliding, ribbed-glass doors on both sides. Very period appropriate, and some soft diffused light will brighten up the space!

    1. lynda says:

      I think the ribbed glass idea is great. Plain glass would be fine too, except it would have to be safety glass. I think sliding glass doors would look just right.

  3. Sam R says:

    Something like this might have been mentioned already, but there are too many comments to wade through right now.

    Playing devil’s advocate, that stretch of wood on the back of the island cabinets is gorgeous. To get more light in that area, I’d go with a different fixture over the table and add something like a C. Jere-style sculpture to the back of the cabinets to keep the look of the wood but break up the slabiness a bit.

    Sam’s Club sells battery-powered LED “puck” lights in six-packs. I’m planning to add them to the underside of the original cabinets in my ’54 kitchen to put more working light on the counter. Unfortunately my cabinets have been painted white already, and aren’t in the greatest of condition. I wish they had been left alone like yours!

  4. Technicolor says:

    Some may have missed the comment regarding how the cabinets are built up and inside the bulk head . Removing them could become a major job or I would suggest removing them as others have. Since there are only two cabinets, I agree with the glass inserts. As for the appliances, this too is a big commitment depending upon the options for doing so. I’m not even sure if this would work for what others have mentioned. A couple could be wrapped in paper just to visualize the change. A suggestion to tile counter and backsplash, with a tile edge trim. Personally white , but there are so many other color options for keeping the area light. Nothing with strong pattern. Tile would add some texture (bulk) to honor the simplicity of the cabinets. No to painting them, they are wonderful originals in great condition.

  5. Kathy d says:

    I was going to say something similar to Lilly. Why not remove the back side of the peninsula cabinet and have open on both sides along with all the other brilliant ideas.

  6. Jayne says:

    Don’t paint the cabinets. My knotty pine grew on me. Paint them and they’ll be run of the mill. Keep a white or light neutral color and amp up the lighting with under counter and pendant lighting. My two bubble lamps came from Sally Ann, so that is still possible. Go for an orange or orange and avocado tile back splash. Use those colors for accent.

    1. Steve says:

      Sky Lights!That’s what I did in my wood panel, cabinets & wood floor 70’s kitchen.FANTASTIC!Kept all the retro feel with light beaming in.

  7. Alissa says:

    Could the cabinets above the peninsula be converted into shelves open on both sides of the room? Shelves would allow more light from the dining area to enter the kitchen. I also think you could remove those cabinets altogether without violating the spirit of your home. You’d need to consider the amount of storage space you’d lose by doing so, of course. If you have lots of objects stored in those cabinets and nowhere else to put it all, removing them may not be a practical plan.

    I just read your update in the comments and noted you ordered new knobs and handles for the cabinets. I’d suggest updating the hinges as well. I did this with the cabinets in my kitchen, and such a small change made a big difference in how fresh the space looked! Shiny new hinges in the same finish as your new cabinet hardware would also keep the cabinets balanced visually.

    As far as the color conundrum, I understand where you’re coming from with loving color but feeling cornered into going “boring” on the walls to make the most of the light in your space. I believe your kitchen and dining area would benefit from color, but not in-your-face color. Not all mid century homes originally had (or can pull off) in-your-face, bright “atomic” color on the walls, and that’s okay. Although I love bright, saturated colors, 13 years of living in my small, light deprived early 70s prefab ranch has taught me that some spaces are just too lacking in light (especially natural light) to use deep toned shades without causing the space to look small, cramped, or gloomy. I accepted the fact that my house needs lighter walls, and that the bold colors I love can come from decor and accent choices. It took me a long time and many iterations of various paint colors to finally admit I should “lighten up” colorwise on my walls.

    I think a slightly muted aqua would beautifully compliment the lovely color and finish of your kitchen cabinets, while remaining true to the 50s. My kitchen cabinets are about the same color and tone as yours, and I chose a light neutral aqua from Pratt and Lambert Paints called Coos Bay for the walls in my kitchen and dinette. I LOVE it! I find the color confident and good looking, yet grounded and not prone to drawing undue attention to itself–kind of like what many of us look for in a mate. 🙂 It has a bit of retro flair (seems very 40s-50s inspired to me), but also feels modern enough for a home from any era (including my little 70s ranch).

    Good luck with all your decisions! I hope to see an update on the progress of your sweet little kitchen in a future edition of RR. 🙂

  8. mcmeg says:

    We removed the cabinets over our peninsula and it was the best thing we did. It opened the kitchen up to the eating area and let in much-needed light. We painted our cabinets only because some of the doors were in need of repair. We used doors from the cabinets we removed to replace the bad ones. We also had drawers put in some of the lower cabinets. We love the drawers. Check it out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/megan60/sets/72157628895771725/

  9. Joe Felice says:

    I can’t relate. I’d die for a 1956 kitchen! LOL Yes, the cabinet over the breakfast bar is too low, and I’d definitely find some snazzy knobs. Appliances are always a problem in a re-do, because most of us cannot afford to buy ones that mimmick the originals. But those you have simply must go. I would clean and polish the existing wood. It’s simply too valuable to loose. Once you paint and replace the floor and counter top, they’ll look fine. I’m not a big fan of gray. Actually, I’m partial to aqua and turquoise. (Pam’s kitchen makes me drool with envy, and I do so wish she’d quit rubbing it in! LOL) THAT’S IT! It just dawned on me: Pam’s kitchen and Kate’s bathroom!!! Now, where is my damned ’50s MCM ranch?

  10. Lori says:

    I have a fairly similar late 1950’s kitchen (although not as large!), that also has a tendency to be dark. Especially since I have thermal roman shades on my windows to combat the winter & my original aluminum awning windows.

    Color: yellow, particularly a pale, but high intensity shade, will literally bring light to the walls. I’ve ended up painting nearly all my main floor in a lemongrass shade (rides the line between yellow & green), and the amount of light it brings, just by it’s more reflective nature. Paint in a semi-gloss or high gloss paint – this is huge. Putting a gloss on the wall will cause any available light to skim the surface and bounce. Bonus: it’s also easier to clean.

    Lighting: this is actually the biggest issue. I had to give up mid-century style for practicality in my kitchen, and have a modern 4 light adjustable track as my ceiling fixture (not traditional track lighting, but the kind where the lights are on a chrome bar). This has allowed me to direct light at work areas. I also put a drop pendant over my sink to bring light closer to eye level. I have also put led strip lighting from Ikea under my cabinets, and they had a good amount of ambient light.

    Backsplash – if mid-century style is wanted, maybe metal tiles for behind the stovetop?

    Table light – I got lucky and stumbled on a vintage walnut & chrome wonder that holds 5 lights at a vintage/antique shop in my town. Lights like that exist that are new, but throwback in style – the more exposed the bulb, the more light you get.

    Good luck!!

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