You’ve made the big, agonizing decisions for your kitchen: the cabinets and countertops, the appliances and island. But you’re not quite done yet . . . . There are still many details that need to be chosen, from faucets and hardware to backsplash and lighting. Before you get overwhelmed, the good news is that these are often the fun elements to select—the ones that give your kitchen personality. Just as a distinctive piece of jewelry or a beautiful scarf can take an outfit from so-so to eye-catching, a few great design details can set your kitchen apart and make it feel polished, finished, and a little more special. We interviewed some top kitchen bloggers and designers, to get their advice on choosing the all-important finishing touches. Their collective wisdom is organized by category below. And even if you’re not renovating or building a kitchen from scratch, these are elements that can easily (and often inexpensively) be changed out to update and improve the look of your space.
First Things First
“All rooms should have a narrative that ties them together,” advises Paul Anater, a kitchen designer in St. Petersburg, Florida, and author of the blog KitchenandResidentialDesign.com. “If you have an overall concept and style for the room, it makes all the smaller decisions easier. Don’t try to force something you saw in a magazine if it doesn’t fit your kitchen.” As designer Kelly Morisseau, CMKBD, of Walnut Creek, California, points out, “Not all products work well with each other. Each choice has a domino effect. For example, handmade tiles are quite thick, so they can impact how appliances like the cooktop are installed.” Morisseau shares her perspectives on design in her blog, “Kitchen Sync,” at kitchensync.typepad.com. “You don’t want to walk into a kitchen and say, ‘What a gorgeous tile,’ or ‘What a fabulous light,’ ” she adds. “You want to say, ‘What a gorgeous kitchen!’ Stick to one or at most two focal points, such as a backsplash tile or dramatic light fixture. In traditional kitchens you can get away with more detail. In a modern kitchen, you want to keep the details quieter and sleeker.”
That said, even the smallest detail can sometimes be a starting point and inspiration for the entire room. “I’ve designed kitchens around one or two pieces of tile,” says Morisseau. From there, “we chose colors and materials that worked with those tiles, which became a focal point in the backsplash.” In one case, a client’s pet rabbits even provided a spark of imagination: “We ended up putting tiny rabbit handles on some of the cabinet doors,” she says. For a family that loved the beach, tiles with subtle, stylized seashell and wave designs in wheat tones went onto the backsplash and fireplace. “The homeowner had been told that seashell tiles were only for the bathroom! A lot of people get caught up in the idea that everything has to be done for resale. If you’re going to stay in your home more than four or five years, make it for yourself!”
The 8 Things You Can’t Forget
Lighting can be an inexpensive way to add a lot of punch to a kitchen,” says designer Cheryl Kees Clendenon of Pensacola, Florida, who blogs at KitchenDetailsandDesign.com. “A beautiful fixture over an island can make all the difference in a room. But lighting is often misunderstood—even by designers.”
Accent lighting can highlight a focal point, such as a collection of pottery, or the interior of glass-fronted cabinets. Designer Sarah Lloyd in Los Altos, California, points out that if you’re going to light glass-front cabinets, it’s best to use glass shelves or sash shelves (glass with a wood front), so that the light flows through the whole cabinet.
Pendant lamps over an island or a dining table, can provide an important decorative element, whether it be hand-blown Murano glass shades that provide a hit of color, or a dramatic wrought-iron lantern or chandelier over a table. Lighting can be a good place to try something a bit more modern.
In California, regulations now require that at least 50% of the wattage comes from fluorescent or energy-efficient lighting, though LED lighting is starting to provide more stylish options. “Some of the LED pendants use only 5-6 watt bulbs, so the energy savings are tremendous,” notes Morisseau.
Sarah Lloyd, author of the blog KitchenClarity.com, points out that light switches, particularly in a tile backsplash, are an important detail to consider as well. “We often place outlets closer to the countertop, and turn them horizontally, so they don’t disrupt the design of an accent or linear tile,” she says. “Electricians tend to automatically place them at 42 inches from the floor, which falls right in the middle of the backsplash. If you specify where they should be placed ahead of time, they’ll look much less intrusive.”
Drawer pulls and cabinet knobs not only help communicate the style of a kitchen, but as one of the elements you touch most often, their quality and feel in the hand are essential.
There’s no rule that says all knobs or even all the metals must match. “I always tell new clients that there are no rules, as long as it looks like you’ve done it on purpose,” says Paul Anater. “We start with function, and make up logical rules for the room as we go. For example, anything with a hinge and a door might get a knob, and anything that pulls out gets a handle. If a drawer is wider than 24 inches, then it gets two handles or cup pulls. These should coordinate but they don’t have to match.”
“You don’t have to match the metal of your cabinet hardware to your faucet,” says Cheryl Kees Clendenon; “you should match it to the finish on the cabinets. For example, we’ve mixed pewter hardware on off-white cabinets with black iron pulls on a green-painted island.”
“Designers talk about hardware being the jewelry of a kitchen, but it also has to be functional,” reminds Kelly Morisseau. “Watch out for sharp edges and corners that might pull on clothing, or drawer pulls that are so shallow you can’t fit a large hand in them. I’ve also seen square or oval pulls that won’t stay in place. It’s frustrating if you have to constantly adjust them.”
3. Faucets and Sinks
A bamboo sink, a farm sink carved from a large piece of stone, or even a glass sink can throw in an unexpected curve that sparks conversation and makes the kitchen a little more interesting,” says Ann Porter.
“You should buy the best sink you can afford, because it’s very difficult to change your sink without changing out the entire countertop [if it’s been cut out for an undermount sink], so you’ll be living with it for a long time,” points out Clendenon. “Thin metal will get dented easily and make more noise. Opt for sturdy 18-gauge stainless steel or a solid composite sink that matches your countertops. I like a deep single bowl that can handle large pots and pans; you can add a strainer for more delicate items. The double sinks with a little bowl for the garbage disposal don’t make practical sense to me.”
Faucets are another essential where you shouldn’t skimp. “Faucets are one element where price is closely related to quality,” says Paul Anater. “A $150 faucet is one you will replace in two years. A $500 faucet is a once-in-a-lifetime purchase. Choose a faucet in a showroom where you can touch them and try them out, and stick to brands with a good reputation.” A well-designed faucet has an almost sculptural quality. Clendenon especially likes Brizo faucets because they have a magnet that brings the pull-out spray back into place.
4. Countertops and Backsplashes
To add interest to your countertops, consider an edge treatment, such as an ogee or a more natural chiseled rock edge. Or, advises designer Lyn Peterson, author of Real Life Kitchens, create a thicker edge on your island for a simple yet dramatic look. “Keep the perimeter countertops the standard ¾ or 1¼ inches, and then laminate the edge of the island countertop to create the illusion of a 2½-inch-thick slab.”
“The options for backsplashes are unlimited,” notes designer Ann Porter, who pens the blog KitchAnn Style at annporter.wordpress.com. “There is an almost infinite range of tiles available, or you can use back-painted glass, which has no grout lines, for a very clean look; metal or plaster. Antique mirror is a finish I’m having fun with right now.”
Kelly Morisseau is using metallic-finished acrylic liner tiles (lightweight tiles painted to look like metals such as oil-rubbed bronze) on the backsplash or as a liner tile set just below the crown molding.
“The backsplash is a great candidate for emphasis,” says Paul Anater. “You can do a mosaic, or glass tile—which doesn’t have to be colorful: There are some stunning neutral glass tiles for walls. If you do opt for a bright backsplash, it should be the only colorful element, or else it will create too much ‘noise’ in the room.” For a very clean, seamless look, consider continuing the countertop material vertically as a backsplash.
While many designers like the idea of using some glass-fronted cabinets or open shelves to break up an expanse of upper cabinets, they also point out that it can be difficult to keep open storage as perfectly styled as it looks in magazines. One solution: Choose glass doors that aren’t crystal clear, but rather use glass that is reeded, seeded, feathered, or obscured in some way. “There are probably 100 different glass inserts you can use in cabinet doors,” says Cheryl Kees Clendenon. That way you can enjoy the open and airy effect without needing to channel your inner stylist every time you unload the dishwasher.
Another option to add interest: Mix up the planes—choose cabinets of different depths, or add some horizontally hinged doors in place of some vertical ones, suggests Paul Anater. Kelly Morisseau has added wood corbels beneath cabinetry to add detail.
“Open shelving is great,” believes Ann Porter. “It creates a place where you can add your own personal touch with pottery or china you’ve collected or inherited.”
A furniture leg or foot on your island or sink cabinet can add depth and detail to base cabinetry. Lyn Peterson suggests adding “a furniture base—like the base of a buffet or dresser, with a deep piece of molding—on three sides (not the prep/working side) of your island. It creates a handsome finish.”
6. Floors and Ceilings
“If ceilings are said to be ‘the fifth wall,’ floors are the sixth wall, and shouldn’t be ignored,” says Kelly Morisseau. “I’ve laid a wood floor on a 22-degree angle in a galley kitchen to make it look larger, and I love wood inlay borders and tile “rugs,” which you often see in 1920s and ’30s homes. Here in California, where there is a lot of Spanish and Mediterranean influence, we often use terra cotta floor tiles, with brightly colored 1” x 1” ‘dots’ at the corners.”
“I’m a big fan of area rugs,” says Paul Anater, “because floors are forever. Cutting in a border pattern on the floor may not look good in ten years, but you can easily change out a rug on top of a wood or travertine floor.”
“The most overlooked area in a kitchen is the ceiling,” notes Ann Porter. “A room with a ceiling treatment looks the most finished to me, whether it has beams; added texture through grasscloth; a little bit of color, or even just a high-gloss paint finish, which can make a room without much natural light appear brighter and more lively.”
“It takes some bravery to paint the walls a different color, but it really can make the whole room pop,” says Morisseau. “If the client has a piece of art they love, I’ll see what colors I can pull from it that will work with the room, whether it’s a soft blue or deep okra.” Paint is certainly one of the least expensive ways to make a big impact in the kitchen.
8. Artwork and Collections
“I love to hang art in kitchens,” says Paul Anater. “It doesn’t have to be expensive—if it helps tell the story of the people who live there, it offers a tremendous avenue for self-expression and personalization. Instead of hanging a mass-market plaque that says ‘Cappuccino,’ go to a community art fair and get to know a local artist whose work you like. Or frame your children’s artwork or hang a gallery of black-and-white family or vacation photographs.”
“I really like it if we can leave some empty space in the room, where clients can hang a piece of art or a beautiful clock,” says Sarah Lloyd. “It’s often nice to add open shelves in the dining area of the kitchen for collections of things you actually use, like mid-century teacups. It’s your kitchen—let it reflect your personality!”