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How to create design contrast with two-tone kitchen cabinets

Paint, wood, color. Mix it up!

Wood, white, and blue kitchen cabinets: Mix it all up! Credit: Getty Images / Chiociolla

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Whether decorated with contemporary, clean-lined tables, antique Shaker-style cabinets, or the ever-sought-after subway tile backsplash, the all-white kitchen has been so popular for so long, it’s hard to imagine it ever going out of style.

However, this doesn’t mean other kitchen design trends have been waiting patiently in the wings. It’s 2020, and the moment for two-tone kitchen cabinets has arrived.

Not only has color—from black to blue, gray, and green—come back into the kitchen in a big way, but so have wood finishes.

If you’re entertaining a kitchen renovation, consider mixing and matching color and wood finishes in your cabinetry and other elements to give your kitchen the warmth and character it may be missing.

Allison Moran, design principal at Live Well Interiors in Salem, Mass., sums up her cabinet-finish advice in one word, “Contrast.”

all about contrast
Credit: Getty Images / contrastaddict

Mixing up black and white cabinetry and countertops makes for dynamic contrast.


“When pairing any finishes, there needs to be a play of light and dark,” she notes.

Without that contrast in your kitchen cabinet colors, you can struggle with a décor vision that may blend together, and not in a good way. Moran explains, “If you paint your perimeter cabinets one color, and, say, your island another color, and there is not a distinctive difference, the eye almost bounces back and forth between the two trying to figure out if they are supposed to match.”

A successful execution of kitchen cabinet design, says Moran, “provides two distinct colors or finishes [that] allow your eye a chance for two different moments of rest and reflection.”

Play with color when painting kitchen cabinets

color palette
Credit: Benjamin Moore / Sherwin Williams / Behr

From top left, gray, blue, and green tones like Benjamin Moore's Hale Navy, Sherwin William's Oyster Bay, Benjamin Moore's Van Deusen Blue, and Behr's Cabbage Leaf, are popular for kitchen cabinets.

If you’re ready to stray from the safety of the all-white kitchen, but you’re reluctant to make too big a splash with a bold color, you can achieve a nice, classic look by pairing white kitchen cabinets with a dark- or black-painted or stained island.

In addition to offering an appealing tonal contrast, the deeper hue of the kitchen island grounds it as a focal point of the room and gives it the pulled-together look of a piece of furniture.

As for kitchen cabinet colors, there are a few on an upward trajectory. Blues, such as Benjamin Moore’s Hale Navy and Van Deusen Blue, are favorites, especially in coastal kitchens. Additionally, green and gray kitchen cabinets have recently been coming into favor, in hues such as Sherwin Williams’ Oyster Bay, Behr’s Cabbage Leaf, and Farrow & Ball’s Skimming Stone.

Like Moran, Chicago-based interior architect Suzanne Lovell is also a fan of contrast. Recently, she transformed an outdated all-beige kitchen in a Tudor-style home into a clean, modern space with a classic appeal using a black and white palette.

Lovell created contrast using white kitchen cabinets with black granite countertops to echo in reverse the white marble top and black cabinetry of the central kitchen island.

But, not every kitchen features an island, of course. Instead, taking a two-tone kitchen cabinet approach by pairing two painted finishes on perimeter cabinetry is another option.

In most cases, professionals recommend using white or a light shade for upper cabinets, and then going darker on the lower ones. This arrangement of tones draws the eye up to the brighter hue and can actually give the illusion that your kitchen is bigger than it is.

Wood kitchen cabinets

light on top
Credit: Getty Images / asbe

Keep colors darker lower and lighter above to give the impression your kitchen is larger than it really is.

If you’d rather eschew painted finishes, you’re in luck. Kitchen cabinets made of wood—oak, maple, hickory, cherry, birch, ash, pine, and more—are back in style, too, whether it’s due to the modern farmhouse trend, a desire to bring the outside in, or comfort-seeking during the pandemic.

Custom craftsman David Beaulieu of Beaulieu Cabinetry in Plaistow, N.H., says, “There is nothing like the warmth and character of wood that makes a space truly special.”

Wood is also incredibly versatile when it comes to design. “The diversity of woods and what can be done is almost limitless,” says Beaulieu. “Wood grains, textures, even milling the lumber to create different grain variation patterns, like rift-sawn or quarter-sawn lumber, are all to be considered when incorporating solid wood or wood veneers into a design.”

How much or how little wood you add depends on a host of factors. If, for example, your kitchen doesn’t have wood floors, you may want to add a bit of natural wood tone to keep it from feeling cold. Or, if texture is an important part of your aesthetic, the grain patterns in wood are satisfying, especially in conjunction with natural stone.

Beaulieu adds, “Stains and semi-opaque finishes can be used to further manipulate the final selected color or pattern.”

Kitchen designer Julie Lyons, co-owner and designer at The Design Studio south of Boston, says, “Wood grain is becoming popular for perimeter cabinetry as well as for [kitchen] islands.”

In her own kitchen, which features open shelving in place of upper cabinets, Lyons opted for plain sawn white oak perimeter cabinets in a Woodmode stain called Matte Storm Cloud and an island of the same wood in a lighter stain called Matte Shale.

Lyons has other suggestions for kitchen cabinet ideas, too. “Soft blues and teal grays with walnut is really beautiful,” she says, adding that she combined kitchen cabinets in a very soft sandy color with a cherry wood bar for a recent project and the result was stunning.

If your kitchen boasts dated wood cabinets but you don’t have the time, energy, or budget for a kitchen renovation, a DIY project is absolutely doable.

For a high-end look for less, one option is to remove the wood kitchen cabinets’ old finish, sand them down, and then apply a new stain.

Minwax senior color and design expert Sue Kim says, “Staining wood to bring out the texture and grain patterns beautifies and elevates the wood.”

And your options are almost unlimited, suggests Kim, referring to the company’s line of water-based stain in more than 200 colors. In March 2020, Minwax introduced its Design Series of wood finishes and special effects waxes created specifically for DIYers who want to contemporize home décor with new on-trend looks.

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