Love him, hate his kitchen

Kitchen dilemmas appear to be quite popular these days. This reader design dilemma comes from Erin in Virginia with an itsy bitsy galley kitchen (only 32” from the handle on the oven door to the opposite counter top!) For this challenge, I enlisted the help of Susan Serra, a professional kitchen designer and fellow blogger, to add her thoughts.
"I am at my wits' end with this kitchen. Believe it or not, I have done a lot of kitchen renovating since I moved into my boyfriend's bachelor pad two years ago. I still find the room claustrophobic and unpleasant, but it was a tremendous help to remove the tacky wooden paneling (!) and replace the horrific light fixtures. Now, six ugly paint samples later, I am at a loss as to how to paint this thing. The cabinets are SO dark and outdated that they really should be painted, I suppose, but there are so many of them and it'll be tough to get a smooth finish on those beveled doors.

Is there any way to make this room livable by choosing a good wall paint color? Above all, I just want to make the place look clean and bright."
Looking towards the front of the kitchen, first from the view of the pantry you see when entering, and then looking back and the front of the kitchen from the back. The dark wood certainly appears to be closing in the space.
These shelves, to the left of the stove, had a door but they had to remove it because if the door was open, the drawers on the opposite wall couldn't be opened! I would hang a nice heavy upholstery fabric across this opening. Maybe something to coordinate with shades across the window above the sink. You can have some fun here, choosing a bright, cheerful pattern to add some character. But Susan warns, "Be careful of too much pattern. In a small kitchen, it's the kiss of death!"
First of all, a word of friendly advice to all who are trying out paint samples on their walls.
DON'T do it! Color is viewed in context, so if you put a light yellow against a stark white wall, it's going to look a lot darker than if you are painting that same yellow on a charcoal gray wall. Additionally, if there is any color on the walls, that will affect how your paint sample appears.

Better to paint a 2x2' board with your paint sample, then you can move it around the room, and hold it up against existing items, like the counter tops, floor, and cabinets. Since those colors will be staying, it's safe to compare your swatches to those elements.
image source
Secondly, I would suggest giving cabinet refinishing a shot. You might even try to find a local paint contractor to do them for you. Get a few quotes- you might be surprised to find some are quite reasonable. They'll apply the paint with a spray gun for a smooth, even surface. Ooh, another good option is to try an auto body detailing shop. I've seen shellacked cabinet faces that are soooo slick. Alternatively, there's no reason why you can't do this project yourself. Yeah, they are challenging, but I've seen it done, and the results are quite nice.

image source
Why not try something fun, like a distressed finish in a lively color? Darker for the bottom cabinets, lighter for the uppers.

But what does Erin like? Inspiration images are always really useful when you are trying to define your design goals, or communicate your vision to others.
image source
Fresh, clean, wholesome, nurturing, inviting. Sort of country, sort of provincial, but no ridiculous tole painted ducks or cows and no fleur de lis. Kind of like my grandmother’s farmhouse kitchen
image source
I love how light and airy and “green” this kitchen feels, both in terms of the plants used as decoration and the soothing cabin-like feel of the wood. I have a white Aerogarden and I’m happy to get another one—maybe they could be used somehow as decoration like the plants here? Is ivy above the cabinets too cheesy/80s?
Because the kitchen is so cramped already, I would edit, edit, edit, instead of adding elements. The ceiling height is another issue. Since Erin's are not lofty, attention shouldn't be drawn up too much unless the cabinets can be extended to the ceiling somehow (perhaps thick moulding to bridge the gap like below?)

image source
Lovely all-white kitchen. Due to landlord concerns, I’m not sure we can go as far as using open-front cabinet doors, though, even if they’re frosted glass or something. The bead board is a nice touch, but I’m not sure where we’d put it or if it would be practical. Maybe we add simple nickel fixtures to the cabinets?
image source
The open glass uppers would be a great solution, to lighten things up a bit, but if that's not an option, what about removing the doors above altogether? This buttery yellow would look pretty with the yellow undertones of the counter-tops, and certainly brighten things up.
Or remove the uppers and install open floating shelves instead. They would be less heavy than the cabinets.

Susan agrees:
"If you can, remove the cabinet to the right of the window and install shelving across the rear wall, possibly glass shelving to blend in. Again, be careful of clutter, don't put too much on the shelving, even one shelf would be sufficient to equate the storage that is presently in the cabinet.

If you are not keen on shelving, note the cabinets above your hood. Get a few cabinets in that height and put them across the back in a color that matches the countertop and put a few decorative items on top of these cabinets. (The cabinet to the right of the window is assumed to be removed.)"
But, if Erin opts to forgo repainting the cabinets, what can she do?
Dealing with the existing colors in the kitchen, you can see there is a lot going on already. It's easy to accidentally group all wood under the category "brown". But if you look at each material, and examine the undertone, you'll see that this kitchen has three wood colors going on already: reddish brown cabinets, yellowish brown counter-tops, and orangy brown floors. I would say this palette has enough existing warm tones, so we won't add others.

image source
One of the reasons this tight galley kitchen works is the consistency in value and limited color palette. (not to mention really great photographic lighting) There aren't too many colors going on here, and the undertones in everything are similar. When you are dealing with small spaces, it's important to keep extreme contrast down, as this breaks up the space too much, and calls attention to how small it is.

Susan had a similar thought. She says,
"It may sound odd, and I rarely hear of this solution, but, embrace your counter-top color. If you cannot change it, embrace the color AND pick up that color or a color close to it but a bit lighter and use that for your paint. That's right, I'm recommending a color that is quite a bit darker than white. What you want to achieve is a "flow" which will enlarge the space. What you want to eliminate is "choppy." What you then might need is sufficient, or a bit extra, lighting."
image source
Proof? Susan's very own galley kitchen before and after shots; she picked up the counter-top and back-splash color and moved it on to the wall. The "after" is solely through extra lighting, paint and flooring, nothing else. Pretty amazing, right?

Susan adds,
"If you go that route, why not paint very wide stripes, say 12" in height across the back wall that go in a horizontal direction. Perhaps you can add some words, a quote, in paint or vinyl stick on letters, enhancing the horizontal line."
Along those same lines, she also suggests,
"Put molding across the back wall just above the height of the countertop backsplash. Paint the lower half the color of the countertop. Paint the higher section a color that blends with the other walls. You may have to add that lower color and molding around the right doorway, I'm not 100% sure about that, that would have to be an on-site judgment, but it would enhance the horizontal line as you look into the kitchen."
Great ideas!

Shades of colors past. Erin felt the green was too institutional, the yellow too bright, and the peach too blendy with the counter tops and cabinets…. Sort of like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, except nothing was really over the top.

I'm thinking that's where the issue lies- the selected colors are just too pale and timid to balance against the value of the dark cabinets. Light and dark is fine when you are going for contrast, but the intensity of the palette should be the same ballpark.

Susan concurs,"Clean and bright? In my mind, clean does not have to mean "light" it can mean "flow". And bright, to me, relates to ample lighting. A light color, as I'll bet Rachel would agree with, is not always the answer to enlarging a space"
image source
Take, for example, these two options for cheerful paint color with darker cabinets (gray-blue SW Moody Blue or medium green SW Melange Green)

Some parting thoughts by Susan, for those who are doing larger renovations:
"I will assume the flooring cannot be changed, but others should note that the lines of the flooring enhance the galley feel. A different, or non-directional type of flooring is a much better option."
Phew! That turned into quite a lengthy, packed post. Now I hand things over to you all. What would you suggest for Erin's kitchen? Let's help her out here!

Special thanks to Susan Serra for her insightful, creative ideas.