From cabinets and flooring to tile, lighting, and hardware, it’s the details that usher a white kitchen into the right decade. Keep in mind that white hasn’t always meant bright white, either.
colonial revival kitchen

Spare and white down to stoneware dishes, this kitchen for a Colonial Revival house is softened by the textures of beadboard and tile, by veined stone countertops and by wood flooring.

Is anybody else sick to death of all-white kitchens? I don’t mean cottage kitchens, or the bungalow era’s cream, but rather those oversize designer “laboratories” with a pickled or limestone floor, white tile, white cabinets, white trim, a white island, white marble, and white dishware. 

The look is expensive, clinical, hard to take care of, and not particularly historical. And today’s all-white kitchen is so pervasive it runs the risk of becoming dated too soon. 

If you want a white kitchen—and there’s precedent for that in almost every era—learn to distinguish the subtleties that will make it fit into your particular old house. Then add some color!

Many a kitchen palette has been based on Glenwood’s unique eggshell-and-green stoves. This refurbished model is from Good Time Stove.

Many a kitchen palette has been based on Glenwood’s unique eggshell-and-green stoves. This refurbished model is from Good Time Stove.

The white kitchen sounds like a classic, but its recent designer iteration is often impractical in use, and probably won’t age well in an older house. If the kitchen is visible from restored rooms, it’s even more important that it be compatible. A modern white kitchen can be made to work. In architect John Murray’s kitchen for a rural 19th-century house, for example, bright white cabinets are whitewash-fresh, balanced by the wide-plank wood floor with its heavy patina. A center table, painted Windsor chairs, and blinds at the windows keep the room country-informal rather than urban. The satin nickel finish of the cabinet hardware was not chosen to suggest a period, Murray says, but it is perfect here, warmer than chrome but not as fussy as brass or trendy as dark bronze. Details matter.

Certain materials and well-chosen lighting and hardware push design in the direction of an era, a style, or a region. Using salvage or antiques does, too. Added color can be neutral and subtle: an oak floor or stone countertop, some tile, a stained-glass window sash. If walls and perimeter cabinets are white, the island might be clear-finished hardwood or painted a different color, adding dimension to the room.

If a white kitchen is the goal, wallpaper may seem over the top. It’s less so if used as a frieze or border, on a wall in a breakfast nook, or behind pantry shelves. Wallpaper instantly suggests a time period or decorating style.

white kitchen booth

With its built-in breakfast nook, this revival kitchen is perfect for a bungalow. True to period, it’s painted a creamy, warm white. A second tint in celery green ties the white to dark accents including period lighting.

Appliances from companies including Elmira Stove Works and Big Chill come in Retro styles and colors, if you want to push a white kitchen gently toward mid-century. European enameled stoves by Aga, Lacanche, and La Cornue add color and sophistication, offering hues from the dark classic British Racing Green to Terracotta, as well as off-whites and metallics.

Take inspiration from the past. Leaf through old magazines and periodicals of your era, which are sold at junk stores, antiquarian bookstores, and on eBay. Note advertisements as well as features. You may want to ignore the extremes, but you’ll get a feel for what’s specific to an era. Also refer to colors in the platters and dishware of a particular decade.

Finally: Most old-house owners don’t want a replica kitchen, they want a modern, period- inspired kitchen. You can have white cabinets and stainless-steel appliances, as long as you otherwise keep it real. Watch the scale of the room compared to the rest of the house. Rather than a huge kitchen, consider one of more modest size with a separate breakfast room or pantry. Try to keep the original floor plan, looking for clues like an old chimney and plumbing holes in the subfloor. Consider using a center table rather than a plumbed island.

Elmira Stove Works Cayenne Red range

A range by Elmira Stove Works in Cayenne Red is the centerpiece of a creamy farmhouse-style kitchen.

Use materials that were common when your house was built, or for the period you’re suggesting in the kitchen. Study your era’s cabinets or have them designed and built by a company that specializes in period kitchens. Allow for several different countertop surfaces: wood with stone, laminate with butcher block. It’s practical and more historical.

Combine period lighting fixtures with invisible indirect lighting (in a cove, behind a baffle, under cabinets). Obsess over the details, yet keep them simple—more pantry than parlor. 

open pantry with white cabinets

 In an open pantry with white cabinets, green dinnerware stands out against back walls painted mahogany brown.

When White Was Not One Color

When we read about kitchens done in white enamel, we imagine today’s bright white with the semi-gloss finish of oil paint. But the definition of “white” has always been contextual, affected by available pigments and the current taste. Advocates for white paint might have meant cream, buttermilk yellow, old ivory, pale coffee, or an undertone of pink or grey—in both the Victorian and Arts & Crafts eras. Bright, cool white was used in bathrooms.

A Product of Place & Time

A drawback of today’s all-white kitchens is their sameness. Few such renovations evoke the style and era of the house, much less materials and motifs of the region. Yet even a frankly modern kitchen may be better anchored to the house with a nod toward the specifics of time and place. On these pages, kitchens are defined by rounded shelves, a checkerboard floor, a pattern in tile, or the use of color in a particular hue and saturation.

19th-century farmhouse kitchen

For his own family’s 19th-century farmhouse, architect John Murray chose bright white for cabinets and trim, warmed by English stone countertops and the old wide-board wood floor.

Black & White is Historic

When you consider white tiles and black stoves, or soapstone with ivory paint, or black and white marbled linoleum with porcelain-enameled sinks, it’s clear that b&w is a standby. With variations, it works in kitchen styles farmhouse to neoclassical and modern. Black and white is classic, a look that can be utterly plain or as fancy as a tuxedo. Especially in large kitchens, it’s more grounded than all-white.

Lacanche Cormatin stove

 Lacanche’s petite ‘Cormatin’ range comes in Provence Yellow and 27 other colors, including black and white: frenchranges.com

Adding Color

One reason why white kitchens are so popular is that they provide a calm, monochromatic background for a heavily used room populated with a changing palette from food, cooking tools, and serving ware. Color is inherent. Push it in the right direction. You might design your (mostly) white kitchen around collectibles, period wallpaper, painted furniture, or antiques. Wood is a color, too, whether it shows up as a pumpkin-pine floor or a walnut countertop. To provide depth in the room, consider color in an appropriate backsplash. A black range conjures up the cast-iron stoves of the 19th and early 20th centuries; white stoves have been with us since the 1930s, and colorful enameled ranges from Europe become the centerpiece.  

Help for inspired kitchens at oldhouseonline.com/old-house-directory/kitchen-products

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