Originally published in STIR®



Designers use clever color palettes to cook up some juicy designs for residential and commercial kitchens.

Whether you’re watching chefs in action through a restaurant’s open kitchen or cooking in your own kitchen, color plays an important, and sometimes unexpected, role in this space.

Savory Home Kitchens

On the residential side, color-loving homeowners tend to jump headfirst into a vibrant kitchen design, but the color-shy crowd may take a bit more convincing. “They’re afraid of making a mistake,” says Peter Salerno, CMKBD, of Peter Salerno, Inc., in Wyckoff, N.J. He encourages clients to integrate color by painting a wall — an easy task with an easy fix if the hue is less than desirable. “It’s not like they’ve invested $20,000 or $40,000 in cabinetry and it’s the wrong color. I tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid of using a bold paint color because it could really change the dynamics of your kitchen.”

“Most clients prefer off-white or Navajo white for trim and wall color,” Salerno says. “It’s not exciting, but it’s a natural color. They think by choosing a natural color, everything will go with it. They don’t understand that if they used a beautiful blue or deep green or red with burgundy [undertones] that it would really make the room. When they see examples of it, they become believers.”

To that end, Salerno redesigned his showroom to include colors such as lavender, deep royal blue, celery, and mint green — and not a hint of white. “People look at the space and say, ‘Wow, that works,’” he says. “’I never would have thought of using that, but it’s so beautiful.’”

Color in residential kitchens comes from many sources: tiles, cabinets, counters, floors and, of course, walls. “I would say the easiest way to incorporate color is in the tile,” says Christine Nelson of Christine Nelson Design in Minneapolis, who writes a blog dedicated to color. “The backsplash can especially tie all the colors of the room together into a cohesive unit. The colors of the tile backsplash can dictate the wall color, too.”

As Nelson sees it, no color in the kitchen is off-limits. In one project, she transformed a dated kitchen featuring dark woodwork, orange counters and a dropped ceiling into an open, well-lit space that integrates a light blue-green into the upper cabinets, wall paint and tile. In addition, a red-burgundy accent in the tile plays against a slight pinkish undertone in the countertop. “There are always ways to find the perfect shade to complement the space,” she notes. “Sometimes the punch of color gets added with artwork and accessories for the room.”

Not every homeowner wants to blaze a color trail in their kitchen, however. After all, a soft color palette is still a color palette. “I always ask the client what ‘feeling’ they want to have in their kitchens,” says Yuko Matsumoto, CKD, CBD, of Altera Design & Remodeling in Walnut Creek, Calif. “Most of my clients like ‘soothing’ feelings for their kitchens, which results in less colorful designs. I think using more colors in the kitchen is a real challenge and requires a more daring type of client.”

Still, Matsumoto tries to use one vivid accent color in the kitchen if possible because it “gives the kitchen more character and personality.” In a contemporary white kitchen, for instance, the designer used a bright sky-blue backsplash and orange pendant lights. “Blue and orange are complementary colors, so this combination worked very well.”

With many of today’s remodeled and new homes embracing an open floor plan, designers take extra care to ensure that a kitchen’s color palette correlates with the adjoining dining area and living or great room.

“This is a difficult challenge because we always address the color of that adjoining room, and usually there is no way to start and stop a new color,” Nelson says. “So the color of the kitchen has to work in that space also, and that often means we have to incorporate the colors of the furniture into the total picture.”

Pulling together a successful color palette in the kitchen requires homeowner education and seeing sample colors in action. “I start with the color of the wood trim, wood floors and cabinet colors and educate the client to seeing ‘warmness,’ ‘coolness’ and ‘gray undertones,’ and then we search for tones that blend (not match) with all the wood tones,” says Nelson of her design process. “These differences can be very subtle, and they need to be examined in all lighting situations and in a bigger swatch.”

As such, Nelson prefers the Sherwin-Williams large-size color samples. “I get several of each color we’re  interested in and move them all over the room during different times of the day. Once we have established several colors that might work, I get sample paint to paint on all the walls for further viewing.”

Show Kitchens Serve Up Color

As the open or “show” kitchen has evolved at restaurants during the past decade or two, so too has the use of color in these spaces. Open kitchens generally fall into two categories. The first is the “stainless steel, hyper-clean version where the only color is the food,” says Griz Dwight, principal and owner of GrizForm Design Architects in Washington, D.C. “All other materials are metallic or white. This is how kitchens tend to be when they’re not exposed, and they can be bright, cold and impersonal. It does make the color of the food stand out, but in general, the amount of color is quite minimal.”

The second type of kitchen is the one designed to be part of the restaurant. Colors and materials seamlessly transition from the dining rooms to the kitchen. “These kitchens tend to be warmer in color and more personal, and the cooking relates more closely to the eating,” says Dwight.

Restaurant owners typically are open to the idea of bold color use in open kitchens, says Cass Calder Smith, principal of CCS Architecture in San Francisco and New York. “They see it as more residential-looking when there’s color. When it’s all stainless steel, it looks like just another commercial kitchen. We’re referential in colors to where food might be from. It’s more colorful in general and more fun to look at.”

In a few instances, Smith has relied on regional influences to inform an open kitchen’s design. At Italian restaurant Rose Pistola in San Francisco, Smith painted the stove hood yellow and an island/cooking station in what he calls a “Ralph Lauren blue” to reference the coastal resorts, yachts and sports cars familiar to Italy. A menagerie of bricks, mosaic tile, and steel completes the look. Meanwhile, at SWB in Scottsdale, Ariz., multicolor tile takes its cues from the Southwest.

When selecting colors for an open kitchen, Dwight says his firm takes into consideration the colors from the dining room. “Do we want the kitchen to blend in and seem like part of the dining room? Do we want it to pop out as something different?” At Estadio restaurant in D.C, for example, Dwight used a burnt red tile for the backsplash to make the kitchen blend into the restaurant. “We wanted it to seem as if the chef was at your table.”

The color palette of a kitchen should convey cleanliness without being antiseptic, says Siobhan Barry, partner with New York City-based ICRAVE. “It should be bright enough to be seen from across the room, without creating a blinding light.”

Barry also notes that hygiene and health code regulations can restrict the color palette, meaning that light colors are often prominent. For Catch restaurant in New York City, ICRAVE crafted an open kitchen that employed cream colors in the kitchen area and a mosaic of green, blue and earth-toned tiles in the seating area. “The dramatic juxtaposition between the contrasting hues, textures and lighting served to  ‘frame’ the chefs and make them stand out,” says Barry.

Thanks to color, kitchens — both commercial and residential — can go from functional to fantastic.

photo by Douglas Johnson Photography