They don’t make ‘em like they used to. Today, the popular notion of a “dream kitchen” includes an an all-white color palette, a suite of stainless steel appliances, and granite countertops polished to a glimmering sheen. In years past, however, such a design would most likely have struck homeowners as cold, antiseptic, and uninviting. Indeed, kitchen design philosophy has changed a great deal over the decades. Some of us are old enough to remember, for example, that kitchens used to be colorful! From the flooring to the countertops and curtains, everything seemed to feature an eye-catching hue. Some traditions are best left in the past, of course, but if you’ve been yearning to cook in a space with more personality, in a room that recalls a bygone era, these tips can help you design the retro kitchen of your dreams.
What’s the best color scheme for a retro kitchen? That depends. You can hark back to the 1950s by channeling the most popular colors of those long-ago days, bold turquoise and red. Or for a look that says “The Sixties,” choose mustard and avocado—colors that some are still trying to forget, not bring back. In the kitchen pictured, designers Kevin Fischer and Charlotte Cooney, of Alice Design/Domestic Arts, chose pale yellow and tomato-red, a combination that recalls the early 20th century; builders Hammer & Hand brought their vision to life. Since there are so many paint colors available today, a great way to narrow the field is to look at pictures of kitchens from the era you’re trying to re-create, and see what strikes your fancy.
Though somewhat quaint-seeming now, surfaces like linoleum flooring and laminate countertops were once considered state-of-the-art. Fortunately, both remain in production and are readily available online or at your local home center. As popular in the past as they are today, simple white tiles are another classic, worthy of consideration no matter time period you’re using as a guide. After all, the goal isn’t to create a perfectly accurate, museum-quality historical reproduction. Rather, it’s to borrow the best from the past in pursuit of a design that, instead of being hopelessly outdated, looks forward as much as it looks back.
White, ivory, or beige cabinetry works well in most retro kitchens, regardless of the paint colors applied elsewhere in the space. Glass-front cabinets are another option with old-fashioned appeal, made all the more persuasive when filled with colorful china or glassware that dates to the era that the room is trying to evoke. Yet another way to achieve a vintage look is by painting cabinetry to match the room’s overall color scheme.
Replacing cabinet knobs and drawer pulls ranks as one of the easiest and most inexpensive ways to add period detail. While many sources stock new hardware that resembles older designs, some people enjoy the thrill of the hunt, searching for authentic examples in flea markets and architectural salvage yards.
Sink and Faucet
Homeowners are spoiled for choice when it comes to fixtures that mimic yesterday’s styles. For instance, apron-front sinks are enjoying renewed popularity and work superbly in spaces modeled on the early 20th century. In a 1970s-themed kitchen, a stainless steel undermount model pairs nicely with a colorful laminate counter. Faucets, meanwhile, range from those with long, arching necks to boxy designs perfect for kitchens mimicking the postwar period.
Related: 10 Design Essentials for a Retro Kitchen
Most older kitchens sported an overhead light in a style that complemented the room. Depending on the era, that fixture might have been a milk-glass pendant or a sleekly sculptural ceiling light. Some people opt for a reproduction, while others scour salvage shops near and far in pursuit of the genuine article.
To get your hands on period-appropriate appliances, you basically have two options. One is to buy new models whose designs are steeped in nostalgia. The other is to search for refurbished relics. Stoves with porcelain exteriors in white, red, soft blue, or even pink have undeniable appeal, but such treasures can be difficult (or quite costly) to obtain. A compromise would be to choose standard modern appliances with the simplest possible silhouettes.
The little things make such a big difference in identifying a space as belonging to this or that time period. A colorful set of dishes or glassware, for instance, can be displayed as a focal point, while vintage tablecloths, curtains, clocks, or telephones (or new designs that resemble older models) further enhance the illusion. On the walls, consider hanging colorful collectibles like fruit-crate labels and recipe booklets, or artwork that dates back to the era that you’ve selected as the inspiration for your retro kitchen.