For many homeowners, pulling together a kitchen can be formulaic: combine one part white subway tile backsplash with one part white cabinetry and one part quartz countertop, and mix well to combine. And while those tried-and-true staples are never going out of style, what if we told you there was a fun dash of “seasoning” you could incorporate into the recipe for the perfect kitchen?
Enter two-toned cabinetry. Defined primarily as upper cabinetry and lower cabinetry that are painted in different colors (though it can take on various iterations—more on that below), it's a great way to add a little something extra to your space without going so trendy that you regret it five years later.
“There is so much of the same circulating around these days in terms of kitchen cabinetry and there’s not a whole lot of new under the sun—especially when taking into consideration door styles,” says Jeanne Chung, designer and owner of Cozy Stylish Chic. “Mixing things up by adding two-toned cabinetry is a way to add visual interest or to make a space feel larger or smaller, depending on what you’re working with.”
That’s right—beyond just adding a dose of style to your space, two-toned cabinetry can actually help you solve some common gripes with your existing kitchen, like a room that feels too cavernous or, more often, a space that’s just a little too snug.
“If you have really high ceilings and you utilize dark cabinets for the uppers, it will force the eye down towards the middle of the room, making it feel cozier,” explains Chung. “Similarly, if you put a dark color on the base cabinetry and light cabinetry on top, the darker cabinets on the bottom will ground the space and the lighter uppers will make a smaller space feel larger than it actually is. It’s an easy way to trick the eye!”
As you can imagine, choosing the right paint colors is very important when pulling off a look like two-toned cabinetry, which is why pros recommend testing out multiple shades and looking at them throughout the day to notice how the light in your space impacts their appeal. Another good rule of thumb according to Chung? Opt for a slightly off version of most shades.
“I wouldn't say there are any hard rules, but it's all about achieving balance and harmony in the space,” she explains. “Let's say we're doing a black and white—I always narrow the gap between the two-color values to give the space a softer edge. Go with dark charcoal, which reads as black but is less harsh. For white, move away from the whitest white—which can feel cold and hospital-like—and instead opt for the palest of grays with a slightly yellow tint. This looks like a creamy white and results in a more warm and inviting space. Ultimately, two-toned cabinets can work in any size kitchen, but if you’re doing it in a kitchen with a smaller footprint, I would keep the value between the two colors closer together.”
While painted cabinetry is the most commonly seen iteration of the two-toned cabinetry look, many designers also use a combination of stained wood and paint for a more natural, understated take on the effect.
“You can pair almost any color with stained wood, but there are some woods that look better than others,” says Chung. “Steer away from woods that appear too orange, yellow, or red, and instead go with woods such as walnut or white oak with a neutral stain. White oak can appear a bit yellow in its natural state, so I like to apply a light whitewash or even gray to neutralize the yellow/honey tones. Then, when introducing a color with stained wood, go with blues or greens—they emulate the outdoors.”
Looking for more inspiration for bringing two-toned cabinetry into your home? Check out a few of our favorite takes on the look, below.
For this classic and timeless take on two-toned cabinetry, designer Alison Giese paired upper and lower cabinetry from Unique Kitchens and Bath (in “Candlewick” and “Peppercorn” respectively) with classic wood floors and a sleek subway tile backsplash for a casual and effortless space.
Designer Sarah Sherman Samuel used IKEA boxes and Semihandmade cabinet fronts to create this stunning kitchen. The upper cabinets are coated with a creamy white (Farrow & Ball’s Whimborne White), while the lowers pop just enough in Farrow & Ball’s gray-green shade, Pigeon.
In this kitchen from Jenna Sue Design, upper white IKEA cabinets are offset by a similar style by the brand, painted in Benjamin Moore’s rich forest green shade, Peale Green. Wood floors, a handmade tile backsplash, and butcher block countertops all add a touch of organic appeal to the room.
In this kitchen from Remedy Design, an inky black island looks eye-catching against creamy grey cabinetry. The light wood flooring, floating wood shelves, and a hood detail adds a rich layer to the space.
This kitchen from ZDesign at Home is the trifecta of two-toned (actually, multi-toned) cabinetry. The sprawling space is made cozy with a combination of white oak lower cabinetry and white upper cabinetry in Sherwin-Williams Snowbound, offset by a rich gray island coated in Sherwin-Williams Iron Ore.