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Dark Kitchens Rejoice! 5 Color Palettes to Breathe Some Life Into Cold Espresso Cabinets

Well, well, well…what do we have here? MORE READER REQUESTS COMING TO FRUITION! In my quest to make everyone’s kitchen a whole lot better without any reno, I’m back with my third installment of non-boring kitchen color palettes. This time, we’re entering the realm of dark-slash-espresso cabinets. I’ve gotta tell you, this one gave me a run for my money, and it found me bankrupt and destitute. Unearthing inspiration took me days. Knowing what to do with that inspiration took me another few days. Texts were sent back and forth between me and the EHD team… “I can’t do it…I need more time…I’m a failure.”

If you missed it, I tamed the wild beasts that were honey oak and cherry kitchen cabinets. The warmth of both of these wood finishes actually gave me a lot to work with. It’s much easier making something made to be inviting feel inviting. But espresso cabinets? These were made to feel “elevated” and “fancy” by the builders that graced many an “upgraded” kitchen in the 2000s (and even now). But most of the photos I found of dark wood-stained cabinets felt cold and uninspired, tbh. Everything was brown, cream, or beige (but like, the not great kind of cream or beige), and NEEDED MORE INTEREST & COLOR.

I get it because it’s H-A-R-D to bring these to life. I see that now. I had to walk crawl so you could run…straight into your espresso kitchen twirling with your arms up in delight for a new design scheme to make that build kitchen better. Where honey oak and cherry kitchens seemed to run the gamut with regards to the countertops, espresso kitchens had one of four options about 98% of the time: heavily veined cream granite, white/marble-like quartz, black granite, and gray granite. So that’s what I tried to build off of here, creating schemes for each scenario.

Get ready to invite over your friends, your family, and even that neighbor you try to avoid on your nightly walks because your kitchen is about to seriously level up and everyone needs to see it.

But first, a few ground rules, as per usual.

How To Read The Moodboards

Everything pictured is representative of a concept, rather than just a direct one-to-one product pick. Meaning, I may show a runner, but maybe you have room for a 4×6…pull shades from my sample; you need barstools rather than a dining chair but I’m showing one or the other…just borrow the color or material idea; Maybe you need a long linear chandelier over an island or even sconces above a window rather than a pendant…that’s cool, it’s a style inspiration. Etc., etc., etc.

Espresso Cabinet Helpful Tips

As for the kitchen itself, espresso (or any dark-stained wood) cabinet fronts and frames are the heaviest of the entire bunch. I think even heavier than straight black because it doesn’t work that well with bright white as a contrast. The slight red undertones feel stark against a true white unless you have the right elements already in place to balance it (the right floors, the right layout, the right amount of natural light). So, assuming anyone here who could use my design tips is working with what they have with the exception of a few little updates here and there (lighting, backsplash, hardware), that’s not going to be the case.

If you’re willing to put in a little bit more elbow grease and $$$, here are just a few things that can drastically modernize the vibes in your dated, dark kitchen:

  • Hone your granite. I discussed this in my earlier post where I walked through real reader kitchens, but bringing down the sheen on that mirror-finish granite is key if you can muster it. I don’t know why everything had to GLOW in the year 2010, but espresso cabinets are already so shiny, let’s amp it up even more with an ice skating rink on your countertops, shall we? Rates on labor vary depending on where you live and how much counter area you have, but it’s much more reasonable (and less wasteful) than ripping out your stone for something new.
  • Considering losing the weight up top. At this point, I feel like I’m being paid by the No Uppers council for evangelizing the visual benefits of taking down some or all of your uppers if you have a dark or heavy wood kitchen. This obviously is in no way the route for someone in a small space who needs a lot of closed storage, but if you can spare them, rip those puppies out (carefully…you can save them, sell them, or donate them). That or consider painting just the top of your cupboards another color to lessen the load above your backsplash.
  • Avoid anything overly ornate or industrial. That’s right. The name of the game here is middle of the road in terms of design style. Anything too heavy and you risk crossing over into Tuscan territory; too modern and you might as well grab your parka because it’ll be so cold and uninviting, you’ll be ordering takeout every night just to stay (figuratively) warm. We’re skipping any nickel, chrome or silver here and relying more on different brass finishes, some copper and even bronze.

Got it? Great! Let’s go!

If You Have Espresso Cabinets With Black Granite/Quartz…

The Inspiration:

I know, I know. These are not espresso cabinets. BUT! From all the photos of real, live espresso kitchens I found, they all had dark brown, slightly reddish tones to them, so when I saw this gorgeous kitchen by designer Lesya Pechenkina (shared by account @chateauderon), I knew it had to be a foundation for a color palette. The dark gray/black stone basically disappears and all you see is the gorgeous tile and the dark sage uppers. Black or charcoal velvet seating is also low-key, keeping everything visually calm and on the same wavelength to let an interesting tile be the star.

The Moodboard:

Here’s how I rendered out what I saw above. I desperately tried to find a similar mosaic tile, but at some point, I came across this one in the same color palette and I thought it would be an interesting addition. The mossy green paint color can be used on uppers, on an island you’re willing to paint, or even on walls (but I’d skip it in that application if you don’t get good natural light). The burnished brass hardware is so gorgeous and, just like the dark velvet seating and black granite, would feel muted but textural.

1. Vegas Cement Tile | 2. Succulent by Sherwin-Williams | 3. Kitchen Shelf Girder Black Brass | 4. KEPLER Knurled T-Bar Pull – Antique Brass | 5. HUMBOLDT Knurled Button Cabinet Knob – Antique Brass | 6. Cloak Pendant | 7. Azalea Mink Grey Velvet Dining Chair | 8. Pascala Moroccan Hand-Knotted Copper Wool Runner Rug | 9. Organic Cotton Roman Shade in Walnut

If You Have Espresso Cabinets With Cream Granite…

The Inspiration:

Remember Drew Michael Scott’s (a.k.a. Lone Fox) unreal DIY kitchen reimagining from this post? Well, it arrived wearing its cape to save the day for our second color palette for all your neutral girlies out there. And just like the first kitchen, let’s squint our eyes and use our imaginations because no, this doesn’t have a cream granite countertop. I’m sorry I can’t be literal a single time, but I promise there’s something here for you.

Yes, Drew’s beautiful and bold Arabescato Breccia (I think) marble is a far cry from the beige granite of the Boy Band era, but hear me out. The tumbled stone he used as his floor made me think that a tumbled marble might work great against a warm granite as a backsplash (or yeah, even a floor). It’s all about intention when it comes to making beige feel current. Don’t try to counteract it with too much white, because it’s going to look like you’re trying to hide it when in fact you’re making it even more obvious. He rounds his design out with antiqued brass and copper metallic accents and (not shown here) warm textiles throughout.

The Moodboard:

A creamy, taupe-y paint color would work on any vertical surface (wall, cabinet, island, display cabinet) and mirror a tumbled marble tile backsplash. Just like Drew, a mix of copper, bronze and burnished brass leans into the timeworn vibe here (again, without hitting “Tuscany” notes). I picked a cerused oak barstool for added texture and character.

1. Crema Marble Tile | 2. Beigeing by Clare | 3. Enclume Wall-Mounted Deep Bookshelf Rack in Copper | 4. Rhodes Drawer Pulls in Tumbled Brass | 5. Rhodes Cabinet Knobs in Tumbled Brass | 6. Andre Brass Cone Pendant Light | 7. Revival Boucle Oak Counter Stool by Athena Calderone | 8. Elowen Rug | 9. Belgian Flax Linen Roman Shade in Oatmeal

If You Have Espresso Cabinets With White Granite/Quartz:

The Inspiration:

If you have white or quartz countertops, congratulations because you won the espresso cabinet lottery. At least when it comes to styling it for modern day. Above, Queen Athena Calderone‘s Brooklyn brownstone (RIP) kitchen basically broke the Internet when we all saw it, so I couldn’t help but use it for something in today’s post. Again, not espresso cabinets but the ebony stain/paint on Athena’s Shaker fronts gave me the jumping-off point to build a similar color palette around. This was photographed for her collaboration with Beni Rugs and I just love how the yellow-toned green, taupe, and cognac play against the black.

The Moodboard:

I pulled straight from Athena’s photo with an olive green plush runner rug and a cognac velvet barstool. Plenty of black touches like shelving and the barstool’s metal frame feel modern but are balanced with warm Calacatta gold marble subway tile, a wicker and brass pendant, and a white chocolate Roman clay treatment for the walls. Honey bronze cabinet hardware is simple but stately. And I can never resist a linen pinstripe for a curtain treatment.

1. Calacatta Gold 2″ x 4″ Marble Mosaic Wall & Floor Tile | 2. Lumiere Roman Clay | 3. Skaksel Black Floating Shelf | 4. Top Knobs Barrington 7/8 Inch Round Cabinet Knob | 5. Top Knobs Rounded 4 Inch Center to Center Handle Cabinet Pull | 6. Uttermost Phuvinh 1 Light Rattan Shade Pendant | 7. Inna Bar Stool w/ Backrest | 8. Kole Performance Nylon Olive Green Runner Rug | 9. Montauk Pinstripe Sheer Fabric, Natural

The Inspiration (Part 2):

Since white countertops were much easier than the rest, I decided to do a second option for a different aesthetic, in case someone wanted something a little homier. I’ve had this image from Vestige Home bookmarked for a while. I admired the room’s Parisian-modern aesthetic, and I’d be hard-pressed to ever ignore a full marble mantel and surround with a carved wood mirror above it. But I scrolled past it in my journey to find inspiration for this post and after some consideration, I grabbed it to include here.

In the case of the espresso kitchen, I think this photo and the color palette I built from it would work best with the minimum amount of dark cabinets (meaning, in a space where the owners are willing to part with uppers). Otherwise, the crisp white might come off abrasive.

The Moodboard:

I can see this coming to life with a full wall of honed blush tile, dotted with red oak shelving. A modern metal light fixture is a foil to the vintage rug and Shaker cabinets, polished brass acts like jewelry and a dusty, denim blue upholstery plays nice with the blush while keeping it grounded.

1. Makoto 2.5″ x 10″ Matte Ceramic Wall Tile in Momoiro Blush | 2. SW 7005 Pure White by Sherwin Williams | 3. Volume Floating Shelves in Cool Walnut | 4. Rigdon Cabinet Knob With Round Backplate in Aged Brass | 5. Rigdon Drawer Pull in Aged Brass | 6. Gemma Black Pendant Lamp | 7. Nosh Denim Blue Counter Stool | 8. Gisa Vintage Distressed Runner Rug | 9. 2-pack Linen Curtain Panels

If You Have Espresso Cabinets With Gray Granite/Quartz:

The Inspiration:

We’ve reached the end, with our final countertop scenario: gray stone or granite. Not as friendly as white, but not as fickle as cream, gray granite really needs some warmth to make it feel more at home with dark wood cabinetry. I saw this image above (I believe from the Schoolhouse catalog a while back) and immediately wanted to try a wood backsplash. I also like how the hardware is just barely there and there’s only a touch of another color in the palette via a striped dish towel.

The Moodboard:

I knew I had to start with the wood backsplash first and foremost since that’s the main event here. I found this wood-looking tile that I thought would look awesome and be easier to maintain, but by all means, go the actual tongue-and-groove or shiplap route. Just be sure to keep the wood tone more neutral (not too red, not too yellow). Your espresso cabinets can’t handle much undertone competition. The blue comes into the mix in our soft goods like the rug (it was actually in Sara’s kitchen makeover, too!) and tier curtains. I picked Atrium White from Benjamin Moore because it’s a fantastic creamy non-yellow white, which is important if you’re dealing with gray surfaces. Dark bronze metal in the hardware and lighting feel nicely monochrome.

1. Montgomery Ribbon 24 in. x 48 in. Porcelain Ribbed Wood Look Wall Tile | 2. Atrium White OC-145 by Benjamin Moore | 3. No Stud Needed Floating Shelf – Simple Mount in Marble | 4. Linden Cabinet Knob in Dark Bronze | 5. Tilden Drawer Pulls in Dark Bronze | 6. Gabbie 1 – Light Schoolhouse Pendant in Oil Rubbed Bronze | 7. Riley Counter & Bar Stool in Cream | 8. Baltinglass Washable Runner Rug | 9. Cackleberry Home Navy Blue and White Ticking Stripe Woven Cotton Panel Curtains

So that’s that. I survived. I’m in 17 color palettes deep now as I reach the end of this series and honestly, I had so much fun. Espresso kitchens might have almost taken me out, but I conquered that mini-boss in the end.

As always, please chime in. I think we covered all the bases of the bad, dated kitchen wood finish club but if there’s anything else you want to see, let us know.

For now, stay tuned for an update on MY kitchen ASAP, because after all of this work, I’ve cooked up a handful of new ideas for myself. Let’s just say my moodboard looks quite different now and I’m rounding the corner on the finish line.

Your friend in design, Arlyn

Opening Image Credits: Design and photos by Drew Michael Scott of Lone Fox Home

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Fariha
8 months ago

This is my favourite series currently on the blog. I don’t even need the ideas, per se, as I renovated my kitchen a few years ago and I’m happy with the colour scheme, but it is SO interesting to read how a designer would approach incorporating less popular colours and finishes into a design scheme. Arlyn, you are so talented with colour schemes. I can imagine the same series being much less interesting without your sophisticated and warm designs.

Could I suggest an extension to this series for when you inevitably run out of dated kitchen styles – could you plan designs around dated ‘big’ furniture. My personal problem is a grey upholstered bed that I kind of hate now, but it’s in perfectly good condition so I would never replace it just for aesthetics. Others may need to design around mirrored furniture, or unfashionable sofas – basically styles that were popular recently enough that changing big pieces may not be palatable, but that are a bit dated.

Sandra
8 months ago
Reply to  Fariha

Love this idea! May I add: sleigh bed, dark brown leather sofa and maybe an oh so comfy reclining chair?
Challenge dropped!!

Kaitlin
8 months ago
Reply to  Sandra

I have a dark-wood sleigh bed, and dark-wood end tables in a French provincial style. Both inherited and not really my taste. I painted the walls a really deep dark blue with green undertones, and it’s now one of my favourite rooms. I used light bedding, textiles for warmth/texture, and art with brass and red/brown tones. The dark furniture fades into the wall colour, and it’s very cozy.

Sarah
8 months ago
Reply to  Fariha

This is an awesome idea. I have a bedroom set circa the early 70s that belonged to my grandparents. It’s not my taste but it’s in perfect condition and the furniture quality is so good that I can’t justify spending thousands to replace it (and probably end up with much lower quality). I wish I could share a photo of it!

Christa
8 months ago
Reply to  Fariha

I love this idea. I’m currently trying to tone down all the midcentury furniture that worked in my midcentury house, not quite working in the traditional rambling rancher.

Natasha
8 months ago
Reply to  Fariha

I’d try a beautiful quilt, blanket, throw, shawl or other textile hung over the headboard.

Alec
8 months ago
Reply to  Fariha

Loving this series – any chance a builder grade white kitchen might be on the list? We’re lucky that it looks clean and contemporary but definitely feels pulled straight out of the Ikea catalog…

Maria Grazia
8 months ago
Reply to  Fariha

I would re-upholster the headboard!

KD
8 months ago

I love these, Arlyn. Thank you for this series!

Sandra
8 months ago

Arlyn, you are my friend in design!!
This is the inspiration I needed for my espresso kitchen with the VERY busy beige granite! I was ready to paint but today I will work on a mood board, proving that espresso and cream are indeed a couple.
Bravo to this post and your work!
Em, posts like this is why I read your blog daily! Thank you!

Kellie
8 months ago
Reply to  Sandra

Such a great series. If there were a Pulitzer Prize for design blogs, it would be a shoo-in. I’m not in the market for a new kitchen, but I love reading these posts. So fun!

Eva
8 months ago

Another stellar post from Arlyn. This series is so generous in tone and inspiring in content. Thank you! (And by the way EHD, what happened to the upvote feature in the comments section? I miss it, and the community feel it fostered.)

Admin
8 months ago
Reply to  Eva

the comments plug in we use broke last wednesday (across the entire internet, not just our site – a big deal for wordpress fans! ha). this is just a temporary default comment form til it’s up and running again 🙂

Eva
8 months ago

Thanks Caitlin! I would have up-voted this by way of response, but … well… you know 🙂

Julie
8 months ago

I love these posts! I rent and have no makeover plans, but as someone who is design-challenged it’s fascinating to see how you pull together these palettes. Also your intro was v funny. Quality takes time!!

Caroline
8 months ago

Arlyn, what a fun read this morning. I actually know someone who can benefit from your ideas. How about doing a post on those laminate cabinets with oak trim so popular in the 80’s-90’s.

Christa
8 months ago

1. Amazing options! You are so good at this!

2. I’m finally understanding that Drew Michael Scot isn’t one of the Property Brothers, so thanks for clearing that up for me. I follow @lonefoxhome and I was confused.

3. If you want to do a post to update warm white/creamy beige glossy shaker cabinets from the 2000’s with some brown quartz countertops, LMK.

Jan
8 months ago

I recognized Drew’s kitchen right away. It has been an amazing transformation and got me thinking about something other than white cabinets.

Christa
8 months ago

Arlyn, I was just thinking it would be awesome if you extended this series with dated bathrooms. I am struggling to work with some 2003 travertine floors and walls, set on the diagonal sometime around 2003. XXOO

Jen
8 months ago

Arlyn, you do such a great job on these posts! I don’t even have this cabinetry and yet I am hanging on every word and finding inspiration and clicking these links to new products and design inspo.

For other readers – can we talk about runners and rugs in kitchens? I love the warmth this brings visually but is it just a big messy disaster? Currently freshening up our kitchen and I love the idea to use one in the space (especially for winter and on cold mornings!) but am stuck on how/where (best by the sink? stove?) and also if it is just something I will end up regretting when it is full of spills etc.

Jen
8 months ago

Thanks for this great feedback both Arlyn and Julie! I am going to give it a try. 🙂

Julie S
8 months ago
Reply to  Jen

I have my first kitchen runner now (an indoor outdoor flatwoven fiber) and so far, about 2 months in, I just have to remember to bring the vacuum over to clean up the crumbs. I expect to hose it off once or twice a year, though any spills in winter will have to wait or get a spot treat!

Olivia
8 months ago

None of these pictures are true builder grade espresso cabinets in color to me. Maybe it’s just my eyes.

I know you said not to pair them with true white, but we did it in my last home and it looked so much better. The walls were medium gray when we moved in, hardwood floors a really dark and shiny brown with gray undertones, true builder grade espresso cabinets, and granite countertops that were off white with sparkly flecks in them. Backsplash was clear tiles so read as shiny gray over the paint. So maybe we had all the other factors in place, but when we painted the walls and tile backsplash Benjamin Moore Extra White the cabinets read black rather than espresso and it was SO MUCH BETTER. Extra White is really bright white, like no yellow, which I loved, and maybe it wouldn’t work with other whites. We did get a lot of natural light. It was an easy and inexpensive fix to espresso that I never regretted.

Virginia
8 months ago

Just here to make my own request for kitchens to be covered next! I have white cabinets in good condition but they are not custom, have a very traditional (and to me, ugly) door with traditional nickel hardware, and just scream late 90s / early 2000s. I’d love to make updates without shelling out a lot of money to get them painted. Help?

Kathryn Duckworth
8 months ago

Bravo Arlyn! This was the best one yet. Everything you put together looks fantastic and would work so well. Incredible inspiration and research. I’m not dealing with espresso cabinets myself, but thank you!

Francesca
8 months ago

I love this series! I have cherry cabinets and had already incorporated some of Arlyn’s suggestions before she posted these, but got even more helpful ideas from her cherry post. I had already painted the walls a light sagey green, removed the two upper cabinets we could part with in favor of painted open shelves that match the wall color, and added some dusty blue and lighter wood accents. I just added one of the rugs Arlen recommended and changed to some modern black knobs she recommended and I’m so happy with my kitchen! I actually like my cherry cabinets after 10 years of disliking them.

Stephanie
8 months ago

2 and 4 are my favorite. Bravo, Arlyn! These are all fabulous. Can’t wait to see your space.

Cris S.
8 months ago

This was such an enjoyable and interesting series. I have a 4 year old kitchen that I’m very happy with, but I found the color schemes you came up with fascinating and educational. Some of the issues I thought insurmountable looked/felt so much better once you broke them down into smaller pieces and actually pinpointed why something did/did not work. Great job Arlyn!

Patricia
8 months ago

I’m in a senior residence with a tiny galley kitchen with no window or exterior light source. Espresso cabinets (and I need all of them) with granite the color of a diseased liver. The walls are painted white and look dingy thanks to the lack of light.
I’ve lived with this for 6 years. I could easily be here another 10 or more. I could invest in cream quartz countertops. I have so little counterspace, it wouldn’t take much.
No backsplash, we have painted sheetrock. I’ve thought about really leaning into the dark with moody wall paint and add more lights. If I did that, I’d need to amp up the lighting. The dingy white paint is really getting me down.

Francesca
8 months ago
Reply to  Patricia

Yes, paint is so cheap and I think having a lovely color and more lights will make such a difference! And cream quartz would be lovely if you can swing it.

Lisa H
8 months ago
Reply to  Patricia

Oh my gosh, your granite sounds awful! Do replace it if you can.
I helped my Mom move into a senior residence. She had rather nice cabinets, but they were dark. The end of the galley was a bare wall. We hung a large painting with very saturated jewel colors. It became the focal point of the kitchen.
I think beautiful runner in a galley kitchen could become the focal point as well, if you don’t have a wall for art.
Paint? Go for it!

Anita Sullivan
8 months ago

Such a good article AND moodboards, AND not to mention the humor mixed in! Loved it!!! Thank you!

Pamela T
8 months ago

I can see why the espresso cabinets gave you a run for the money. Your inspiration images and palette options made this fun to be along for the ride. The mix of copper and brass with creamy gray was my personal favorite. I’ve been drawn to black and dark gray cabinets before, but espresso feels not quite right—for me. Kudos for cracking the code for complementary color schemes for each of these.

Cindy
8 months ago

I Love this series on cabinets!!!! such a great job! More please!! You have made me fall in love with my cabinets! I can really change and update with out gutting!! these schemes have been so helpful. Thank you!

I love this series. I’m not looking for ideas for my current house, but in my old house, I was definitely working around a dated kitchen with finishes I wouldn’t have personally picked out. I’m glad there’s a designer out there trying to save kitchens from being unnecessarily gutted. Especially with stone counters.

michelle hammons
8 months ago

Arlyn, I love the idea of a dark kitchen. Im considering buying a black Aga range similar the one in Emily’s article titled “A Review of our Induction Range”. Can you tell me if the one featured in her article was black gloss or black matte? Are the knobs brushed brass? Thank you in advance.

kid
8 months ago

You can tell in this pic it’s the Matte Black and Polished Brass:comment image

michelle
8 months ago
Reply to  kid

Are you sure? I have looked at both the matte and gloss samples at my appliance dealership and the matte sample seems to have no reflection at all. The gloss sample is not a high gloss. This picture actually appears to be gloss because it has a reflective quality but since there are no Aga ranges on display anywhere in Austin Texas I can’t be sure.