White Kitchens: The Absence of Color

Guest Post from Susan Serra of The Kitchen Designer

For me, there can be a never-ending discussion on the virtues and properties of the white kitchen. We call a white kitchen classic. White IS a classic in kitchen design, for decades, and at this moment, a white kitchen is only getting more popular with homeowners. What's not to like — white is crisp, clean, classic, light reflective, and it seems to lift up the spirits, doesn't it?

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From my experience, I think white kitchens are loved all over the world, and are a fixture in any given country's design magazines. I'd like to talk about white kitchens as we know them, here in the U.S., and the fantastic (and commonplace) white kitchens in Scandinavia, a place where white is in the design DNA, and from which we can learn some stylistic how-tos. A little compare and contrast.

I'm convinced that white kitchens had a resurgence after the movie As Good As It Gets. If you're a design blog junkie, you've seen a statement similar to this over and over. But it's true. Today's American white kitchen, if done in a traditional design, has a far more simple point of view than just before this movie came on to the scene. The cabinet lines are more simple, the whites are slightly warm or more pure white, the glazes of past years are mostly gone.

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The Scandinavian white kitchens seem to take white about 5 notches higher stylistically, even in their most modest forms. White is often seen on the walls as well as on cabinetry, and may even be seen on the floors, which is actually fairly commonplace. The reflective nature of white is highly desirable in Scandinavia, and they "do" white beautifully, and interestingly. White serves as a fantastic backdrop to color in any form. Whether it be neutrals such as natural woods, bright color, pastels, the possibilities are limitless.

White in the kitchen has its pros and cons, and I find my clients do gloss over the cons, so here are a couple to be aware of:

• Number one, always, is maintenance. White, in any material...wood, glazed, laminate, gloss, will eventually show wear. Any white cabinet material will be a real challenge to repair, if it even can be. White ages and changes color, as do all surfaces of cabinetry, painted and non painted. In that respect, white is not unique, but, the problems, be they small or large, are far more visible with white. If you need perfection in your finish, if you are not the neatest person, cook, entertain frequently and/or you have one or more children, white may not be the best choice. You'll be stressed if you are a perfectionist.

• The second con, as I've observed it in my practice as a kitchen designer, is one's desire to have a "white kitchen" without consideration to white (or no other white) in the context of the surrounding rooms, especially if the kitchen is part of an open great room, whether in a house or in an apartment. Think carefully if you want a white kitchen to call attention to itself. It will stand out and may not flow from one space to the next. It will say "the kitchen is HERE." Should you not have a white kitchen if your other rooms are more subdued in color? I do not like "shoulds" as a rule...but the awareness of flow should be in place before a decision is made.

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Tossing those unfortunate details aside, here's how to get started thinking about a white kitchen:

• The first consideration, when using white, is to determine what "color" of white do you want? Do you want undertones of blue, grey, yellow, pink, or as pure white as possible? White is best seen in context with other whites in order to better see the color within each white. I often grab a piece of white bond paper to view next to white paint chips I am considering to be aware of the subtleties of all of the whites. This will be helpful if you plan to use white in multiple materials within the kitchen.

Ultimately, if you can gather all whites together before final decisions/orders are made, and view these colors at different times of the day in your own lighting, you'll have a great idea of what to expect when these whites are installed. If you will have large blocks of color or neutrals next to a white element, look at that too and see how it works with whites of different colored undertones. I definitely have found that ever-so-slightly softer whites can appear far brighter than you expect.

Do not drive yourself crazy, however — if you are mixing white materials, you will never get a matched set of whites in terms of subtle white color and tone. And that doesn't matter; that's what will make your interior interesting. General awareness of undertones is good enough — much more than that is not necessary or advisable.

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• The next question to ask is: what role will color play in proportion? Visualizing the entirety of the space to consider balance and proportion of color vs. white is important. Do you like symmetry in design or an obvious asymmetry? An example of an asymmetrical design with white might be lots and lots of white in multiple materials balanced by a significantly sized, but much smaller, block of color. The large volume of the white surfaces balance the smaller block of color. When looking at pictures, note the balance of white and color to see the proportions that speak to you and the distribution of color throughout.

Here's a collection of white kitchens. I'd love to hear your feelings about white kitchens!

Thank you for sharing, Susan! We are looking forward to the rest of your posts on color in The Kitchn this week.

More posts on color from Susan Serra:
Color in the Kitchen...On the Cheap
A Pinch of Sugar Color

Visit Susan Serra's weblog:
The Kitchen Designer

(Images: Elle Interior; Rie's home; glass backsplash 2ab; Purple Area)

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