Before & After: A Dingy Studio Kitchen Gets a DIY Makeover That Pulls Inspiration from a Cute Bar in Italy

published Apr 25, 2022
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cabinets and fridge before renovation
Credit: Dana McMahan

What do you do with a boring, beige, 45-square-foot kitchen in a studio apartment? Well, if you’ve just come home from Milan, where your favorite afternoon was spent soaking up the Wes Anderson-designed Bar Luce at the Fondazione Prada, you go all in on pink and green and make it the kind of place you could totally invite a famous filmmaker to hang out.

“While I do think it would make a pretty good movie set, I think it would be an even better place to write a movie,” Anderson once said of the impossibly perfect cafe in Milan. “I tried to make it a bar I would want to spend my own non-fictional afternoons in.” So my goal with this Airbnb-destined kitchen? Follow that lead — even though I wouldn’t be able to hang out in it much myself.

Credit: Dana McMahan

As a freelance food, travel, and design writer (who is also a serial renovator and hospitality entrepreneur) this kitchen renovation let me combine all my passions. And, honestly, I had SO much fun with it; let me show you how it all came together.

Credit: Dana McMahan

This kitchen was part of the first renovation I did at a small apartment building in Kentucky — a converted Victorian — my best friend and I bought last fall. As a longtime Airbnb superhost who switched to renting to travel nurses during COVID, the business model is to convert to medium-term hospitality offerings for digital nomads, remote workers, travel nurses, and anyone else who needs a furnished space for 30 to 90 days. 

Credit: Dana McMahan

I was so very inspired by Bar Luce that I convinced my BFF to let me take the design lead. In fact, I didn’t let him see it until I was all finished!

The goal was to infuse the kitchen with personality — while wringing as much functionality as possible from the 6- by 7.5-foot space. That was a tall order. While the kitchen did have some basic functionality, it had zero personality, with wood cabinets and brown vinyl flooring and walls. So I started with a color palette inspired directly from the confection that is Bar Luce, which itself drew on Italian pop culture and aesthetics from the 1950s and ’60s (and Anderson’s short film Castello Cavalcanti, starring Jason Schwartzman). 

Credit: Dana McMahan

A color match of Farrow & Ball’s Breakfast Room Green went on the walls, cabinets, and trim of the entire space, a trick to make it feel a little bigger. Dayroom Yellow brightened the ceiling (key, because the kitchen is windowless). And a happy subway tile backsplash in bubble-gum pink, reminiscent of the candy and gelato at Luce, completed the trifecta. I also tore out the dingy, vinyl tiles and opted for a black and white geometric pattern with a similar vibe as the hallway floor at the cafe.

Credit: Dana McMahan

Jars of goodies on open shelves glow under soft lighting at Luce, so my budget version of that was to string white Christmas lights along the cabinets and remove two of the doors to make a cabinet into more of a display case. (Plus, the light fixture I chose to replace the basic original light was in the way of the doors.) Painting the inside of the cabinets in the same green made a sweet backdrop for the vintage mirror, colorful glasses, and art (including a map of Italy). A soft yellow, retro-style clock, much like one at Luce, completed the tableau. 

Credit: Dana McMahan
A close-up for the open cabinet.

There’s actually a fair bit of cabinet storage, so it didn’t hurt to sacrifice that space. Opening it up — along with the glow of the lights along the tops of the cabinets — helped keep the petite kitchen from feeling confined. 

Counter space was at a premium, so I followed my kitchen reno rule, and added a magnetic knife rack next to the wee range. Because the existing fridge is a scaled-down size, it worked fine to set a small microwave (in a perfect light teal, a thrift score by my mom) on top, leaving actual work space on the counter. To keep trash out of view, I tucked a Simple Human can inside the cabinet under the sink. It hangs on the inside of the door so it takes up almost no space. 

Because we kept the existing cabinets and appliances, the budget was actually minimal, the subway tiles being the biggest splurge, while also packing the biggest impact.

Credit: Dana McMahan
The writer and her best friend in front of the newly designed studio kitchen.

The result? I can’t get enough of looking at this studio kitchen. It might be tiny, but for the solo travelers who stay here, it’s plenty of space and feels so cheerful and fun. It’s of course not a replica of the cafe in Milan, but it channels the vibe, and the inviting feeling that you just want to hang out and do creative things. I’m kind of sad every time I hand over the keys!

Are you inspired by this colorful, cute kitchen? Tell us in the comments below.