5 Design Professionals on What Makes a Timeless Kitchen

published Feb 15, 2022
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Renovating a kitchen is tricky for the obvious reasons. It’s expensive, most notably. Also, there are a lot of moving parts — like cabinets, countertops, backsplashes, and lighting — and each component seems to come with endless options to choose from. The hardest part, though, might just be the foresight it requires. After all, no one sets out to renovate a kitchen only for it to look like a time capsule in a few years. 

“Whenever the issue comes up with my clients, I try to reframe the conversation in terms of future-proofing: What can we do now that can be adapted as technology and tastes evolve over years, if not generations?” says architect Nicholas Potts. “To me, this means creating a framework that works and can be adapted over time as tastes change, which is inevitable.”

The laminate countertops of the 1960s, the yellow fluorescent lighting of the 1980s, and the brown cabinets of the 2000s were all once the pinnacle of style, so no one is expecting you to predict the future. But there is an art in knowing which materials have a better chance of sticking around for the long term, and which ones are destined for demolition. The trick lies in seeking out pieces that are durable, beautiful, and currently appealing, which is a puzzle that’s best solved with some insight.

And that’s where we come in. We asked five design professionals to talk about what goes into a timeless kitchen. Here’s what they had to say — along with some extra tips to ensure that these tricky renovation decisions have some staying power.

1. Era-appropriate decisions

For starters, “timeless” can be slightly open to interpretation, depending on the features surrounding the kitchen itself. “If you live in a vintage or older home, I think you should honor the architecture of its era,” says designer and stylist Emily Henderson. “That way, the renovation will never feel out of place.” So, a midcentury home should probably incorporate some jewel tones, dark woods, and orb-like lighting, just as a Victorian home would do well to have flourishes like stained glass and marble.

Designer Mandy Cheng says that this rule applies to flooring, too. “If you’re in a Mediterranean-style home, you may want Saltillo tiles. Or if you’re in a more contemporary home, it might make more sense to bring the wood flooring all the way through the kitchen,” she says. “What you want to avoid is picking a trendy, patterned floor application and installing it in a stylistic way that doesn’t speak to the architecture of the home.”

Arlyn Hernandez, design specialist and stylist, recommends doing research to ensure that your choice has lasting significance. “If it’s anything that will require demolition, take a look back over the last 50 or even 100 years,” she says. “Timeless doesn’t need to mean boring. You can design a lasting kitchen with some flair; the key is avoiding anything that hasn’t already been proven to stand the test of time.”

What if your home is of this very moment or from the early 2000s and you don’t have cool, historic looks to pull from? Henderson says to keep it simple: “If you live in new construction, then I think going more classic but simple is the best way to not have regrets in 10 years.” 

Credit: Sara Tramp

2. Choices that work for your lifestyle

As you research materials, layouts, and appliances, try not to get swept up in imagery over practicality. If something doesn’t work for the life you actually live, it won’t matter how good it looks.

“I believe in designing for your lifestyle,” Henderson says. A family home with young kids should be filled with materials that can stand up to heavy use. A mostly-order-out household shouldn’t splurge on an expensive range. And wildly unorganized home cooks may want to skip open shelving in favor of closed cabinets. 

You’ll want to consider how you’ll use something, how well it will hold up over time (more on this below), and the amount of maintenance involved. “If you go for something like a natural stone, just make sure the amount of maintenance it requires works for you,” Henderson says. How often are you willing to reseal that stone? “Wood flooring can also require maintenance, but it’s my go-to because there is no faster way to add warmth to a home.”

3. Quality materials

Given that kitchens are pricey, it’s tempting to lean on budget-friendly solutions that may end up looking worse for the wear over time. But Potts argues that, in order to build a timeless kitchen, you have to consider how things will stand up to heavy use — particularly when you’re considering the main materials. 

“Integrity in the more permanent finishes is paramount,” he says. Wood floors may look beautiful in the beginning, but moisture and foot traffic could break them down sooner than anticipated. (If you go with wood floors, “keep the finish color as close to the natural color of the wood as possible, to make it easier to refinish later on,” Potts notes.) Hardwood cabinets will have a long life cycle, as will stone countertops that can naturally patina.

If it’s not possible for every aspect of a kitchen to be of the highest quality (we get it!), Designer Cristina Lehman says to focus on these three details: “quality hardware, faucets, and durable cabinetry.”

4. Cabinets in classic colors

There’s a reason why white cabinets tend to stay popular: They’re easy to coordinate with changing styles. Lehman doesn’t think it’s necessary to always paint cabinets white, of course, but she does suggest leaning toward neutral shades — including natural wood. “Instead, add visual interest through textures or shapes,” she says, like kitchenware that can be spotted through glass panes, or hanging baskets for plants and fruits.

Henderson also thinks this approach is best, particularly when paired with classic Shaker-style doors, but also notes that “neutral” can stretch into blues and greens, too. “White is always classic, but if you want to make a quiet statement, I am a big fan of gray-blue or moody green,” she says. 

As for painting the surrounding walls, Potts says its fine to take risks here, knowing that you might get tired of it or change your mind. “Paint has a short life cycle of no more than five to 10 years, so it is a great opportunity to add personality you can periodically refresh,” he suggests. It’s obviously much easier to paint a few walls than it is to redo your cabinets.

Credit: Jennifer Hughes

5. Simple backsplashes

Potts notes that the trend of choosing a separate backsplash from the countertop may be unnecessarily complicating matters — and could lead to regret over time. “These are the types of elements that age poorly,” he says. Instead, consider choosing one material to use on the countertops and the backsplash, like a veined marble or speckled quartz. “This allows you to have a bit more personality in the material, because it’s not competing with another element.”

But if you’re set on having a separate backsplash, go for something slightly more subtle that can be accented with bolder accessories. Cheng says that tiles with “a neutral color and handmade texture” are your best bet. “Busier patterns with a lot of color will tend to go out of style faster,” Lehman adds. 

6. Smart lighting that’s easy to update

It’s often noted that lighting can be among the easiest updates to make in a kitchen, and so it’s possible to choose something decidedly now. “If you’re itching to do something trendy while still trying to hit that timeless aesthetic, do so with things that are easily interchangeable, such as lighting,” says Hernandez.

While you should feel free to lean into trends here, Potts has one suggestion to help you stay safe, well into the future. “You should have space for surface-mounted fixtures and sconces,” he says. “Providing a multilayered approach to lighting lets you change the fixtures over time as styles and technologies evolve.” This trick limits how much you’ll need to change at once. For example, maybe you can keep the scones around your kitchen sink, and you can just switch up the pendant over your island.

Credit: Sara Tramp

7. Fun accessories

Henderson agrees that “safe bets” are best when it comes to the more permanent aspects of a kitchen, because those are expensive to change. But when it comes to accessories, she says that it’s important to embrace your personality. 

“I always say to stay safe with the permanent finishes and take your risks with art, accessories, lighting, and textiles. You can experiment with paint and even wallpaper, too,” she continues. Incorporate your individuality through beloved photographs, trip souvenirs, dishes, or vintage finds — whatever will make your home feel more like you. “By leaning into unexpected details, your kitchen will feel appropriately charming,” Henderson adds. And, if anything starts to feel dated or not really true to your personality anymore, you can simply swap it out.

Do you have any other tips to add? Leave them in the comments below!