Kitchn Love Letters

I Actually Love My White-and-Wood Kitchen Cabinets from the ‘90s

updated Jun 2, 2021
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Credit: Courtesty: Let's Remodel

Somebody I know virtually rolled their eyes at white-and-wood kitchen cabinets recently — the kind of cabinets I have in my kitchen. She said they reminded her of cheap apartments from college. And I get it, I really do. I also have strong associations with certain home features. But I have something I want to say to renters and non-renters alike: Those white melamine cabinets from the ’80s and ’90s are actually good cabinets.

There seems to be an inclination to look down on home components that are cheap, commonplace, or both. I’m here to beat the drum of builder-grade-stuff-isn’t-always-ugly. Take boob lamps for example. They’re not the most beautiful flush-mounted ceiling light you’ve ever seen, but they’re fine. They’re utilitarian, and even a little minimalist. In short, they get the job of diffusing light done.

Melamine cabinets go a step further than that. Not only are they perfectly functional cabinets, but they appear sleek, too. The cheap stuff doesn’t have to be bad stuff, despite what design mavens may lead you to believe. (Even on this very website, there are “renter-friendly hacks” to beautify my beloved white-and-wood cabinets.) In fact, I’d go as far as to call these cabinets elegant. Unlike the clunky oak wooden cabinets that came after them in the early 2000s, those white cupboards with a thin strip of wood on the bottom are clean-looking. They’re bright, they’re basic, and they look great with another element of ’80s and ’90s design that’s back: hanging plants and baskets.

To have an element of retro (are the ’80s and ’90s retro?) design in a modern-day kitchen adds character and value to a room. Sure, if you fill a kitchen with only basic, bland accents, your white-and-wood cabinets might look a little shabby. Any cabinets would. But there’s a way to style these cabinets correctly. Just look at this A-frame rental in Northern California, which retains its ’70s and ’80s vibes with wood paneling and, wouldn’t you know it, my favorite cabinets. According to the folks who live there, previous tenants gave the ‘80s kitchen a facelift by removing the doors on the upper cabinets. Now, they display cookbooks, baskets, jars, and other pantry items. It’s a vintage look with modern, open-shelving flair, and I love it. 

On a more practical note, melamine cabinet doors are easy to clean. The material has been a staple of residential kitchens for some time.

“Melamine is actually super common in kitchens and other parts of the home, too,” explains Sarah Archer, a design and culture writer, and the author of “The Midcentury Kitchen.” 

“Combined with formaldehyde, melamine creates a resin that can be used in anything from mixing bowls and dinnerware to Formica countertops and laminate floors. So it might be all around you and you just don’t realize it,” she says. “A layer of this kind of laminate is often found on cabinets, but this didn’t become widespread until the late 1970s.”

Credit: Photo by Madeline Bilis
The author's cabinets

While my treasured white-and-wood strip design isn’t easy to find on the market these days, melamine cabinets are alive and well. A company called Snaidero USA sells modern melamine-coated cabinets — the folks there confirm they’re easy to clean ”just using a non-abrasive neutral liquid detergent diluted in water,” according to the company’s website.

Snaidero USA also praises melamine’s durability. “Our melamine finishes are hard and resistant to heat, moisture, stains and scratches,” the site says. It makes sense that the melamine cabinets from the ’80s and ’90s are still around — they’re long-lasting, another line item for the “pro” column in my book. 

Thankfully, some rare replacement cabinets can be found for sale for enthusiasts like me, but it’s unlikely I’ll need to buy them anytime soon. My sleek-looking, long-lasting, easy-to-clean melamine cabinets are getting along just fine, and I plan to keep it that way.

This post originally appeared on Apartment Therapy. See it there: My White-and-Wood Kitchen Cabinets from the ‘90s Are Actually Great — Here’s Why