Gray Inspires Midcentury Kitchen

Shades of gray turn an outdated kitchen into a place for entertaining guests

Man and Woman Holding Wilne Glasses

Outdated to Mid-century Modern

Tint and shade: two words commonly used by interior designers in reference to choosing color. While tint refers to a mixture of color with white that increases the value of its lightness, shade is the result of mixing a color with black to make it darker.

For the redesign of my teensy-weensy 10x8 Atlanta kitchen, I focused on introducing a variety of tints and shades of gray. As an interior designer known for using saturated colors, a monochromatic gray kitchen was new territory for me.

Midcentury Modern Kitchen Remodel

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Tearing Down Walls

A Midcentury Transformation

A Flooring Focal Point

Lighting and Ceiling

Bargain Hardware

Drawer Space

A Place for Pots and Pans

Gray Accessories

Southern Sink

Durable Countertop

A Bold Cooktop

Adding a Pantry

An Open Floor Plan

Must-Have Wine Storage

Brown-and-Gray Backsplash

The main problem with the existing kitchen was that the previous homeowners had updated it with contractor-grade cabinets and beige granite countertops, both in a traditional style that clashed with the modern lines of the 1955 house's architecture.

After looking through dozens of books about midcentury modern kitchens, I noticed the cooking spaces from that era were either packed with turquoise, mint green or buttery yellow, or they were dark, with walls clad with darkly stained wood paneling. Although I didn't plan to draw inspiration from these spaces in regard to color, I did find certain design elements, such as shapes, patterns and finishes, which I'd incorporate into my kitchen's new look.

Deciding on Colors

My doubts about gray were the result of comments from friends and family members who found gray depressing and lifeless. They said it is the color of the sky when it's overcast.

Although gray has only recently become popular in residential settings, the color has been for decades the neutral of choice for industrial spaces. Gray hides flaws, remains gender neutral and works well with just about every other color. That was where my "Aha!" moment came in.

Gray is gender neutral and forgiving in high-traffic areas, and the main use of my kitchen is for my younger sister Meg, a busy publicist, and I to entertain my mom, aunt and brother on Sunday nights before starting our hectic weeks in the world of media.

Ready to give my kitchen its all-gray renovation, I thought about changes that needed to be made structurally. Although the layout of the kitchen cabinets, countertops and appliances worked perfectly, there was an issue with flow from the kitchen to the adjacent dining room, due to a wall between them that blocked much of the natural light from the kitchen window. I decided I'd open up the wall so that conversation and light could flow easily.

The Scope of This Kitchen Update

I stuck with a budget of $12,000 and a timeline of two weeks to accomplish the following updates:

  • Tear out the traditional cabinets and countertops and replace them with something modern
  • Remove the beige tile
  • Install gray-toned Tanzanian wenge hardwood floors
  • Cover the walls with floor-to-ceiling gray tile
  • Add a statement-piece chandelier
  • Paint one wall with dark charcoal chalkboard paint
  • Replace the drywall ceiling with tongue-and-groove cedar painted gray
  • Add small halogen can lights to the ceiling
  • Incorporate an apron sink
  • Add wine storage
  • Bring in all stainless steel appliances

Gray Pantry Doors

Adding a Pantry

In its existing state, the kitchen lacked a pantry. By dedicating the space next to the refrigerator as space for food, I was able to seamlessly incorporate a pantry into the design. The tall doors above contain shelving that holds everyday foods, while the two drawers below are meant for baking supplies as well as dog food and dog treats for my all-white terrier, Gidget.

Glossy Gray Cabinets

After looking at custom cabinets and finding the average quote around $11,000, I decided to stick with ready-made cabinets from a modern home furnishings retailer.

Luckily, they carried the perfect shade of charcoal gray in a glossy, reflective finish. Due to the limited amount of light the kitchen receives, having a reflective surface was a plus. With the proper layout decided on, the cabinets were ordered and came to a total of $3,000 — much less than the price for custom.

Dark Charcoal Wood-Look Laminate Countertops

Durable Countertop

To save on budget and keep with the gray color scheme of the kitchen, I opted for ready-made, dark charcoal wood-look laminate countertops, which only came to $360, versus the average of $6,000 for custom gray-toned solid-surface countertops. Not only do they introduce a new texture to the kitchen, their durability also makes them easy to care for.

Dark Gray Laminate Countertops

In a situation similar to the cabinetry, I found the average quote for gray-toned solid surfaces such as marble, concrete and quartz too high for my budget.

I decided to stick with a gray-brown wood laminate, complete with a 2-inch stainless steel fascia, found at the same modern home furnishings retailer. Altogether, the ready-made countertops came to a cool $360, allowing the remainder of the budget to go toward other design elements.

Brown and Gray Hardwood Floors

A Flooring Focal Point

To bring gray down to the kitchen floor, I opted for Tanzanian wenge hardwoods. At first glance, the floors appear to be dark gray. However, a stripe effect can be seen, featuring several shades of gray and gray-brown.

Gray-Toned Flooring

The day I decided on the laminate countertops I also came across unique gray-toned Tanzanian wenge hardwoods on sale for only $2.99 per square foot.

Not only did they look the part, but their durability was ideal for a space known for getting heavy foot traffic. The kitchen is only 80 square feet, which brought the total for the new flooring to just under $275.

Brown and Gray Striped Backsplash

Brown-and-Gray Backsplash

In order to ensure the proper layering of different gray tones, I stuck with a 6x24 ceramic tile with a stripe effect featuring charcoal, medium grays and gray-browns. The tile was installed not only as the backsplash, but also as the floor-to-ceiling wall surface for three of the kitchen's four walls.

Brown and Gray Tiles

Although sourcing the cabinets, countertops and flooring was simple, finding the proper wall tile was difficult. Many of the tiles I liked in showrooms were glossy, just like the new cabinets, and came in a color nearly identical to both the cabinets and the flooring.

Once installed, they could make the kitchen fall flat, something I was determined to avoid by ensuring different shades of gray were layered throughout the space.

A few days later, I entered a showroom and came across a 24x6 tile that appeared more brown than gray. I decided to bring a sample home and see if it helped break up the similar charcoal tones between the flooring and the cabinets. It was perfect.

Gray Light Fixture

Lighting and Ceiling

In order to update the ceiling not only with gray, but also with an architectural treatment befitting of the home's midcentury modern architecture, 1x6 planks of tongue-and-groove cedar were installed on furring strips, then stained gray. To update the room's overall lighting, my contractor installed six halogen can lights into the new wood ceiling by using a jigsaw to allow proper room for each can light's fittings. Adding to the midcentury mood, a 32-inch-wide woven steel pendant was installed in the center.

Ceiling and Lighting

Now that different shades of gray were found for the walls and floors, it was time to bring gray up to the ceiling. Instead of sticking with paint, I wanted to bring in a bit more midcentury modern detail, and I decided to have my carpenter install tongue-and-groove cedar stained medium gray.

In order to install them properly and add new lighting, my carpenter updated all of the wiring to account for six halogen can lights and a chandelier, attached furring strips along the drywall and into the studs, cut each piece to size, and then screwed them into place through each furring strip and into the studs. To allow space for new lighting, he cut circles into certain planks using a jigsaw, ensuring a perfect fit once the can lights and chandelier were installed.

The last step in the project was buying the appliances. After spending $3,200 for a stainless steel refrigerator, silent dishwasher and range, the budget was gone.

With the new gray modern kitchen complete, it's getting its fair share of use not only by Meg and me, but also by our family. As far as what I would have done differently, I may have chosen flooring just a few shades of gray lighter than the dark Tanzanian wenge, mostly because of how it shows everything from dust to dropped food.

And although the kitchen itself is 100 percent gray, the colorful designer in me couldn't resist bringing in vibrant touches of violet and plum. But unlike accessories in other rooms of the house, the ones in my gray kitchen are locally grown and edible.

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