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Should Kitchen Cabinets be Darker or Lighter than Walls?

While you may think this question just comes down to personal taste, there are some significant factors you’ll want to consider. We’ve got the expert advice, so read on to find out the answer to this age-old question.

I’ve always had white cabinets in my kitchen, and while it does provide a bright and clean look, they can be very prone to accumulating dirt quickly, and it shows. If the coffee ever overflows on the pour-over and spills over the side of the counter, the resulting marks on cabinets will be a nuisance to clean.  A dark cabinet, on the other hand, will be less susceptible to stains, and will hide them a lot better. If, however, you do have a kitchen with minimal lighting, choosing white cabinets can be a difference-maker!

Traditionally, kitchen cabinets were made in wood, but these days, they come in so many materials. You can choose from everything from brushed steel to wood composite boards, plastic, and even glass panels. There are some materials that can be painted once they are installed, especially wood, and some that need to be replaced altogether if you want to change the color scheme. Most often, the color of walls can be changed more easily than that of cabinets, so it may be smarter long term to go with a color that you feel is classic, and then change the walls according to taste and changing trends. This will be much more cost-effective, and allow you room to change with the times.

As one of (if not the) most important room in the home, the kitchen can be an overwhelming space to decorate. With multiple purposes—from cooking and hosting to even eating within—kitchens must be simultaneously soothing, stylish, clean, and comforting, which leads many homeowners, by default, to the ubiquitous all-white kitchen. But next year, some designers are predicting a sea change, with more homeowners opting to spice things up with everything from bold, dramatic shades to new takes on neutrals. And where’s the easiest place to bring a game-changing dose of color to the kitchen? The cabinets. Here are four on-the-rise trends we’re currently obsessed with for kitchen cabinets.

Some of the main factors that will influence the color choice for you kitchen cabinets will be the size of the room, light exposure, material of the walls, material of the cabinets, and finally the color of your countertops. Let’s go through all of these factors to see what the right color will be for your kitchen cabinets.

Size of the Room Matters

Some floor plans allow for the kitchen to take up a lot of space in the house, while other keep it compact. A smaller kitchen can feel cramped and claustrophobic with the wrong color scheme: color can make a world of difference in opening up the space and making it feel airy. Lighter and cooler colors recede, which is the effect that you want. Warm or dark colors feel like they are moving toward you, which can make a room feel smaller. Of course, if you have a small kitchen, you’ll want to stick with lighter or cooler colors. You might also want to ensure that all the walls are one color to help hide edges. Edges are an enemy for any small room because it focuses the eyes, making a room feel smaller. Those that have a short ceiling may have to consider vertical stripes to make the kitchen seem a little taller as long as you skip the ceiling and the edges of the room. White, or off-white is a great option for really opening up a small space. For the kitchen cabinets, however, this can prove tricky for cleaning. Splashes and marks will show more, but depending on the material of the cabinet, they can be relatively easy to clean. So, for smaller kitchens keeping the contrast between the walls and cabinets minimal will enlarge the space.


On the other hand, if you have a large kitchen, there can be more room to play with deeper or warmer colors to keep it cozy and vibrant. There is also more room to play with larger contrast between the walls and the cabinets. This can create really interesting interplays between color and texture. There are multiple schools of thought, however, on whether you want to stay in warmer or cooler tones, or mix and match the two. This decision does come down to taste, and whether you want a fluid look, or something more eclectic and varied.


Light Exposure in the Room Should Be Considered As Well

It is really wonderful having a kitchen with great natural lighting, whether that be a skylight or large south-facing windows. If, however, you live in a semi-basement apartment, or your kitchen is positioned mostly interior in your home, there are still ways to make it feel bright. Lighter colors will do wonders to brighten the space, as well as glossy finishes. When you do have great light exposure, you can play with increased contrast between the cabinets and the walls.

Like top-of-the-line appliances and perfectly patinaed hardwood floors, natural light is in that echelon of amenities that make even the most jaded homeowner swoon. Though it is always positive, not all views are created equal—not in terms of what’s outside the window, but rather which direction the window faces. Each exposure has its own distinct temperament, and as with all strong personalities, it’s better to work with them than against them. With the morning light, warm colors can brighten the room and make it glow. With afternoon light, white or cream can make it feel airy and spacious. With evening light, going with cooler-toned cabinets can create a lovely contrast with the glowing golden hour, just like a sunset on the Mediterranean ocean.


Wall Materials are an Important Part of this Décor Question

While drywall will give you plenty of room to play, and can be painted over at any time, other wall materials like exposed brick, tile, or wood paneling can be more important to adapt your cabinets too. These options tend to be on the darker more textural side, meaning it can be a good idea to contrast that with brighter cabinets.


There are many examples, however, of kitchens with textured walls and a deep-colored cabinet scheme that work really well. Pairing brick with natural wood can really complement both of the materials’ natural qualities. Exposed brick walls can add a charming, rustic look to any room in your home. They work particularly well in a kitchen, where they create a warm, inviting mood that fits the usually bustling social space to a tee. Brick walls also allow for a certain amount of creativity since you will take your kitchen design in several different directions depending on the type of decor that you prefer. If it suits you, embrace the rustic look! While many suggestions are geared towards creating balance, brightness, and a feeling of openness, there are many decisions that are aesthetic, and completely based on your taste. For a modern and gothic look, you can pair black tiles with grey cabinets. For a rustic look, try pairing brick with natural wood cabinets. For contemporary chic, pair unstained wood panels with sleek white cabinets.

Cabinet Materials Matter Impact Whether Kitchen Cabinets Should be Lighter or Darker than Kitchen Walls

The material of your cabinets will significantly affect what color you can choose. Some like wood are easy to paint any color you choose. Materials like steel, plastic, or glass are much more of a permanent choice. Glass can be a really beautiful way to showcase special ceramics or glassware, and continue to make your kitchen feel open. Plastic is great for its low cost, and easiness to clean. Steel is often used in industrial-grade kitchens and is a really efficient and sturdy material for cabinets. It has become trendy in recent years. Solid wood remains a popular choice for many cabinet parts, including bases, frames and doors. However, most commercial cabinets have sides, backs and bottoms made of plywood or particleboard. Traditional-style solid-wood cabinetry is more expensive and many consumers opt for cabinets that incorporate many particle boards or plywood components to reduce costs. Pricing for solid wood cabinet doors depends on the wood species used. For example, teak is more expensive than cherry, which is more expensive than maple, which is more expensive than oak. Similarly, solid wood is more expensive than plywood which, in turn, is more expensive than particle board or similar sheet goods.


Keep all of this in mind when choosing the color and material of your cabinets. If your walls are white, it is always easy to go with any cabinet color option, you really can’t go wrong. In the end, in conversation with your walls, you want your cabinets to create a sense of harmony and beauty. For the more permanent color choices, remember you can always change the color of the wall if you want a change. There is no definitive answer as to whether, in any of these given materials, the cabinets should be lighter or darker than the walls around them. The main factors to consider are the levels of brightness, and contrast you are looking for.

Color of the Kitchen Countertops is Relevant

Countertops are a fairly permanent fixture in a kitchen, something that most people will change about every 15-20 years, or sometimes even much longer. They come in every imaginable color but do tend to be earth tones, or black or white. When choosing how your cabinet will fit with your walls, you will also want to consider how the countertops will integrate into the color scheme. On a whole, all-white can be overwhelming, the same as all black could be extremely dark. Usually, it is nice to have a palette that compliments the other parts, while creating balance. Quarts, marble, and light stone countertops have been trending. With such a bright-colored counter, opting for grey, or any smokier color can create a beautiful contrast. Countertops can also be honed or polished, the former being matte, and the latter being shiny. Depending on the finish of the counter, your cabinets can adapt to create balance.


Additional Questions to Consider:

It doesn’t end there.  Here are more questions and our answers when considering whether kitchen cabinets should be darker or lighter than the walls.

Can kitchen cabinets be the same color as the walls?

Kitchen cabinets can absolutely be the same color as the walls. A wonderful way to create diversity while using the same color is to choose different finishes on the walls and the cabinets. For example, a glossy coat on the wall, with a matte finished cabinet or vice versa. On the other hand, some contrast between the walls and cabinets can be a great way to use colors you love, and express yourself and your style. A green kitchen cabinet can pair so beautifully with white subway

Are white kitchen cabinets a good option?

For a small kitchen space, white cabinets are the ultimate choice. They will, however, always accumulate and show dirt more quickly. White kitchen cabinets are timeless and not subject to the trends of interior design. White is a color with “classic good looks,” where classic means a style that will endure through different time periods as generally attractive and trusted. If you choose this color of cabinet, you will never have to think twice if this color will ever go out of date. This type of cabinet will still look good after five years, and some long-time homeowners have been content with this choice after 20 years, from traditional to modern homes, white kitchen cabinets can work with any home decor.

Should the kitchen walls be lighter or darker than the living room?

The kitchen and living room can be different colors, as long as there’s a cohesive feeling throughout. Choose the color for each room based on how it will look in that specific room since the same color might act very differently in another room. The biggest factor when deciding whether or not these two rooms should be the same color is the position of the rooms. Here are a couple of ways to think about this. If your kitchen and living room are connected by the same wall, they should be the same color. If there isn’t a natural break between the walls in the two rooms, it will be nearly impossible to separate them based on the paint color. For instance, this living room and kitchen are a part of an open floor plan, which means they should be cohesive.

So, the answer really does vary based on size, materials, and contrasting elements, but the question of kitchen cabinet colors is yours to decide. There are a great many options, and there are also trends that usually influence what is on the market, and what you will see in magazines. Going into 2022, wood-stained kitchen cabinets will still be popular in more traditional kitchens. but people are becoming bolder when adding pops of color to their kitchens. Cool-toned cabinets are dominating the trends this year and white, gray, two-toned, blue, and even green cabinets are on the rise. Make the decision based on what you like, not just the trends, so you’ll be happy with your decision for years, and potentially decades to come!

Related: Is It Okay to have a Mix of Cabinets and Open Shelving in a Kitchen? |  Are Brick Kitchen Walls a Good Idea?