My favorite challenge as a designer is renovating the kitchen in an older home. I enjoy creating a space that works for the 21st century family, while respecting the original architectural style of the house. There are two approaches to working in an older house. Firstly, to create a kitchen that reflects and reinforces the home’s original architectural style. The second option is to introduce contemporary elements for a transitional effect. Whichever direction you take, flexibility and creativity are key ingredients to a successful project. Also, think of surprises as opportunities and know that, as veteran of a renovation project, you will have great stories to tell!

kitchen in brownstone row house viewed from dining roomkitchen in brownstone row house viewed from dining room
In this 100-year-old brownstone, timeless Shaker cabinets provide an uncluttered look that enhances rather than competes with the home’s wide millwork and elaborate crown molding. Design by A.J. Johnson

Complement, Not Compete

When blending new with old, a common mistake is trying too hard to match the older home’s custom millwork and cabinets. It often works well to base the kitchen design on a Shaker cabinet such as our ShakerShaker or Shaker Inset. Their clean, simple lines provide a stylistically neutral backdrop that blends well with almost any architecture. From 19th-century farm homes to turn-of-the-century town homes and mid-century-modern ramblers, Shaker cabinets are the way to go . With the right selection of crown molding, decorative trim and hardware, the cabinetry will complement rather than compete with the home’s original style.

kitchen with white glass door cabinets in buffet and black shaker cabinets in islandkitchen with white glass door cabinets in buffet and black shaker cabinets in island
In the 1888 home above, a newly opened kitchen conceals sink, dishwasher and range in the island, and cabinets in a buffet wall, gracefully integrating kitchen and living spaces. Design by Sammi Lindemann

Creating Space

A typical challenge, is to create an open kitchen in a house designed for complete separation of spaces. When taking out a wall, I will often use a furniture-look feature such as a built-in buffet or custom island to make a graceful transition between the kitchen and living / dining rooms.

picture of kitchen wall with windows, open shelves, black countertop, farm style sink and shaker cabinets with cup pullspicture of kitchen wall with windows, open shelves, black countertop, farm style sink and shaker cabinets with cup pulls

If your kitchen is small, avoid wall cabinets in favor of open shelves for a light and spacious feel. Additionally, recover storage potential by optimizing lower cabinets with a careful selection of storage units. Look for an adjacent hall or closet to convert to a walk-in pantry.

Integrate existing features such as antique light fixtures or a wrought-iron floor grate into the final design. For a rustic effect, consider an apron sink, cup pulls on cabinets, wide-plank distressed flooring and industrial-style fixtures.

Expect a Lot of Work

Do not expect a renovation to be simple – some renovations are more like resurrections. Undoubtedly, an older home will have been built with non-standard dimensions. The new kitchen may likely wrap around bumped-out walls and mechanical chases. Also, cabinets may have to accommodate low windows, high ceilings and a shortage of countertop space. The original home may also be divided into awkward apartments. With CliqStudios semi-custom cabinets, a wide range of modifications allow me to create a graceful line of cabinets across an irregular wall or shallow hallway.

walk-in pantry behind refrigerator has open shelving sotragewalk-in pantry behind refrigerator has open shelving sotrage

Those walls hold mysteries! Tear-out is an adventure. Therefore, build some flex into your budget for unforeseen structural and mechanical issues. Electrical and plumbing systems are unlikely to be ready for modern appliances without major updates. On the positive side, your walls may yield up time capsules – in my home’s walls I found a 1930’s pack of Lucky Strikes and a mysterious keyhole slot.

Hire a Professional

The skills of the finish carpenter will make or break a renovation. Be sure to hire a contractor with experience in similar projects. Your pro should handle irregular walls and floors and surprises such as unexpected vents, rafter tails and radiator pipes with creativity and grace. It’s best to have your pro check all measurements before you order cabinets. The installer should be prepared to modify a cabinet on site if necessary. Overall, it may take serious artistry to cut crown molding and base trim to fit perfectly.

Browse historic renovation stories in our gallery: