Ask Maria: About Kitchen Cabinet Uppers and Lowers in Different Colours

I’ve been receiving questions on two-toned cabinets lately and I can’t believe I’ve never addressed them on the blog. Here is my lovely readers question:

I’m about to refinish my 90’s oak cathedral raised panel kitchen cabinets, and am considering a two toned paint scheme. I’m thinking Fieldstone lowers and Gray Cashmere uppers. Do you think this is a trend or is this a classic look? I hesitate to do this until I get the Maria Killam stamp of approval. Can you tell us when or if this is ever a good idea?

Often when we’re looking for inspiration photos to help us plan a renovation or new build, we’re looking at photos like this (below).

Gorgeous kitchens in high-end homes that most of us don’t live in. This is another reason why I talk so much about classic and timeless finishes that seem boring to some people.

Most of the time, a new trend is incorporated the wrong way if you’re doing an update, on your own, without a designer. For example, you fall in love with a large scale encaustic tile for a space that is way too small to handle it, or you take another interesting patterned tile and decide to install it on your backsplash along with a patterned granite countertop. 

Here’s the thing. . . as I’ve said many times before, if you think my advice to install subway tile for your backsplash must mean I have zero creativity, you can keep clicking. There’s lots of people who could live with this backsplash (below) for a long time and are very happy they found my advice BEFORE they installed the trendy backsplash tile they were originally considering.
Great coordination of kelly green and white cabinets

Image source

Back to inspiration images. The problem with them is that the average house doesn’t look like this kelly green kitchen (above).

In this kitchen, the kelly green lowers and white uppers look right as rain. To my eye anyway. And here’s why it works.

The white subway tile relates to the white uppers. Kelly green looks amazing with black and white.

Here’s an entire kitchen in kelly green.

Which one do you prefer?

Kelly green kitchen with white subway tile backsplash

Interior Design by Bailey McCarthy

What else are you installing?

It’s very important that you choose everything before you simply choose different colours for your uppers and lowers.

Most people make random colour choices without thinking through what the rest of their finishes will be or how the colours in their kitchen will flow with the rest of their house.

I can’t tell you how many times people would walk into the paint store with their countertop or tile sample and were SURPRISED when I chose a colour that RELATED to said tile or countertop.

So let’s explore some more of them shall we?

Here’s a trendy grey on the lowers:

Blue lowers and white uppers

via pinterest

And notice that it needs the carpet that relates to the lowers, otherwise the grey is all by itself–especially because the beams in this kitchen appear to be taupe–don’t relate to the cabinets.

Why this works

Pull your colours in with backsplash tile

House & Home

The backsplash tile here relates to the uppers and the lowers making this kitchen look well thought out.

Charcoal and white kitchen

via HomeBunch

Here the ALL CHARCOAL kitchen looks a little heavy (above). If you are going to choose a trendy colour like charcoal grey for your cabinets, better to keep them on the lowers like the first image.

At least the hardwood floors here are perfect.

 charcoal-uppersvia Desire to Inspire

The darkest colour should usually go on the bottom. There’s nothing wrong with this kitchen (above) but to my eye the charcoal should have been on the lowers.

charcoal-lowers-kitchen

via Pinterest

However, most kitchens have pantry walls now so then you have to choose which colour goes on the pantry wall if you’re going to have dual coloured kitchen cabinets.

grey-lowers-white-uppers

via Pinterest

I would consider leaving the pantry wall in white if you have to choose (above).

wood-lowers-white-shelving

via Pinterest

I prefer a little wood in a completely modern kitchen with white slab doors (above). Here the upper shelving relates to the lowers which makes sense visually.

wood-lowers-white-uppers-kitchen

via BHG

If I had to choose two colours for my kitchen, I would probably choose stained cabinets on the lowers to relate to the hardwood floors and then white for the uppers. It still feels light and fresh but the lowers (which take most of the beating with wear and tear) feel like furniture here instead of kitchen cabinets.

Also, note that again, this is a higher end kitchen with high ceilings. Take an off-the-shelf builder kitchen without the furniture look of this kitchen and it would not look nearly as amazing!

Bottom line, if you are in love with grey and want to incorporate it into your kitchen, trendy or not, perhaps keep it on the lowers. Easier to change down the road when you fall out of love with grey. Which, by-the-way, will happen. Just like you’re probably not considering espresso brown right now, but you might have been a short 5 or 7 years ago when brown was on trend.

If you are considering a colour and not a neutral, make sure it relates to something. When you paint both uppers and lowers the same colour, they relate. But if you simply have navy blue lowers for example, it doesn’t look like a designer has been there if you don’t repeat that navy elsewhere in the kitchen.

Don’t forget about Contrast. If you’re going to install contrasting colours, which usually means darker on the bottom, keep your countertop a solid white or cream. In all the images I viewed when writing this post, the kitchens I liked the least where ones with granite countertops. It just starts looking too busy when you add granite to a two-toned kitchen.

One more thing, you might be considering two colours because you want your kitchen to look ‘interesting’. Interesting comes from styling which is way easier to switch out than a trendy colour that will date your kitchen faster than anything else.

That’s my classic and timeless advice for the week!

Which kitchen is your favourite?

If you have a question for my Ask Maria posts, please post it in the comments below!

If you would like your kitchen to fill you with happiness when you walk in the door, check out my eDesign packages.

Related posts:

When Should You Rip Out Brand New Tile?

Can Your House be Trendy & Classic at the Same Time?

One More Reason You Should Skip Accent Tiles Altogether

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  1. Thanks Maria. I really enjoyed and appreciated your comments and the photos you chose to help distinguish the different concepts. I am planning a new kitchen and thought I wanted a dark colour on my island until I read this post. You have me rethinking that however I am thinking of going with a walnut butcher block top on the island to bring in the warmth of wood. We have real beech hardwood (vs. engineered hardwood) flooring throughout an open concept design (kitchen, dining room and living room/family room). I love your “not boring to me” white kitchen with white quartz countertop and white subway tile backsplash however, I think our cabinets should be in the off-white (Simply White) range because of the wall paint colour I am thinking of using after having bought your e-books. So my question is: how would the white quartz countertop and a white apron-front farmhouse sink look against Simply White cabinets? Thanks for your very welcome input.

  2. Great post, Maria, and I love your comments on the various kitchens. I didn’t notice the taupe beam until you mentioned it, then “Ugh!” Could never live with that. I can admire several of the kitchens– the first green and the gray with chevron tile, in particular–without thinking that I would want them in my house. The funny thing about all the gray cabs is that I would never want any of them, despite the fact that I love the color gray and always have. In 2005 we gutted our main bathroom. I found a picture in a magazine of a bathroom with gray and white ceramic tile and ended up basing the renovation on that picture, but finding gray tile back then was extremely difficult. So I wanted gray in the bathroom, with lots of white, but never wanted it in our kitchen. Does that have anything to do with living in snow country? Perhaps. The gray in my Carrara marble countertops in a white kitchen is enough for me.

  3. My favorite eye candy kitchen in this post is the first with the green lowers.

    I love your advice in this post. Thank you for the good info and examples.

    One of my favorite real life kitchens was in a small house where the cabinets were all painted a very pretty blue. In a real life house without high ceilings and tons of natural light my friends choice of using a color for all the cabinets was better than all white probably would have been. Since I know so much more from Maria now I could probably analyze it better, but at the time I know it just looked right and felt happy!

  4. Beautiful kitchens!
    We are looking to redo our 1991 kitchen and I want off white cabinets to replace the orangey oak ones. Does anyone know if off white cabinets work when the trim around the windows and baseboards are stained wood? Could I leave the trim (not cabinet trim, but windows and baseboards trim) wood stained and have off white cabinets without looking out of place? I just can’t picture this all in my head. We have two (horizontal support) beams that are in the kitchen area ceiling that are orangey wood that might be able to be painted to blend with the ceiling. The flooring is stained wood that blends with the trim, beams, and doors. Ideas anyone??

  5. I like the second picture of the green lacquered cabinets the best which got me wondering if a “lacquered” finish would give a classier finish if you were going to paint over builders oak
    cabinets? I’ve seen several houses in my neighborhood that have painted over the builders gold oak cabinets that were installed with the houses and some of them look quite nice especially the ones done in darker colors like gunmetal grey or black. But the ones in white not
    so good. But the finishes were a flat paint and Im wondering if something with more sheen like the lacquered green ones would look better? In short….how much difference does sheen make in the final result when repainting oak cabinets?

  6. Maria, First of all I LOVE your new website! Every post is so instructive and valuable! Reading all of the comments is so much fun and also informative. You have done such a great job! None of this would you get from design courses.

    I agree that the “wow” kitchens that you have posted do not fit in with most average homes. I think that it takes an open concept design. I have always loved all white kitchens with different accessories that pulls colors together. That being said, if you have enough room in a remodel to put in a center island, I still would want the uppers and lowers to be white with subway tile in a pattern that you like. If you want to then get “trendy” you could paint the island a color that goes with the rest of your pallet throughout the house. Making the island look like a piece of furniture as you suggested is what makes the space look updated.

    I love the dramatic emerald green kitchen in the first picture and like you, I also like the last one for something simple and relative.

  7. Hi Maria,

    Great post! I’ve always wondered what you thought about this trend. I guess I should have asked! A quick clarifying question for you–do your thoughts on two toned cabinets also apply to kitchen islands? For example, if the perimeter upper and lowers are the same color (stain or painted) and the island were a different color, is that considered a trendy no-no in the average kitchen? Or, would that be okay as long as the color relates to something else in the room/adjoining room? Thanks!

  8. Great post. I just remodeled my kitchen and as much as I love the idea of using a dark lower and a light upper, I couldn’t make it work in my u shaped layout. I don’t regret going classic white either. I am brining in color and originality through art and décor instead. You were completely on target when you pointed out that most of us don’t live in those photographed homes.

  9. Thank you, Maria, for a great post. I think you’re spot on with the pantry units being in the lighter colour if you go for a two-toned kitchen, unless they are superbly unique and you want to draw attention to them.

    On another note, I’ve never been fond of subway tile – sorry, I realise I might be the odd one out, but I just cant help or defend it. What would be your second go-to wall tile/ finish for a timeless look? Thanks for putting so much effort into your posts. Mia

    • Something plain and white or cream, whatever goes with your kitchen. Doesn’t matter what the shape is. Hope that helps! Maria

  10. Maria, I just want to thank you because we are in the process of building a house with a large builder, meaning that my choices are kind of limited. However, because of your blog, I was NOT to be talked out of my simple vision– white subway backsplash, black granite countertops (I agree with you about granite, but again, my choice is somewhat limited), white cabinets. Light, wide plank floors. Bathrooms are all white with NO accent tiles. A few years ago we redid our master bath and I walked in to the tile store knowing I wanted white, but somehow allowed myself to be talked into early tile with that rectangular, mixed stone accent band! How did I let that happen?? The guy who sold it to me had just told me he painted his bathroom “Tigger Orange”. What in the world made me listen to him??? Understanding WHY I like something gives me much more confidence to stick to it. I will definitely be purchasing your White is Complicated before we paint! Thank you so much for your advice!!

  11. Is it ever ok to have bathroom tiles painted? We moved into a house and two of the bathrooms have brown tile. The quality is good but style? Not so much. So. Can I get I painted? Or is ripping it out the only option? Thanks Maria!

    • If they are flat and on the wall I would probably keep painting until the end of time rather than have a brown bathroom! Go for it. Get some good instructions from the paint store. . . Maria

  12. Wow – Re the green lower cabinets and white uppers: The darker bottom really “grounds” the lower cabinets and the white uppers make them almost disappear, making the kitchen look fresh and brand new! I love how you hardly notice the uppers yet you still have all that storage! And that gorgeous green! A terrific post! Thanks, Maria!

  13. Your advice to me was to paint the cabinets Chantilly lace which looks really good.my sister convinced me to consider painting the bottom set of cupboards a dark colour to reduce the cleaning . I found the paint colour chocolate sparkle and love it. My updated oak cabinets look great ! Thanks

  14. I’m not a fan of dual-colored kitchen cabinets. I’d much rather see an island painted in a different color. Otherwise, it’s just too busy and disconnected for my taste. Of course, if someone is going to go with two colors, it’s much better to keep the lower cabinets the darker color.

  15. IMO all are lovely kitchens in their own right; however my personal preference is all upper and lower cabinets the same. That said; re Bailey McCarthy’s green lacquer ones I believe are those of her former kitchen which theoretically proves she was well ahead of the time in her ‘ salute to the Irish’ … ºÛº …. and the usage of Kelly Green projected for this year. -Brenda-

  16. A little late to the discussion- but not for lack of thinking about this topic.

    First, I need to ask- Does the yellow above the window in the first picture bother anyone else? There’s yellow on the barstools, but gosh I just want to tile up that section.

    I actually love the full-on green, but would never consider for myself.

    After looking thru the pictures, I think the two-tone can be striking, but also “demanding.” They require your attention.

    Ah Maria, I have been a white kitchen gal for a long time. I can have occassional pangs of natural wood envy, but I never grow tired of my white kitchen.

  17. Dual colors would be a no in my book (trendy). I like it when I walk into a room and my eye settles on things that are about chair rail to picture rail height. In the all green space my eye rests on the counter area which is fine. I appreciate all the gold there. Green lower with the white… my eye cannot help but to fix on the green. In the mixed gray- white this is a little harder. I am drawn to the backsplash but the valance with the gold light is fighting for my attention. I would have gone with a more boring fabric. The all gray feels too dark.. I would have gone with a medium shade of green gray. As a side note I have never seen a kitchen with gray cabinets until this recent gray trend. I have seen gray cabs in spaces like a dr office or lab (70-90s), retro gray furniture, gray toilets, older gray brick a brack but nope to the kitchen.. Did they not do them or did we tire of it that quickly?

  18. I have an Ask Maria question. Why is brown not considered a complex neutral? There are orange browns, red browns, purply browns, beige browns, grey browns, black browns, etc. Even if you are not decorating in the Tuscan brown trend, sometimes you still use brown! Selecting hardwood floors can be tricky because they have a great variation of undertones even if they are medium brown. If you have some medium brown wood furniture or existing stained pieces in your home, can you make an obvious wrong choice with browns like mixing pink beige with yellow beige? Since taking your online course and reading your blog I have become so hyper-sensitive to competing undertones that I see them everywhere, even in brown – am I the only one? Is no one else bothered by this? 🙂 I would like to learn more about what to look for when ‘mixing’ browns together, similar to the education on beiges and greys.

    • Hi Meegan,
      Just like Black, brown has undertones for sure. I wouldn’t call brown or black ‘primary undertones’ but yes they do. People don’t make such huge, irreversible mistakes with brown and black which is why I haven’t focused on those colours like I have the lighter and mid-tone undertones.

      When choosing a medium brown hardwood floor, should you coordinate the shade of brown with your existing wood furniture? Yes, absolutely. And wood photographs really bad, makes it hard to show different shades of brown like that accurately in a blog post in a really useful way.

      Hope that helps,
      Maria

  19. My kitchen was all white and I just re-did it in all sapele magogany, natural, which is a medium toned, gorgeous wood. I was thinking about doing the uppers in white because I was worried it would seem too top heavy, but I actually have very few uppers. So instead I did some glass doors for the first time. I don’t like seeing things through the glass so I used a fairly opaque “bamboo” glass since it was a tropical house.

    In general I do like the look of multi-colors of cabinets, but it has to be done very well. I feel it works better when it’s not just uppers and lowers, but also tall cabinets, islands, etc. Like the modern one above with the wood lowers and white uppers, it only works because of the balance of the wood shelf, and also that the countertop is white like the uppers.

  20. Hi Maria. I have purchased both of your books and think your work is great! I have an ask maria question for you and I am not sure where to send it… Basically our living room was very weighed down by the dated orange fireplace when everything else in the room was clean and crisp. I tried to whitewash the brick, but next to the white build-ins, the undertone is too purple. I can’t even handle being in the room and looking at it! I don’t know if I should paint the whole thing white or try to reface it with stone or tile. Help! I would be happy to send a picture if you are interested in addressing dated fireplaces. Thank you!!!

  21. I forgot to mention, I’m really like your blog these days. I like how you are explaining why something works for you or doesn’t. And I’m glad you’re mentioning things like how regular houses don’t look like show houses. The first reference I’d seen to that was in a kitchen design book where the author said most kitchens that you see places like Houzz have 9 foot+ ceilings, and if you do your hood and pendants the same with an 8 foot ceiling they will look odd.

  22. I have an Ask Maria question! I’d love to see a blog post on this one day if you haven’t addressed it (I searched, maybe I missed it?). What advice would you give on choosing a ceiling fan for a room? What should its colors/finishes relate to? How do you factor in style and proportion so it doesn’t look dinky or bloated, or dated soon after installing it? Thank you!

  23. Hi Beautiful Maria,

    Your house is incredible. I love every single thing about it. I was wondering if you have laminate or hardwood? If it is laminate, it is perfect. I am trying to decide what to use in my condo. Your help would be greatly appreciated.

    You are the best designer/color expert, EXTRAORDINARY

    • What a lovely comment thanks! It’s a high end laminate from Pravada floors, they are available in the Westcoast of Canada and the US (not sure if they still make this particular style but it’s worth looking into. thanks for your comment! Maria

  24. Two toned cabinets in the kitchen: Yes, I think it is a trend that she will eventually decide is done.
    Given that I was about to do the same thing with my kitchen you have to consider me one of the converted, Maria. My 108 year old house got a half dose of renovation a number of years ago with white raised panel cabinets. Next came the black stove…it was on sale, and ours had just failed. My husband surprised me with some hand-me-down Blue Pearl Norwegian black granite counter tops after I admired them, which he has yet to install. I thought about painting the bottom cabinets a blue undertone grey to relate to the colour flashes in the granite and decrease the contrast of the black stove in the white kitchen, but I think I will give that a miss. Those counter tops are busy enough. I have large (4×16) subway tile in glossy white and a cherry wood colour laminate floor that continues the colour of the original fir floor from the living room. It is not your perfect colour wood floor, but the kitchen entrance can be seen from the front door and living room so some visual continuity is what I am going for with that choice. I am also using that laminate for the central hallway that is connected to both the living room and kitchen so it will have some flow. The laminate was another of my husband’s spontaneous purchases and it is to cover the century old battleship coulored lino in those rooms. I fight the notion that I could add more colour and hold tight to the mantra…colour can come with the styling. Perhaps the next thing will be to seek out lowers that relate to the floor colour instead. For wall colour I will continue the flow of yellow tones from the living room into the kitchen and hallway. The hard finishes in the hallway are an original to the house faux red mahogany paint job on the doors with half height red mahogany panelling, so the red toned wood will further relate. I want to paint the hallway upper walls a distinct yellow based pumpkin or Chinese yellow. It is hard to work around my husband’s spontaneous purchases and freebies he brings home, but with a little bit of coaching from you it is coming together. Thanks for your opinions.

  25. Maria, I’m a new reader of your site and love it! I finding trouble justifying paint my kitchen cabinets as our home is only 7 years old but if I do go ahead is it best to hire a professional or do it yourself? Also what is the “best” kind of paint and what is the best method to apply it. I don’t want to see brush marks! Also can you go with off-white instead of white or does it clash with the white subway tiles or would it help tie together with the brown fleck granite counter top!?
    I make sure I think a lot before making any moves on décor changes!
    Thanks Charlene

    • Hi Charlene,
      For durability, I’d probably hire someone to do it, as for what is the best way, talk to your paint store. There is enough information on-line about painting cabinets that I haven’t written that post.
      My white eBook will help you choose the right white, without photos it’s impossible for me to give accurate advice. http://www.mariakillam.com/product/white-is-complicated/
      Hope that helps,
      Maria

  26. Hello Ms. Killam,
    Your post from last January just verified many of the design choices my husband and I made last winter that are in the midst of implementation right now. We’re in week #9 of our kitchen renovation. (Replacement of our original 1984, 7’x9′ tiled floor space, galley kitchen opened up into a first floor ‘flow’ design.)
    My inspiration in creating a timeless and classic kitchen was the Nantucket Lightship Basket. This basket was handmade hundreds of years ago and has withstood the test of time. My husband and I do not own Nantucket property but we greatly respect the courage, craftsmanship, and ingenuity of the men who manned the Lightships. Our stained lower cabinets made sense because the lower cabinets take a beating. The ivory/schrimshaw accents of the Lightship basket is reflected in the ivory uppers and pantry. I was so excited to find leather finished Hanstone called Aramis which coordinates with straps on the Lightship basket. I was happy and relieved to read that you think qranite countertops can be a little busy looking with two-toned cabinetry. Currently we’re shopping for an ivory/beige glass, possibly herringbone design (easy to clean and woven looking) for the backsplash. If you’d like to blog about our kitchen as it’s under construction, that would be fun because I too am “in repair,” recovering from hand surgery. Discovery your January blog post was a very welcome surprise! I can hardly wait to show my husband!