Tips for Choosing a Kitchen Materials Palette

Deciding on finishes is one of the most challenging parts of a remodel, particularly a kitchen remodel. The fact that there are no set rules to choosing materials and finishes makes the process that much more complicated. Every project is different, but there are still some general guidelines that can help you make sense of your kitchen remodel.

Rather than picking the cabinet wood species and finish color by itself, and then picking countertops and tile, I like my clients to work on overall palettes of colors and materials at the same time; we then layer the materials to create collages of patterns, textures and colors to see what works best together.

A client might have the idea that they want a ‘white kitchen’, usually meaning that they want white cabinets, but there are many whites out there and what you mix them with makes a huge impact on what the overall kitchen will look like.

Here are some tips for choosing a kitchen materials palette:

Start big.

The largest masses in the space will generally have the most impact. These generally include countertops, cabinetry, paint and backsplash materials. These large surface areas are a great place to start and can be the basis for your kitchen’s color palette as you will want to choose countertops, cabinetry colors, tile, fixture and wall colors that are complimentary.

Once you have a material or color idea for some of these larger details, work around them to create palettes. I generally work with a few palettes at a time and then adjust them as more ‘layers’ are added.

And don’t forget about texture. One of the mistakes that homeowners make is that they only consider color when designing their kitchen space. Aside from color, it’s important to consider tone and texture to create an overall design that does not appear visually flat when the project is completed.

Determine an overall theme.

If your style is traditional, transitional or modern, focus on an overall design theme as one of the first steps to selecting your materials. As a designer, I generally start by using the architectural style of the home as the basis for most of my kitchen designs. If we are working with a 1930’s bungalow, I always suggest using finish details consistent with the era and the architecture. From there I add layers of eclectic design elements that may differ from the architectural style, but they need to be harmoniously integrated into the overall palette. Here’s an example:

In a 1930’s bungalow, simple painted inset cabinetry would have typically been used. Elements such as hexagonal tiles, subway format wall tiles, simple window moldings and bead board ceilings were typical in that era. I may use some of these design elements, but update them with a modern spin, such as using a glass tile backsplash laid in a subway format, using an oversized hexagonal stone tile flooring or incorporating a wallpapered ceiling – all to add eclectic interest to the overall design. If a homeowner’s favorite color is red, I might suggest a splash of red on a painted kitchen island, which may differ from the overall cabinet color.

Most importantly, you need to inject your own sense of style and taste into any design. Check out design magazines, books and online images to identify your favorite design details and spaces. Using the imagery, you will then see patterns and determine design elements that should be incorporated into the space to make it your own.

Consider your countertops.

Countertops require careful consideration, as they can be one of the largest single items of color and texture in most kitchens. Choose countertop materials that are durable and easy to clean. For larger surface areas, I love quartz material such as Caesarstone and Silestone. For a luxurious statement, go for marble, stainless steel, zinc or natural wood. Target light, smooth and reflective materials without too much pattern (or ‘movement’), which will help to keep the space harmonious and bright. Large-format tiles or slabs of quartz or stone will minimize grout lines and create a smooth and easy-to-clean surface.

I usually recommend using a single countertop material, with a possible variation at a pantry, breakfast bar or an island – also to add layers of texture and visual interest.

Select a backsplash surface.

Your kitchen backsplash is a personality piece. The surface you choose to transition the area between the countertops and cabinetry should showcase the color scheme and theme of your kitchen, whether contemporary or traditional. Ultimately, the backsplash is a focal point. And it’s an opportunity to be creative. Countertops often dictate the backsplash color and style. Consider fixtures like your lighting and hardware before making any final decisions. And, consider backsplash surfaces other than ceramic tile, such as glass, metal, mirror and wood.

Factor in cabinetry design and finish.

Since cabinetry also covers a large surface area and wall cabinets are situated right at eye level, cabinetry design and finish is crucial. Cabinets can be finished in almost any color and texture to be cohesive with your overall palate. Whether you use custom inset, frameless or full overlay cabinetry, you will want to select door and drawer styles that are consistent with your overall design theme. I generally try to keep door and drawer styles clean and simple and then use the finish and the hardware to add the visual ‘jewelry’ to the space.

It’s always a good idea to stay away from trendy choices when it comes to cabinets. Most trends fizzle out in five years, and you may end up wanting to replace, reface or paint them, adding more cost. Timeless looks in neutral colors that will look good for many years are a better choice. Customize the cabinets with paint or finishes such as glazing or an antiqued look to add depth. Replacing hardware is much less expensive than replacing the cabinets.

Use additional finish details to pull the space together.

Fabrics, window coverings, door and drawer hardware – details like these will tie together the overall kitchen design. And, selecting these materials require that you do your homework to choose elements that will result in a harmonious look and feel.

Think about adding patina and texture through vintage pieces if you can find them. And don’t forget about items like artwork and area rugs or runners. Small touches like these will add character to your new kitchen.

Some final tips.

No one piece in the kitchen will stand alone; it all has to work together. Before finalizing any finish or color, place sample swatches of your choices together in the space to ensure they work together. When looking at material and paint colors, be sure your walls are primed white. If you plan to paint your window and door casings, prime them white too. If you’re keeping them as they are, make sure they are free of dust. Any amount of color in the room can throw off the new material swatch tests. View them at various times of day and always under similar lighting that will be used in the final space.

Make sure to use some coordinated finishes to tie the room together, but remember that not every detail has to match. Find a balance with contrasting colors, patterns and textures.

Robert Frank is a local resident and owner of Robert Frank Interiors, a full-service interior design and construction company located in San Marino, California. Robert Frank Interiors works in collaboration with clients to create beautiful, functional spaces that reflect their lifestyles and personalities. Visit us on the web at