How to Add Warmth to a Clean, Contemporary Kitchen
Modern kitchens may be cool—but that doesn’t mean they have to feel that way.
Many people are drawn to the cool colours, clean lines and minimalist shapes that characterize a modern decor style. And some of these same people want their kitchen to feel like a cozy and inviting gathering space. So what do you do when you desire the cool vibes of modernism but also crave warmth? You design a warm contemporary kitchen.
“The first thing you think of in contemporary kitchens is clean lines and not a lot of adornment or overly decorative features,” says Ginger Curtis of Urbanology Designs. Colour schemes can vary, but classic choices include white, cream, tan, beige, grey, black and sometimes a mix of these colours. Palettes tend toward “slightly more monochromatic designs,” Curtis adds, while patterns tend to be more minimal or uniform.
You Better Shape Up
The secret to getting a warm contemporary kitchen is building a foundation of shapes that embody contemporary style. From there, you can add features—in the form of colour or material—that bring warmth to a kitchen. “Achieving a contemporary look that is also warm requires attention to balance, proportion and combinations of finishes, colours, textures that bring the space to life,” says Megan Padilla, senior designer at Aidan Design. To get started, let’s look at the basic shapes and elements that set the stage.
Cabinets: “The easiest way to make a kitchen contemporary is to have a contemporary cabinet. If you have a slab door, that is a contemporary kitchen,” says Liza Riguerra of Riguerra Design. A slab door or drawer is flat, in one piece, without trims or frills. Often it lays over the cabinet, but sometimes it is set into the cabinet frame in a construction method known as inset. In terms of colours and finishes, these cabinets may be white and glossy or matte and flat, and made from wood or a variety of laminates. Many finishes can work.
Cabinet pulls: Contemporary kitchens often lack cabinet knobs or pulls. Designers can use press-touch technology or channel pulls to maintain a clean look without adding hardware. Or simple streamlined bar pulls can work in harmony with the other crisp elements of the kitchen. “If you want a decorative look, you can get stainless steel or matte black,” says Hellen Hsieh of Design Loft Co. “Not too fussy.” You also might see white or chrome pulls.
Horizontal orientation makes for a contemporary look and allows for uniformity, whether the cabinet opens to the left or the right, says Michael Rasky of Modern Nest. Oversizing also creates a contemporary look. “Eight to 12 inches feels a little more modern than four or five inches,” Rasky says.
Island: A popular look in contemporary kitchens is an island with a waterfall edge, which is when the counter material continues along the short edge of the island, like a waterfall tumbling off a cliff.
Flooring: Concrete, or materials that look like concrete, is excellent for a contemporary kitchen, but there are many floor types that can work. The key is not looking rustic (like knotty or rough wood grains) or heavily patterned or vintage (like Spanish or Moroccan tiles). Pattern in contemporary floors tends to be subtle or nonexistent. Oversize tile in concrete or porcelain can work, as can hardwoods.
Countertops and backsplash: In contemporary kitchens, the countertops and backsplash are frequently made of the same material, which is often a manmade option such as engineered quartz or solid surface. Watch out for too much pattern in a natural material, as it could pull the kitchen into a different design direction. For instance, “most granite cannot be very contemporary feeling,” Rasky says.
As for the countertop finish, “you’re going to see two things: shiny or matte—and less of an in-between,” Curtis says.
The backsplash doesn’t always have to be the same as the countertop, though. “There are so many options for materials,” Riguerra says. Glass tiles with clean lines can make for a contemporary look, as can more contemporary ceramic tiles or even a stone if it is “more uniform-looking,” she says.
Appliances and fixtures: Range hoods as well as appliances tend to be sleek with minimal lines. Faucets tend to be clean and sophisticated, often in stainless steel or matte black.
It’s All About the Layers
Introduce wood for organic warmth: Once you’ve planned the basic shapes for your contemporary kitchen, you might consider warming up the space by introducing wood. Notice how this kitchen has a strikingly different feel thanks to the wood used on the two islands and many of the cabinets.
You can choose from a variety of colours and types of wood, since all wood is considered inherently warm, but you’ll want to select a cut of the grain that doesn’t look too rustic. “Nothing knotty, like pine,” Curtis says. Wood with straight grain lines can work well in a contemporary kitchen.
“A nice material is quarter-sawn oak. It’s cut in such a way that the lines are very clean,” Riguerra says. “The [grain] lines look very vertical, and as a result, it looks very contemporary, very clean.” Rift-cut wood is another choice for contemporary kitchens. If you prefer to keep your cabinets and island a colour and not use wood, an alternative way to warm up your kitchen is to select a wood floor. After all, the second biggest feature in the kitchen, after the cabinets, is what’s underfoot.
Bring warmth with colour: This kitchen, one of Rasky’s designs, benefits not only from the warmth of walnut—note the vertical grain—but also from the warm colours in the tile backsplash. Oranges, reds and golds are considered the warmer colours on the colour wheel, and this room shows how they can be deployed to warm up a space.
If you want your kitchen to feel a bit more personal, you could choose an accent colour for the wall paint or the backsplash. “You could go bold with an orange wall,” Hsieh says. “Or a bright lime-green wall—something to give it a pop.” Just be sure that whatever accent colour you choose has warm undertones.
You can bring warmth into a kitchen even if you prefer to eschew both wood and overtly warm colours in favour of a contemporary favourite like grey. “Grey is very popular right now, but one mistake that homeowners do is paint the wrong grey,” Hsieh says. “Usually I would choose a warm grey, closer to a brown tone than the cooler grey tones.”
Add texture: Another way to add warmth and richness to a kitchen space is through the use of textured materials. In this kitchen, a mix of textures within an overall neutral palette—the vertical grain of the veneer on the cabinets, the shimmer of the backsplash, the organic drama of the range hood—helps soften the space and make it feel more inviting.
Rust-coloured throw pillows in the dining area also raise the room’s temperature. “You can mix a white laminate and another that is more of a greyish tone with texture,” Hsieh says. “That’s the beauty of laminate: You can get these textures you can’t get with wood.”
“We like a tone-on-tone look with lots of texture,” Padilla says. “That may be achieved with a rift-cut veneer for the cabinets and chunky salvaged-wood floating shelves in a wood stain. Textural countertops with a leathered or matte finish get layered on, and the lighting and hardware are used to add eye-catching elements.”
Create depth in your design: This is a more advanced strategy, and one you might want to get a kitchen designer to help you with. Basically the idea is that the design details themselves can give your kitchen warmth. “Warmth is not always a colour thing; it’s also about the depth of a design,” Rasky says. For example, “if you were to take something like a bright white kitchen, and use tile or stone for the backsplash and countertops, and have depth.”
This kitchen is one example of the ideas Rasky is talking about. Here, design firm Minosa used large-format tiles to give the back wall texture, interest and a range of colours. Wood warms up the kitchen, yes, but so does the interplay between the patterns of the large-format wall tile, the subtly variegated flooring and the vertical grain of the wood on the island.
With a white counter, choosing a material that contains glass or resin in its mix can help the countertop bounce around light, Rasky suggests. Or, you could choose a white with a subtle pattern to keep the countertop from feeling flat. “When things are monochromatic, it can feel very cold and a little flat and a little dead,” Rasky says. “Something that’s not completely solid, but has different variations, gives more depth.”