How to Give a New Kitchen Old-House Character

Learn how to achieve the right mix of textures and patterns in your kitchen with advice from the pros.

kitchen with blue stools
Photo: Nicole LaMotte

Historical homes are anything but one-dimensional. You'll typically find a mix of textures and patterns with a warm continuity that invites family and friends to gather. But with old appliances, countertops, and cabinets, even the most charming kitchens will eventually need a renovation. With a few simple tricks, you can maintain the character and integrity of your original kitchen during the renovation process.

Luckily, renovating your kitchen doesn’t mean you have to say goodbye to character-rich details. “I find the elegance of a kitchen to be in the simplicity, so while I like to keep it simple and not overdone, I layer different mediums and textures,” says Mackenzie Zwick of Mackenzie Page Interiors. “For example, a smooth stucco vent hood with marble countertops and intricate millwork details.” Her husband, Brian Zwick of Zwick Homes, says both millwork details and simple cabinetry upgrades can totally transform the look of the kitchen.

To inspire your own kitchen design, Mackenzie and Brian share their best tips for bringing a historical nod to your new renovation. 

kitchen with old house character

Mackenzie Page Interiors

Kitchen Color Considerations 

While the primary ways to achieve a more storied look in a newly-renovated kitchen are to-dos rather than don’ts, sometimes it’s also about avoiding certain pitfalls. For Mackenzie, that means skipping the cookie-cutter look that can come along with an all-white kitchen. “There are plenty of ways to get an ethereal and neutral kitchen without just doing white everywhere,” Mackenzie says. “Consider painting your walls in the kitchen a warm white, and then doing a soft neutral on your cabinets. The warmth you'll get is incredible.”

While bright white isn't the way to go if you’re looking to add character to your kitchen, that doesn’t mean you have to overthink the color scheme. “I like to keep counters and tile very simple,” Mackenzie says. She suggests simple white and gray marble paired with an updated subway tile. She also advises looking for tiles with irregular edges for a more handmade look.

Cabinets are typically where designers will play with color in a kitchen, and Mackenzie recommends choosing a cabinet color that brings joy. “If you want to incorporate color, be brave and just go for it. Do all the cabinets in color!” she says. Or look to breakfast nooks for a place to have some fun with patterned wallpaper. 

Whether it’s on the cabinets, in the form of patterned wallpaper, or even subtle veining in new marble countertops, keeping color at the forefront of your design is paramount to building character. “Color adds warmth, and making your space warm and inviting and not sterile is what gives a kitchen the new-old feel,” Mackenzie says. 

Consider the Details 

Your home’s history can help set the tone for your renovation, starting with the build. “Consider the style of your house when choosing millwork,” Brian says. “Choose things that are time period appropriate if you have an older home, and if your home is new, add extra millwork details that will lend some old house character.”

From there, it’s all about craftsmanship. Brian says proportion and scale, high-quality doors and windows, as well as small details like switch covers and lighting, are often overlooked and can make all the difference in furthering your aesthetic. 

Within homes of the past, everything had a purpose. “A little alcove in the hallway housed a telephone, an intricate hall tree in the entry was a place for hats and coats of your guests,” says Mckenzie. “You can apply these same principles in the kitchen.”

She suggests adding details that are both aesthetically pleasing and practical. “We love to add a marble ledge above the cooktop to house pretty bottles of olive oil and a salt and pepper mill," she says. You can also be more purposeful when it comes to storage. Consider a built-in island nook for cookbooks or a custom pull-out at the base of a cabinet for a pet-feeding station. 

white kitchen with flowers in sink
Edmund Barr

Where to Invest

Millwork and cabinetry are non-negotiables, says Mackenzie, but there’s a third player that’s also important: The paint job. A high-quality painter makes all the difference, especially in a space as hardworking as the kitchen. Mackenzie also recommends investing in both the kitchen faucet and appliances.

One thing both she and Brian agree on is the importance of paneling for large appliances like the fridge and dishwasher. This adds visual warmth by limiting the amount of stainless steel in the space. “It’s an extra cost, to be sure, but the end result is amazing,” Brian says.

Where to Save

“Carrara marble has become very cost-effective due to its popularity in recent years, and I love the look,” Mackenzie says. While it isn’t quite as indestructible as quartz countertops and does require some maintenance, its natural characteristics and rich history bring an instant sense of nostalgia. “The character and patina it takes on as it ages is unmatched,” she says.

When it comes to cabinet hardware, Mackenzie says a middle-of-the-row approach could be sufficient. “While I don't recommend buying the least expensive cabinet hardware possible, I love the options from House of Antique Hardware, which have both an old-home vibe (many of their styles are based on styles found in historic homes so that you can match existing old home hardware or create that feel if starting from scratch) and a classic look that will never go out of style,” she says.

She likes to use both unlacquered brass and polished nickel in her projects, with the former being a surefire winner for providing charm. “Unlacquered brass takes on a patina over time that gives you that ‘always been there’ feel,” she says.

Find the Right Builder

Finally, it’s important to have the right team in place to execute your vision. “While [as a builder] I don't conceptualize the actual design of the kitchen—that's decided on by the architect, designer, and homeowner—what I bring to the table is hiring sub-contractors and vendors who are true artisans,” Brian explains. “An understanding of quality and of the craftsmanship that is needed for each piece of the puzzle is what manifests really stand-out kitchens.” 

If the importance of quality isn’t properly understood from the start, Mackenzie warns you’ll have a bumpy road throughout the project. “A good builder can adapt to a variety of styles, but quality is something they need to inherently understand, otherwise it will be an uphill battle,” she says.

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