Give dated wood cabinetry a fresh update with these design ideas.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, oak was a popular choice for kitchen cabinetry in homes across America, and this cabinet material remains in many homes today. Oak is a hardwood and, if properly cared for, can still be used in contemporary kitchens. However, the typical orange oak finish of decades past can look dated in today's kitchens. If it doesn't make sense for you to replace your old wood cabinetry simply for aesthetic reasons, the challenge becomes how to decorate with oak cabinets in a fresh way. Use these oak cabinetry ideas to make this material work in your modern kitchen.

Kitchen with wooden cabinets and geometric wallpaper
Credit: Kritsada Panichgul

1. Create a Focal Point

Large stretches of oak cabinets have a tendency to overpower kitchen designs, but you can minimize their appearance by creating a different focal point. Install a striking tile backsplash or opt for a statement range hood to shift the attention away from the cabinetry. For a more budget-friendly update, lay down a patterned area rug or runner to balance the visual weight throughout the room.

Contemporary kitchen with two tone cabinetry
Credit: Laurie Black

2. Cool Down Oak Cabinetry

Oak cabinetry often features an orange finish that can make your kitchen appear outdated. To tone down the warmth of oak cabinets, outfit the rest of the kitchen in cool refreshing tones such as blues or greens. Here, the backsplash is tiled with varying shades of teal to temper the rich wood tones in the cabinetry. Cool gray walls and blue accessories reinforce the effect.

red oak cabinets
Credit: John Gruen

3. Accessorize Oak Cabinetry

Wood furniture or cabinets act as a neutral, opening up opportunities to incorporate color into your kitchen. Accessorize around oak cabinetry with treasured objects such as decorative plates or colored glass vases. In the kitchen, pull in objects that reflect your style or preferred color palette such as ceramic planters, dish towels, or small appliances. Lighting contributes to the ambience, so include fixtures that complement the existing architecture or the overall aesthetic.

dark green tiled kitchen with larch-wood cabinets with cutout handles
Credit: Kim Cornelison Photography Inc.

4. Design Contemporary Oak Cabinets

Oak that is less lacquered and left in its natural state makes a more modern statement. Consider alternative ways to add style to oak cabinets with contemporary pulls, sleek countertops and fixtures, or a backsplash in modern geometric shapes. For another fresh approach, minimize clutter and introduce artwork and home accessories in moderation to balance the weight of the heavier wood surfaces.

Kitchen with gray brick and wooden cabinets
Credit: John Granen

5. Mix Wood Tones

There is no design rule that states wood tones need to match. In fact, one of the latest kitchen design trends is to ignore the matchy-matchy customs of the past and instead mix wood tones. Deepen oak with a rich walnut stain and combine it with natural or rustic exposed wood for a look that showcases the individual beauty of the grain.

after kitchen vintage orange cabinets
Credit: Laurie Black

6. Pair Oak Cabinets with Light Tones

Detract from the heavy look of oak cabinets by opting for lighter tones in other areas of your kitchen. Use white or light-colored walls, flooring, and countertops to brighten a space. Shiny surfaces, including glass tile and stainless-steel appliances, can also reflect light and give the room a visual lift. Notice how the oak cabinets in this kitchen are balanced by white walls and sleek gray accents for a polished look.

high ceiling dining room with gray rug and wooden accents
Credit: Kim Cornelison

7. Try Two-Tone Oak Cabinetry

Two-tone cabinets are a growing trend in kitchen design. Consider painting a block of cabinets, such as the base cabinets, in a contrasting accent color to add interest and variety to a kitchen that feels overwhelmed by wood surfaces. If you're nervous about going bold on such a big project, warm white is a classic choice that pairs well with most oak cabinets. Repeat the shade chosen for the painted cabinets in accessories for a cohesive kitchen color scheme.

Kitchen with green cabinets and black and white geometric floors
Credit: Annie Schlecther

8. Paint Your Oak Cabinets

An alternative to preserving the look of oak is to take the plunge and paint your kitchen cabinets in an appealing shade. Neutral colors such as white, cream, black, taupe, or gray make timeless cabinet paint colors. Painting cabinets preserves their integrity and provides a fresh new look without the cost of replacement. Once you've painted oak cabinets, consider adding new hardware, a glass tile backsplash, and affordable laminate countertops in modern patterns that replicate stone as a way to transform a kitchen on a budget.

Comments (1)

Better Homes & Gardens Member
September 22, 2019
What is the wall paint colors in the kitchen pictures? Thank you!