Through the 1980s and 1990s, oak cabinets were the popular choice among builders for kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms in homes across America, and they remain in many of them to this day. Oak is a hard wood and if properly cared for can still be used in a practical way. The challenge becomes how to decorate around them when it makes no sense to replace them simply for aesthetic reasons.
Wood furniture or cabinets act as a neutral, so accessorize around them 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 always contributes to the ambiance, so include fixtures that complement the existing architecture or reflect your personal style.
Oak that is less lacquered and left in its clean and natural state is attractive. Consider alternative ways to add style with contemporary pulls, sleek countertops and fixtures, or a backsplash in modern geometric shapes. A fresh approach is to minimize clutter and introduce artwork and home accessories in moderation to balance the weight of the heavier wood surfaces.
There is no rule in design that states wood tones should match. In fact, the latest movement is to ignore the matchy-matchy trends of the past and instead mix wood tones together. 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.
Detract from the visual weight of oak cabinets by opting for white or light flooring or countertops to brighten a space. Notice how the oak cabinet in this bathroom is balanced by the paler paint and accessories in a cheerful shade of yellow.
Two-tone kitchens are desirable in the marketplace and a growing trend in kitchen design. Consider painting a block of cabinets, such as the lowers, to add interest and variety to a kitchen that feels overwhelmed by wood surfaces. Repeat the shade chosen for the painted cabinets in accessories.
An alternative to preserving the look of the oak is to take the plunge and paint your kitchen cabinets in an appealing shade. A neutral such as white, cream, black, taupe, or gray will always be timeless. Painting the cabinets preserves their integrity, yet provides a fresh new look without the cost of replacement. Once the oak cabinets are painted, also consider 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.
Kate Riley is the author of the decorating blog Centsational Girl where she features her own DIY projects and remodeling stories and writes regularly about great interior design.