Before & After: Two Renters, Two Identical Apartments, Two Builder Kitchen Makeovers (with Budget Materials!)

updated Sep 10, 2020
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DC kitchen with brown cabinets
Credit: Elizabeth Mahon

Elizabeth Mahon and Elizabeth Malm, design enthusiasts and neighbors in a modern high-rise building in Washington, D.C., aren’t shy when it comes to undertaking DIY projects in their respective rental units. The 31-year-olds have each painted, wallpapered, and made other cosmetic upgrades to their individual spaces, which they frequently document on Instagram. Their latest endeavor? Kitchen cabinet makeovers, which Mahon describes as “the most impactful—and easiest—DIY, I think, I’ve ever done!”

Both Malm and Mahon have similar, galley-style kitchen layouts with the exact same very dark, super slick brown wood cabinetry, which can be seen above in Mahon’s “before” shot of her kitchen (Malm didn’t take a “before” shot, but her space looked a lot like Mahon’s). Neither cared for this finish, since it made their rooms appear darker and didn’t really complement the rest of their decor or aesthetic in their respective apartments. So it was only a matter of time until they were ready to make changes.

For most renters, the idea of a cabinet revamp may sound like a major, irreversible undertaking that could involve lots of time sanding, painting, and maybe even removing and reinstalling the doors themselves. In reality though, this kind of a project is actually quite manageable if you choose to wrap your cabinets with a hardware store staple: contact paper.

“I’ve seen this idea floating around for ages but never really took it seriously because I have so many cabinets, and that made the idea slightly overwhelming,” Malm says. “I never liked my dark builder-grade cabinets though.” So after spending months social distancing at home just looking at what she considered an eyesore, Malm decided to take the plunge. She had seen Instagrammer Maddie Normandin complete a similar project with white contact paper from Amazon, which she, too, ordered, but she ended up making a few adjustments to really make the project—and her kitchen—her own. Here’s what she ended up with:

Credit: Elizabeth Malm

“I didn’t love how stark the white looked on my pantry wall once the paper was on, so I decided to paint the contact paper with some leftover Clare paint I had in the shade Seize the Grey,” explains Malm, who ordered one large roll of paper for the project. “This was a game-time decision that I didn’t plan for up front, but I love how it turned out.” Even though painting required a little more time and effort, Malm was able to skip the step of sanding, as the contact paper was a great base for paint even application. She also added pineapple wallpaper to the side wall opposite of her pantry cabinets and a few extra plants to brighten up her open shelving.

Meanwhile, Mahon, inspired by Malm’s kitchen glow-up, completed her own revamp shortly after. Here’s what she did:

Credit: Elizabeth Mahon

“Because my kitchen is much smaller and doesn’t get any direct light, the white didn’t seem as bright in my kitchen,” she explains. “I left the contact paper white and instead repainted the area around the kitchen pink.”

Worried about not being able to apply contact paper like a pro? Fear not, Malm says. “The paper goes on shockingly easily and smoothly as long as you go slowly and are in good lighting,” she notes. “If I got tired and started rushing, I would get air bubbles. Luckily, the material is very forgiving, and you can peel it off and reapply if needed.”

Malm and Mahon were fortunate in that their cabinets are slab-style (meaning totally flat on their fronts with no molding or trim), new, and easily pop off the cabinet boxes—no exterior hinge removal necessary. People with Shaker-style cupboards or elaborate hardware might want to skip this project, since the wrapping process will be much harder without a perfectly flat door.

If you do decide to take this project on, Malm advises wiping down your cabinet doors once they’re removed, as “anything stuck to them will really show up under the paper and give you bumps,” she says. After cutting the contact paper to size, you’ll want to place the cabinet door on a flat surface facing up. “Peel the backing off of one end of the paper and place it on the door with enough hanging over to fully wrap around the edges,” Malm advises. “Remove any air bubbles by gently running your hand over the paper you stuck down, pushing them out.”

The key is to go slow and steady during the application process. “Continue unrolling the paper, removing the backing, and pushing out any bubbles until you have the whole front [of the cabinet door] covered,” Malm notes. “For the edges, treat the cabinet like you are wrapping a present, folding the paper around the edges and onto the back of the door.”

Credit: Elizabeth Malm

Malm opted to leave her drawers in place and wrapped them vertically using contact paper she had cut to size. When it was time to paint, she applied one coat using a small roller, let the color adhere over night, and then completed two additional coats the following day. “I was afraid the paint wouldn’t properly stick to the contact paper surface, but it’s been extremely durable so far, and easily wipes clean if I spill anything on it,” she says. Mahon skipped the painting step entirely, since the color worked with her space.

Both women upgraded their drawer pulls to reflect their personal decorating styles. “I knew I wanted something slightly antique looking to contrast with the modern feel of the cabinets and the floor—plus, a lot of my apartment is the vintage-mixed-with-modern vibe,” Malm says. Mahon, on the other hand, went for a more contemporary look.

Credit: Elizabeth Malm

Malm notes that aside from being aesthetically pleasing, the addition of contact paper has improved her kitchen’s functionality, too. “It has totally transformed my kitchen into something that looks custom, and the lighter shade made the room look so much bigger and brighter,” she says.

Needless to say, both Mahon and Malm are thrilled with their individual project’s results. “I am completely obsessed with my kitchen now,” says Mahon, who owns and operates children’s store Three Littles but is also an avid cook and baker. “It made my apartment feel like a totally different space, and I am excited to stay a little longer.” Adds Malm: “Don’t be scared of DIYs in a rental, as long as they are reversible, and you don’t permanently alter anything,” she says, “Just because you rent doesn’t mean you can’t make your space someplace you love.”