Before and After: A Plain Kitchen Goes from White to Wow with a Retro-Inspired Makeover

published Nov 9, 2023
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Matching curtains to wallpaper is a re-emerging trend for 2024 — in fact, you can see it on display in one of Apartment Therapy’s Small/Cool spaces from this year. In this kitchen redo, DIYer Lily Sawyer (@layered.home) not only uses the same forest-patterned wallpaper on the walls and windows, but also on a DIY bench in the space. It’s a pattern-palooza! 

The whole kitchen is DIY- and idea-packed now, but it started as a “greasy and embarrassing” space that needed some major TLC, as Lily puts it. “The walls were whitewashed — badly,” she says. “The cabinets were inefficient: Inside storage was not available, drawers didn’t open in full, some floor cabinets had no backs so you could see the wall and pipes.”

In addition, the laminate countertop was scratched, the floor was sticky linoleum that never looked clean, the standalone range was too small for its opening, and the sink sloped so that water pooled up and never went down the drain. Here’s how Lily upgraded the kitchen, which she shares with her husband, David. 

Credit: Courtesy of Lily Sawyer
Credit: Lily Sawyer

Cosmetic upgrades came first. 

“It’s not cheap to replace a kitchen, so it took us a bit of time,” Lily says. “I first did a few cosmetic changes to make it liveable whilst we waited,” she says. She added black and white checkerboard vinyl flooring — “one day, I will be tiling this floor, but at the moment it’s too big a job to do,” Lily says — painted the walls, and added a leaf-patterned wallpaper. 
“I wanted the space to have some personality and to connect with nature, hence the use of the Congo Forest wallpaper,” Lily says.

Credit: Lily Sawyer
Credit: Lily Sawyer

DIY banquette seating makes the most of a small space.

Lily also used the same pattern (in a velvet fabric) for her Roman shades and for her DIY bench seating, which is the element she’s most proud of in her revamped space. “I had always wanted to make those velvet fluted headboards, and after a long time of thinking and researching about how to do it (using Velcro!), I decided to try my hand on one,” Lily explains. “I made a headboard for my bed and loved it, so I then decided to make the same for my kitchen — this time as a backrest for a bench seating.”

Her DIY process involved cutting a piece of MDF, gluing foam to it, covering it with batting, then finishing it off with her velvet fabric. “I used a staple gun to tack the wadding and fabric to the back of the MDF and used battens with velcro to attach these flutes to … the wall,” Lily says.

Credit: Lily Sawyer

New cabinets and appliances add a retro vibe.

Finally, it was time (and within budget) to install new cabinetry, countertops, and appliances in the kitchen, keeping mostly the same footprint, and she worked with a pro to plan the space.“Take your time planning and making changes until you are happy,” Lily says.

In her kitchen, storage was a priority. “We made use of every available inch, she says. “It was difficult at first to find the balance between storage and hominess, as there would usually be a tendency to box everything off to maximize storage, and that was not what I wanted to do. With a bit of tweaking, we got both: efficient storage and an open, welcoming feel with some open shelving.”

Lily chose a vintage-inspired color, Oxford Olive Green, for the cabinets, to match her color scheme without competing with the dark wallpaper. “The retro elements came in the form of the 1950s Smeg appliances: cream Victoria oven, hob and extractor hood, and pastel green tap, kettle, and toaster,” she says. Lily went with butcher block-style laminate countertops for both easy cleaning and “to exude warmth.”

Credit: Lily Sawyer

Antique brass details finish the look. 

In addition to the retro-style appliances, thrifted finds and antique-looking hardware contribute to the overall look. Lily also says she loves the classic patterns she chose for her floor and sink skirt — they don’t overwhelm with the leaf print, and they add some vintage charm. 

“Thrifting and looking for pre-loved accessories saved money instead of buying brand-new lamps, pictures, and decorations,” Lily adds. As far as hardware goes, she added an antique brass pendant light and old-school brass cup pulls, and under-cabinet rails from IKEA. 

“It feels cozy and homey and full of character,” Lily says of the “after.” “I love the nod to the ‘20s and retro appliances. It makes this new kitchen feel like it has a history.” For more new-meets-old kitchens that ooze storybook charm, check out this $1,400 makeover, this sunny yellow one, and this NYC kitchen