Before and After: A Design Duo Uses an IKEA Hack to Turn a Dated Kitchen into an Cherry Wood-Clad Stunner of a Space
Elise Birnbaum and her husband, Harrison, had made most of their 1910s Craftsman in Pittsburgh feel like home, with one major exception: the kitchen.
Like many older houses, the space had been positioned into a back corner as an afterthought, and a renovation some 40 years ago only perpetuated that physical and visual disjointness.
“It was not well thought-out,” says Birnbaum, the owner and ceramicist behind Oatmeal Shop. “We used the kitchen extensively and enjoyed entertaining, so we wanted the space to feel more connected.”
A gut renovation that balanced functionality and style was the goal — while holding on to as much history as they could — so the couple called in Morgan Stewart and Lexi Ribar of Studio Lithe to help make that happen. The pair proposed several different layouts and palettes before deciding on an organic-meets-warm aesthetic that they achieved largely with IKEA (yes, IKEA!) cabinetry and other bespoke touches. But first, they had to do something about the past.
“When they brought us on, a secondary back door took up a large portion of wall space, and there was a radiator located along another wall that couldn’t have base cabinetry,” Ribar says. The designers suggested covering the door, nixing the radiator, and installing a larger window for more natural light. “Opening a pass-through from the kitchen to the dining room was huge,” Ribar continues, which was connected by a new peninsula.
Though ultimately a minor decision in the grand scheme of things, the designers did opt to save the existing basement door and baseboards. “These small items tied the kitchen in with the rest of the house,” says Ribar. “Matching doors and trim to original styles makes it feel so much more intentional than adding a new door, even if that new door is fancy and pretty.”
Perhaps the most consequential shift in the kitchen is the cabinetry, which maximizes every inch of the 145-square-foot space using custom details. IKEA’s SEKTION boxes were topped with cherry wood door and drawer fronts fabricated by Bones & All, and panels were made to conceal the refrigerator and freezer in a seamless finish. The breakfast bar was crowned with an airy overhead shelf perfect for displaying Birnbaum’s ceramics, and a floor-to-ceiling pantry took over the spot originally occupied by the second back door.
“When we do the ‘IKEA hack,’ we find the important factor is using pretty materials and working with skilled woodworkers,” says Ribar. “The live-edge pantry and the shelf above the peninsula also play a role in elevating IKEA. The savings we had with cabinet boxes allowed us to do two very special, custom components.”
The finished kitchen melds different but complementary design references: The natural references of Craftsman style and the beautiful simplicity of Japanese design. “Elise and Harrison have individual histories with Japan, so drawing on this for influence made a lot of sense,” says Ribar. “The materials we ended up with have a really natural feel. They’re warm without being stuffy and minimal without being cold.”
The cherry wood fronts fit that bill, even if they are a somewhat unexpected choice. “This is an underrated, or maybe inappropriately-used, wood species,” says Ribar. “The key is to balance that richness with the right pairings.”
Studio Lithe did so with leathered granite countertops and cork floors, but opted for basic white overhead light fixtures from The Home Depot to allow the cabinetry to shine. “This savings allowed us to go for the dream light near the sink, which is the Aperture Sconce from Allied Maker,” Ribar adds.
Once described as “neglected and haphazard” by Birnbaum, the kitchen is currently the family’s favorite hangout spot, whether cooking for company or just making breakfast with their toddler. “We love the way the kitchen eases into the dining room, which opens into our living room,” says Birnbaum. “Everything just flows. We love the wood, the moodiness, and how it celebrates the home without clashing with it.”