5 Quick, Easy, and Relatively Inexpensive Tips for Brightening Up a Dark Kitchen

published Jun 20, 2022
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Credit: Lauren Kolyn

At their best, kitchens are light, airy, and welcoming environments for everyday meals and late-night snacks. But sometimes a kitchen is the byproduct of an old building or a dated house in need of a renovation, making it a far cry from a space worth spending much time in.

If the latter sounds like your kitchen, good news! These five simple, designer-approved tricks can brighten up your kitchen — sans renovating! — so that it can be much more inviting. Check out this list of remedies below.

Incorporate reflective decorative objects and finishes. 

Perhaps the easiest way to bring a bit of light into a kitchen is by adding reflective surfaces like mirrors and metallic accent pieces, especially if they face windows that bring in natural light. These items can be hung on the wall like art or put on display on your shelving or counters, if you invest in shiny wares like vases or serving pieces. “Using reflective surfaces can bounce light around and help a space feel larger and brighter,” says Amber Dunford, style director at Overstock.

According to Dunford, it’s not just mirrors and the shiniest of metals, like chrome, that can create this kind of effect. “Touches of copper, ceramic, and glass are also nice additions to a kitchen if you are looking to lighten it up with some quick and easy finishes,” she says.

Want to double-down here? “If your budget allows, you can add a backsplash that is reflective, such as glass tile or a tile with a glossy finish,” adds designer Jenna Randolph David, director of interiors at Grossmueller’s Design. “Whether your style is classic and you want a glossy white subway, or you love color and want to do a bright glass mosaic as your backsplash, this will bring additional reflective texture to your kitchen.” For an “installed” budget solution, you could consider shiny hardware for your cabinets or cut mirror as a backsplash option, as seen over the range in the apartment above.

Mimic elements you find in nature.

If you’re lacking natural light all together, you can imitate sunlight in your space to trick the mind into thinking that your kitchen is akin to the great outdoors. How, you ask? “Humans prefer to be under dappled lighting, which is the same light you might experience when the sun shines through leaves on a tree,” says Dunford. “Incorporating elements that replicate this into your home, such as basketweave light pendants or lamps, can create the same glow as the dappled lighting you’d find in nature.” According to Dunford, this kind of lighting choice will also add some faux architectural interest to your space by creating soft shapes and organic patterned shadows on your surfaces when “on.”

Bringing any type of nature indoors, wherever possible, is also a wonderfully inexpensive and effective way to help a space feel light and earthy. “Placing live plants in baskets, planters, decorative pots, and arranging them with various heights brightens up a corner and adds life to a space,” Dunford suggests. “Adding potted herbs to the kitchen is another practical way to bring in nature, and the fresh scents activate another one of our five senses.”

Credit: Lana Kenney

Research the light reflective value rating of any new paint color.

Your instinct might be to simply paint your kitchen’s walls or cabinetry with a light and bright shade, but the color’s light reflective value (LRV) rating is just as — if not more important — than the actual hue. “Before even considering a paint color to lighten your kitchen, you need to look at the LRV rating, which should be between 50 and 100,” advises David. “The higher the LRV rating, the more reflective the paint color will be. The lower the LRV rating, the more absorbent the paint color will be, and the color will look even darker than your swatch.”

David also suggests considering an accent wall before committing to painting everything. This will allow for you to see if the color works for the room and whether it complements the items and appliances that are already in it. Of course, thorough swatching paint colors is a good first step, too, even more so if you know you don’t want to stop at an accent wall.

Shift focus to your cabinetry.

Your cabinets are likely your kitchen’s primary focal point. If they’re dated and overbearing — casting dark shadows against your counters, floors, ceilings, and walls — you might want to consider getting rid of the uppers altogether. “Bulky upper cabinets can take up visual space, making your kitchen feel darker and smaller,” says Dunford. “If you are someone who likes the look of open shelving to display your cups and dishes, this can be a nice way to visually lighten up the kitchen. When exposed on an open shelf, glass and ceramic dishes will bounce light around at eye level and offer a brightening effect.”

David echoes these sentiments but doesn’t think you have to remove cabinets entirely if you don’t want to or can’t. She suggests painting or staining them a lighter wood finish. Find yourself in a rental where both upper removal and painting aren’t possible? Dunford recommends just removing some upper cabinet doors in that case, which can mimic the look of open shelving and be reinstalled when necessary. “If you’re going take the cabinet doors off to expose shelves like Dunford recommends, be sure to select dishes that are white or bright and colorful,” says David.

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Upgrade you lighting.

Even if you can’t kiss that unflattering, florescent overhead lighting from the ’80s goodbye, you can invest in mood lighting that will showcase various areas of your kitchen by bathing these spots in softer, more diffuse light. “It’s time to play up the four types of lighting: ambient, task, accent, and decorative,” David recommends. “Get handy and install under-cabinet lighting with LED strips, puck lighting, or actual light fixtures. This is the best way to illuminate your kitchen. You can also add small lamps on counters, which is a big decor trend right now.” 

“Mounted pendants and sconces with filtered shades are also a great pick,” Dunford adds. Again, they mimic that dappled, out in nature lighting and can add warmth to your space that no florescent light will ever emit. Just be sure to read up on tips for safely changing lighting or consult an electrician if you’re going to go the fixture-swapping route.

Nice light, and all’s right — at least when it comes to your kitchen. By implementing one or more of the these tips, you’ll be one step closer to the light, bright, and airy cook space of your dreams.