Before & After: A Dark, Dingy, and Dated Kitchen Got an Incredibly Cute Update for Only $500

updated Jun 15, 2020
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Credit: Justin Russo

When Apartment Therapy toured New York-based artist and illustrator Justin Russo’s home, he had spent 11 years turning his rental apartment into a warm, colorful space full of art, plants, and creativity. Well, except for his 20′ x 15′ kitchen, which he and his boyfriend Pierce Atkins hadn’t updated yet.

Credit: Justin Russo

“My apartment, though lovely and warm, was last updated in the 1960s (at the latest),” says Justin. “The house was built in 1925 and the kitchen was a sore thumb. The backsplash was mismatched found tile, the floors were a dingy linoleum, and the cabinets were originally dark brown wood, then painted white. The entire space was dim. Once the rest of the apartment was finished, the kitchen remained dismal. Using the kitchen was an afterthought and it became a haven for takeout containers.”

Credit: Justin Russo

We took great care restoring our apartment to its late 1940s charm (our favorite era for decor, film, and art),” Justin says. “The kitchen did not flow nor did it fit with the style. As both my boyfriend and I were quarantined during COVID, we decided it was the perfect time to remodel on a budget and using available materials.” The couple depended on a local hardware store in Astoria, called Bartunek’s, for supplies for their kitchen project, as it remained open during COVID. “This store became our go-to source for reprieve from the indoors and our guide.”

Credit: Justin Russo

The couple started their makeover by first giving the entire kitchen a thorough cleaning. Next, they painted the cabinets aqua, and then painted the backsplash white using a Rustoleum tile painting kit. The hardest part of the entire project was the floor refresh; they chose to paint over the flooring instead of retiling it. “Each existing tile was hand painted and the lines sharpened. This had to be done in two sections so the room could remain functional. Matching the varnish was our biggest headache,” explains Justin. They also installed remote-controlled LED lights under the cabinets, which they found on Amazon for $20.

Credit: Justin Russo

The project took Justin and Pierce about one month to complete working on it after hours and in sections because they were still using it for cooking. Amazingly, their entire kitchen makeover only cost about $500; Justin says paint and plants were the biggest chunk of the budget.

Credit: Justin Russo

“Our ultimate goal was to make the kitchen feel part of our home—vintage (and akin to the opening cartoon scene in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’). We also wanted warmth and an inviting room,” says Justin.

Credit: Justin Russo

“I love the pothos above the cabinets,” Justin admits. “It is such a small touch that adds life and vibrancy. I am also partial to the new bar island. This has been a dream purchase for a decade.

Credit: Justin Russo

“I love the overall effect and mood of the space. It is happy and most importantly flows into the other spaces. If I lay on my bed and look into the living room that spies further into the kitchen, it is one mid-century dream. The other aspect is that in such a time of anxiety and sadness, we produced a wonderful kitchen that brings joy. It is also a total neighborhood project and ode to Astoria, as a majority of materials were from local vendors!”


  • Cabinets — BEHR “Green Aqua”
  • Floors — RUSTOLEUM “Floor Paint” in white and black
  • Bartunek Hardware for all tools and paint
  • Bar cart — Home Depot
  • All plants — Ditmars Florist

This submission’s responses were edited for length and clarity.