Ideas to Highlight or Downplay Your Kitchen Cabinets

By HomeAdvisor

Updated November 29, 2016

Highlighting Your Kitchen Cabinets

Kitchen cabinets are going to take up the most visual space. They are eye level, and they hold everything that people are looking for (except cold food and drinks). They are the elephant in the room. Every cabinet remodel is a project in either attracting the best attention to your cabinets (because who wants their eyes caught by ugly cabinetry?), or to downplay the cabinetry with some softer colors in order to highlight some great countertops like granite, brushed steel, or butcher block.

So the real question becomes – do you want to highlight or tone down?

Highlighting Your Cabinets

The best idea is to have your kitchen cabinet remodeling project one of function from the beginning. What good are sharp looking cabinets if they are constantly falling apart or aren’t big enough for your dishes?

So first things first. When you are shopping for cabinets (particularly wall cabinets), take a dish with you so that you can show your cabinetmaker the exact depth that you need. If you have old cabinetry that you are looking to spruce up, just make sure that the structure of the cabinets is in solid shape.

Hardware and Doors

The two things that people are going to be looking at, with respect to your cabinet remodel, are the hardware and the doors. No one is going to be eyeballing the sides, the insides, the kickplates, or the backs. The doors are where most of the cabinet budget will settle, especially with wood cabinets.

To get your cabinets to be eye catching, they need to either be darker or brighter than the walls behind them and the counters. Most people choose to have a dark stain on their wood to draw the attention. However, lighter-colored woods, like maple, can also stand out without having such a dark feel to the room. If you have painted cabinets, then the same theory still applies. Use brighter colors that will pop out from the color of the walls and appliances.


This is can one of the most deceptive areas of hidden costs for cabinet remodels. Good hardware isn’t cheap, and if you want your kitchen cabinet remodeling to be high end, then you need to get the right hardware to go with it. Research the market and cabinet stores for what is out there to determine what you like. If you can’t find what you like, you can have your cabinet pulls custom made. Remember, the price goes up for the cabinet remodel, but then again nobody else will have hardware quite like yours.

Downplaying the Cabinets

If you are particularly excited about the kind of counters that you are going to get, and you don’t want the cabinets hogging all the attention, using a smart design scheme will tone down the cabinets while still giving you enough cabinet space.

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Paint is Better than Stain

If you want your cabinets to ease back into the wallpaper, then it is best to have painted cabinets. I know, I know, everyone loves the look of stain, but paint is no less classy. If you go with a closed grain wood species, like maple or cherry, then the paint will be flat and smooth, giving the cabinet doors a very clean appearance.

To downplay the cabinets, paint them the color of the walls or close to the color. Whites and pastels really help to draw the cabinets back out of dominance and allow your flooring or counters to have all the glory.


Here you might consider having painted pulls that are fairly unobtrusive. Small circle pulls or longer pulls that run up and down with the side of the cabinet doors are best. However, if you don’t like the look of painted pulls, there are literally hundreds of options for subdued hardware. The best idea is to test out a few different models. Tape one to your cabinets, walk out of the room, and then back in and see if it grabs your eye. If so, take them down; if not, you’re good to go.

Also, cabinet hardware can also be used as a nice tie-in between the counters and the cabinets, no matter which one you are trying to show off.


  1. Nora, August 15:

    I am selling my home I have close to white tile and white walls. I am looking to purchase granite and remove the outdated counters. i am looking at a granite color white with black on it. I would like some ideas to paint or stain the cabinets. The appliances are staying are black fairly new.

  2. Elena, August 19:

    We will be selling our home. We need to appeal to the buying public. Our kitchen cabinets are original 1977 solid oak Wood-Mode cabinets. They are in very good condition, but I also realize oak cabinets are no longer in style. The wall color is a medium soft yellow. Hoping not to have to repaint, but will do if it will add to appeal of selling. It is a large kitchen with an island. The house has an overhang roof throughout which tends to darken the interior. What would be a more cost efficient way of dealing with this? Should I replace the oak cabinet doors (presently traditional) to a more contemporary look, can I? Or should I paint or stain them? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  3. Dwight, August 19:

    I had the same problem with my cabinets in my very late 70’s home. I decided to paint the cabinets. It is very important to properly clean and rinse the cabinets first. Instead of buying expensive cleaners, I simply used about a 50/50 mixture of warm water and white vinegar (you adjust the ratios depending how dirty the cabinets are). It is hard to believe how much grease can get into the molding. I then rinsed the cabinets with warm water completely. I used an oversized sponge which seemed to work well. A day later, when the cabinets are completely dry, I used a quality primer, let it dry for a day and then painted with a very good quality (expensive and brush). The best thing for a professional look to take the time to do the job right. Also make certain that the paint color is what you like. I would suggest to buy a small container and paint one cabinet, wait a day or two and then proceed. My wife hated the color after I finished so I had to repaint again. Lessons learned I suppose. Hope this helps. There is some good info on you tube.

  4. Ryan, October 19:

    I disagree that oak is out-moded. Oak is classic and timeless. Perhaps it is not “flavor of the month”, but remember, in 5 years, your “flavor of the month” will look outdated and silly.

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