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Venturing to the Dark Side of Cabinets

The color black may not be synonymous with an upbeat room design, but designers say black cabinets can create a dramatic look in your kitchen.

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Coco Chanel pronounced the "little black dress" indispensable, so what might that particular color do for a kitchen? Black cabinets are new on the kitchen design radar. Whether you use it only on a center island or for all the cabinetry, it can make your kitchen a design standout.

"I believe every room should have at least a little splash of black somewhere. It's a great accent color as well as a great backdrop to other elements in the room; it makes them pop," says Susan Klimala of the Kitchen Studio of Glen Ellyn, Ill.

That splash can be solid paint — such as Pratt and Lambert's Graphite — a black stain, or a rub-through finish, which shows flashes of wood, a la the shabby chic look.

However you achieve it, black cabinetry enhances any kitchen style, be it rustic, traditional or modern, says Jennifer Gilmer of Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath, Chevy Chase, Md., who is using black cabinetry in her own contemporary Asian-style kitchen. And although it's been an option in contemporary kitchens for a while — especially in European cabinetry, says Jennifer — it's now showing up in all styles. It's a flashback of sorts for more traditional designs.

"In Victorian times, they used dark woods, like walnut, cherry or mahogany, and stained them almost black," Jennifer says. Couple those with a creamy granite or marble countertop, and you've got the perfect period look.

Susan envisions a more modern take: "frameless black cabinetry with reeded glass inserts, stainless-steel appliances, art glass pendants and a mosaic glass-tile backsplash." The color black lets the cabinetry lines speak out and is a backdrop for the other elements in the room, says Susan. And, she notes, there's nothing like a black background to make metal panel inserts, such as chicken wire or mesh, stand out.

Black cabinetry can be a backdrop or a focal point like an island, a single wall or even interspersed with other colored or wood-finish cabinetry.

"Black is a great accent and grounding tool for the eye. In a traditional-style kitchen, a big black island or unfitted piece of cabinetry with a black rub-through finish would act as an elegant counterpoint to the other cabinetry within the space, perhaps distressed cherry, or even crisp white," says Susan.

In her own kitchen, Jennifer is using black cabinetry to set off a wood island of Macassar ebony, which has a distinctive linear grain of black mixed with brown and gold tones.

"I didn't want too much of the patterned wood grain, so I added black as a complementary color," says Jennifer.

Whether you choose to go black all the way or merely toss it in on a kitchen island, there are some things to keep in mind when you go over to the dark side of cabinetry.

A kitchen with a lot of natural light is a natural for black cabinets. If your kitchen is short on sunshine, then make sure you have a good lighting plan for it — pendant lights, under-cabinet lights, even in-cabinet lights if you decide on those metal grid inserts or glass-paneled fronts. One caveat from Jennifer: Don't put lights too close to the cabinet doors because this will create a "hot spot" where the light hits them. Even if you do have a lot of natural light, more of the man-made kind will keep the kitchen from becoming a black hole. Jennifer's other caveat is that black cabinetry may show smudges and fingerprints more easily than wood ones, so consider your cleaning style in your decision.

As for countertops, if you're set on Absolute Black granite or soapstone, then don't opt for black cabinetry. Light-colored countertops such as pale granite with some dark veining or marble — if you're up for the upkeep — will pop against the dark cabinetry. Butcher block will give a warm, traditional look. A metal countertop, such as stainless steel or a less common choice such as zinc, pewter or copper will really stand out against black cabinets, as would a granite will lots of color.

The same goes for your backsplash; don't fade to darkness there either. Take advantage of the black stage and go with that intricate, bright tile design you've been eyeing.

As for appliances, black and stainless steel is a made-to-order marriage. If you're using black as an island or single cabinetry wall, then black appliances would be the perfect complement. For floors, Jennifer suggests white marble or limestone tiles, or a medium oak floor also makes a warm combination.

Whatever kitchen accoutrements you choose, Chanel had it right: You can't go wrong with a little black ... kitchen cabinetry.

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