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Clever solutions for ugly kitchens

Transforming your cooking space from woeful to wonderful needn’t be expensive or time-consuming. There are the dream kitchens we might one day enjoy – and then, for most of us, there are the kitchens we’re cooking in right now. Are you feeling frustrated with your kitchen’s look or layout? If you’re prepared to work with what you have, with a bit of creativity there are plenty of low-cost things you can do to improve both your kitchen’s style and functionality. Here are 21 quick and cost-effective ideas to give it a face lift. 

Words Sarah Heeringa and Rebekah White. Photography by Tony Brownjohn

1 Is your kitchen gloomy or lacking in character?
Paint the ceiling using a flat white and the walls in a fresh new shade. Choose a really vibrant colour for at least one wall. Vintage wallpaper is hot right now – so how about a feature wall of florals, stripes or botanicals? Replace your old light shade with something truly dramatic such as a retro industrial light fitting or a funky chandelier. Complete the look with matching teatowels and cosy floor rug.

2 Is your fridge in good working order – just a bit ugly?
Paint is one of the best tools in your makeover arsenal – and even something as unlikely as the fridge can be transformed. The fridge is usually one of the most prominent features of a kitchen, so changing its colour offers maximum impact for minimum effort. The darker hue also causes a previously-white fridge to visually recede, giving the impression of more space. It’s an ideal fix for an older fridge that’s looking a bit grubby or beaten-up as you’re left with a smooth, matte surface. Use blackboard paint and it will not only turn your ugly ducking into a funky focal point, it will create a handy notice board – allowing you to leave messages (and witticisms) for family members or flatmates. See page 73 for simple step-by-step instructions.

3 Are your kitchen cabinets sturdy but dull?
Replacing cupboards can quickly become an expensive exercise, and if yours are of an older, solid wood style, they could be worth keeping. If flow is an issue, you might want to get a builder in to help reconfigure them into a smarter arrangement. Once sanded and repainted, they’ll likely last longer than modern MDF equivalents.

4 Collect upcycled storage containers.
Recycled glass jars, large, empty coffee canisters and old tins can all be used for extra kitchen storage. Think creatively: for instance, the stack of five large ink tins (centre right) were salvaged from a factory skip and cleaned up using hot soapy water. Labels on glass jars can be removed by soaking in boiling water. (If adhesive residue remains, brush the sticky bits with cooking oil and leave for a few hours, then wipe away. The glue should lift off with the oil).

5 Co-ordinate and label your containers.
Put any leftover chalkboard paint to good use by painting recycled canisters and the lids of glass jars in the same hue. Create ‘labels’ for large opaque containers by painting a rectangle of chalkboard paint on the front. When contents change, simply wipe off and write new labels with chalk.

6 Suspend your pots.
 
Free up cupboard space and turn your pots, pans and other paraphenalia into a design feature by hanging them on a wall or suspended rack. Use a chain (available from hardware stores) to suspend an old wooden laundry rack, a pan rack or part of an old ladder above your bench area. Even simpler, put up a metal towel rail (also available in hardware stores) on the wall above or immediately next to your stove. Hang pots, pans and other cooking equipment using sturdy butcher hooks.

7 Splash out on a new coffee machine or groovy toaster.
Clear your kitchen benches of anything unsightly and put your fancy new machine in a prominent place for maximum impact.

8 Create a utensil tin.
Keep the cooking utensils you use most frequently close by to save time rummaging through your drawers for that essential implement. Finding something pretty to hold your utensils needn’t be an expensive exercise. The tin pictured at right cost a grand total of $5 and was made using a large, empty Milo tin wrapped with gorgeous handprinted paper from Trade Aid.

9 Look out for hooks.
Keep your eye out in junk stores and antique shops for hooks or pegs suitable for hanging up kitchen items such as utensils, teatowels or oven mitts. The vintage yellow hanger (top right) was originally used for automotive cables but is just as suited for keeping frequently used utensils at hand – as well as adding a striking design feature.

10 File recipe books.
Weighty recipe books tend to end up either in a stack or tumbling over as soon as one is removed from the shelf. The solution? Magazine files. Use card magazine holders to keep heavy tomes upright and easy to browse.

11 Add some large art.
Don’t underestimate the power of a large poster or print to transform a room. It’s the easiest quick fix if you’re tired of the colour of your kitchen but are renting or don’t want the hassle of repainting. Scour op-shops for old-fashioned prints in great colours, such as this population density map of the UK (shown on previous page) which was once part of an encyclopaedia. Alternatively, simply mount a large piece of vintage wallpaper onto a frame or stiff board.

12 Repurpose planters.
Add life to your kitchen with a pot plant or living herbs. Save interesting tins from boutique supermarkets to use as planters for the kitchen windowsill. Simply punch a few holes for drainage in the bottom with a hammer and nail, fill with potting mix and add small maidenhair ferns (see bottom right). They’re also handy for small herb seedlings not yet ready to be planted out.

13 Add a little retro style.
If the idea of covering the walls in old-fashioned wallpaper patterns seems a bit over the top, consider something smaller-scale. Design elements can be cut out of wallpaper (or other lovely papers) and decoupaged onto your cabinet doors. Create your own pattern and style by combining different details and seal the lot with clear topcoat. Complete the look with cute new door handles.

14 Mix and match.
Inject colour and set the tone using the teatowels that hang from your stove. The bright hues and graphic prints of Kiwi designer Ingrid Andersen’s teatowels are inspired by native flora and fauna (www.iatextiledesign.co.nz). Find other funky, locally-made tea towels at Felt (www.felt.co.nz), Endemic World (www.endemicworld.co.nz) or Clever Bastards (www.cleverbastards.co.nz).

15 Display quirky crockery.
Rather than splurge on decorations, use your favourite kitchen items for decoration. Place brightly coloured or unusually shaped crockery on a high shelf. To keep the look cohesive, stick to two or three colours or a range of tones, such as pastels, neutrals or brights.

16 Get organised.
DIY your own cutlery organiser to fit your drawer with tin, plastic or heavy-duty card boxes in a range of shapes and sizes. Make sure their sides are vertical and have no lip so that they sit flush against each other. This ensures you have a place for everything.

17 Extend your shelf life.
If your kitchen has lots of wall mounted cupboards, consider removing some of the front doors to create open shelves. Arrange the most visually attractive items on the open shelves, grouping similar items together by shape and colour.

18 Still lacking storage space?
Make the most of empty walls with overhead shelving, or add a retro trolley, freestanding dresser or upcycled filing cabinet as extra storage for linens, dishes or baking staples.

19 Reward the dish washer.
It’s great if there’s a window near your kitchen sink for natural light and maybe even a pleasant outdoor view. If this is not the case, give yourself a visual boost by painting the wall behind the sink in a bold colour, papering it using a cheery wipeable wallpaper, or tiling it in a dramatic pattern (as above).

20 Be bold with paint.
Changing any horizontal surfaces makes a big visual impact. With the right primer and paint, you can even paint old laminate or formica countertops. If your kitchen has space for a table, strip down an old wooden one and whitewash it. Use crackle paint for interesting surfaces on kitchen chairs or cupboard doors.

21 Go crazy with stickers.
For smaller spaces or for less permanent decorations, try wall decals such as those from Sticky Tiki (www.stickytiki.co.nz) which are made locally from fabric, rather than plastic.

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