White Out

The classic, clean look of white kitchen cabinets has almost universal appeal

I can be unwavering in my convictions. My family views this solid perspective slightly differently and in a less flattering light; they say I am stubborn. Not in all things, certainly, but there are some situations when my opinion is very firm, especially when it comes to keeping house and decorating. For example, there are a handful of things that I believe should always be white. Candles. Bed linens. Towels. Flowers, mostly. There is no explanation. In my mind this is simply a universal truth. It’s right. The list also includes kitchens.

Van Day Truex, a scion of interior design and the first president of the Parsons School of Design in New York, once declared, “A kitchen should be white.” I learned this after my love affair with white kitchens had begun. My own white-kitchen credo does not have a lofty pedigree. I just like them. The kitchens of my childhood had mostly stained cabinets. But once I started fussing around in my own kitchens, they were white. Until now.

I love my house, but I don’t like my kitchen. It’s not only that I find cooking challenging, though I do, but this particular kitchen is not tripping my trigger. The thing is: brown. While I like brown, rich and chocolate-y or paper bag-perfect on the walls of small rooms, I don’t want stained kitchen cabinets. Part of this has to do with my affinity for sunlight and symmetrical, Georgian-y, cottagey homes. In my mind, they want white kitchens.

In my first grown-up kitchen I painted stained cabinets white; removed the doors and hinges, slid out the shelves, sanded and primed. It took about two days short of forever, but when the shelves went back into place and the hinges once again secured the doors to the frame, it was perfect. Well, it was perfect in a way only a first house can be.

My kitchen now is about a third the size of that one. The previous owner updated it only a few years ago. The cabinets are sturdy and strong. They show no wear. I should be unbelievably grateful, but almost daily I run my hand over the slick, factory finish that is as solid as lacquer and consider painting, though I am sure it is an impossibility. Sanding and priming will not do the trick. Even if I could get the paint to stick, chips would mar each drawer and door in no time.

I plot and plan their donation, envisioning the day I can load them up and drop them at ReStore. I fantasize wringing a damp cloth to wipe my boys’ fingerprints from the edges of new, white doors. New white cabinets are the only thing standing between me and kitchen nirvana. New white cabinets will change the whole house, reflecting light from three windows into the dining room and beyond. New white cabinets will make me want to cook dinner. New white cabinets will make my kitchen perfect. New white cabinets, and, oh, a new backsplash.

When to Go White, Bright or Stain

While white kitchens do provide a clean backdrop for everything that goes on in them, not everyone or every home is right for white.

No Stain, No Gain

Spaces_069-1Not everyone feels about her stained cabinets as I feel about mine. I’m particularly fond of stained cabinets in Mediterranean and Tudor homes; natural finishes seem right there. Less traditional woods like wenge, and zebra wood and natural materials like bamboo create cabinets with interesting grains and textures that work well in traditional and modern settings. Stained cabinets also have the added advantage of durability. The occasional ding by errant pan or tricycle will not show the way it might on paint.

Keep it Colorful

Spaces_069-3New York-based decorator Miles Redd delivers the most deliciously colored kitchens. Usually with a high shine, his kitchens preen in jungle green, cobalt blue and always-chic-and-appropriate black. These bolder colors usually work well in small spaces and sometimes feel to me more like butler’s pantries that serve as kitchens for folks who mainly “fix” rather than cook and have champagne and one really good block of cheese in their refrigerators. Which actually sounds like heaven to me.

A Fine Metal

Spaces_069-2Twenty-five years ago the kitchen cabinets of my 1930s-era Plaza apartment were metal. (The cabinets, the kitchen—indeed the building—are long since gone.) There was something particularly charming about them. Metal cabinets today are industrial chic in an array of finishes from shiny stainless to oxidized to powder-coated in any color of the rainbow. (Mine were pale yellow and held only dry pasta and peanut butter. You can surely do better.)