How to Add Character to Plain Kitchen Walls

Last week I thought I knew how to add character to my plain kitchen walls in our 1970s colonial home. I was nearly ready to share our design plans when I started having second thoughts about the recently completed custom moulding. The kitchen has an interesting galley layout with lots of walls and three doorways complete with casings. And all of these chopped up walls (FIVE in total) are located at one end of the room. The problem: The two main walls that should be focal walls, lacked any original moulding you’d expect in a colonial. The “would be” feature walls are in desperate need of character and sophistication. As if that wasn’t enough, we have a single kitchen window above the sink that throws light around the room at weird angles throughout the day. The end result: the white walls I typically love look mismatched. Not at all my dream! But, this is all going to change and for the better.

Here’s Where We Started – It was Driving Me Mad

How to Add Character to Your Kitchen Walls - before picture of wall above entryway casing
So plain, so stark
How to Add Character to Your Kitchen Walls - an example photo of where we started
Check out the shades of white and off-white paint samples to the right of doorway; an overall sterile look

Even with all these walls, I like my kitchen, I really do. It just needed something more, and I was stuck, plain and simple. Stuck about millwork. Stuck about paint color. Stuck! And the honey maple cabinetry made choosing a complimentary paint color even more difficult. Thankfully the countertops are a neutral white marble-like Calacatta Laza Quartz with a dark charcoal backsplash tile (yet to be installed). 

How to Add Character to Your Kitchen Walls - samples of backsplash tile, paint sample, countertop, cabinet door and moulding

What’s more, I spend a good part of my day working from the kitchen peninsula counter where I look directly at these character-free white walls. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY! As a result, the walls were a complete distraction for me; I was either day-dreaming of panel moulding or scouring Pinterest for kitchens with bold paint color in an attempt to give our space sophistication and a little drama. I could not wait for my vision to become a reality, where trim and paint came together to create an inspiringly beautiful space filled with character. A kitchen with striking walls that were finally the focal point they were meant to be.

Custom Trim above the Doorways – Smart or Not?!?

In my quest for awesome walls with character, I found an amazing built-in French door china cabinet on Pinterest. It had all the visual interest I wanted to add to our kitchen: custom moulding above the doorway with everything (door, casings, moulding, baseboard and crown) painted the same color – black! The look seemed perfect for our kitchen and its trifecta of doorways. And, the black paint is dramatic. Visual interest – check, character – check, bold paint – check! To top it all off, we already have a shared wall between our kitchen and dining area that’s painted black! Funny that I hadn’t considered black for the entire kitchen?! It seemed like it was meant to be. Or so I thought…

Motivated to get moving on this project during quarantine, I joined the #BuildAtHome Challenge by Jen Woodhouse of House of Wood where participants were asked to build something using only scrap wood. Fortunately, I was able to scrape together enough scrap trim and wood to add a custom molding treatment above the kitchen entry to the office. I painted the new custom moulding and old casings with leftover black paint which matched the already black sliding barn door. Then I sat back and lived with it. However, after a week, I wasn’t so sure this was the answer after all; the black casings and custom molding amongst so many white walls stood out like a sore thumb. It looked better than it did before, but the walls still needed something more to make it shine. Even though I had started to doubt my decision, I forged ahead with the custom moulding on the other two doorways. That’s when I really started triple guessing myself. Everything felt disjointed. Maybe the new custom moulding was all wrong, maybe black paint wasn’t the drama I was looking for. Doubt, terrible DOUBT, had set in. YIKES!

How to Add Character to Your Kitchen Walls - progress -unpainted moulding between casing and crown moulding
How to Add Character to You Kitchen Walls - custom moulding painted black amongst too white walls

Looking for Solutions

I turned to my family for honest answers and posed this question: “Should I take down the new moulding and start over?” In all seriousness, I was kinda freaking out. I even imagined myself on a ladder, pry bar in hand, removing all the new moulding. That’s when my daughter suggested painting all the walls first (crown, mouldings, casings, and baseboards) before making a final decision about the mouldings. I decided this was the best plan, mostly because I like to paint (and the demo didn’t sound very fun).

Having already decided to go with dark paint, I headed to Sherwin-Williams and collected ALL the nearly black and dark gray paint swatches to pin down the best color to coordinate with our kitchen cabinets and backsplash tile. The clear winner: Iron Ore!! This amazing color is quite dark, but not black; it’s the perfect middle ground between a deep black and the charcoal gray of the backsplash tile. The added bonus: this dark neutral should pair nicely with the honey maple cabinets and quartz countertops!!

Inspiring Rooms

While I am inspired by many talented designers, the following two rooms make my heart go pitter-pat.

The dining room from The House of Silver Lining takes panel moulding to another level with three separate frames of picture moulding (one inside another inside another) that adds a modern twist that’s both stunning and refined. And it’s painted floor to ceiling in Sherwin-Williams Tricorn Black; it’s like a little black dress for your home. It’s a space I want to look at all day, everyday!

I love the classic, sophisticated feel of this bright white and deep green office by Studio McGee. While the colors differ greatly from my kitchen, the juxtaposition of paint colors used on wall moulding and shelving units is exactly the type of contrast our kitchen needs.

Here’s My Plan

In an endeavor to save the already installed custom millwork above the pantry door and the two entries, I’ll paint the *problem* walls (crown, casings, baseboards – everything) Iron Ore by Sherwin-Williams in a semi-gloss finish to highlight the millwork and for easy clean-up (we’re messy cooks and we have two dogs, so there’s always something stuck to or splashed on the walls).

If all goes as planned with the addition of paint, I’ll add more millwork in the form of panel  moulding (also called picture molding or picture trim) on the two focal walls then paint that trim to match the walls. I’m also leaning heavily toward adding a decorative chair rail to give the kitchen that instant heritage feeling it should have had all along.

The painting step will take about me a week to complete. That’s longer than it should, but I need to work around the schedules of 4 other adults with different schedules, making breakfast at various times throughout the morning as well as packing lunches. I also added some contingency time in case something “comes up” (and doesn’t something always come up?!)

With the kitchen project back on track, I feel much more confident about the decision making process (both past and present) and I look forward to a kitchen with character befitting it’s colonial style with modern millwork and bold color! Let’s not forget the addition of drama and sophistication!!! Stay tuned for the results!

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Drop me a line below.


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