How do you soften a modern kitchen? 13 tips from designers on the balance between contemporary and cozy

Modern kitchens are classic, but the key to the look is to soften the space and make it feel welcoming too

Three organic modern kitchen designs
(Image credit: CALAFIA Home Design; Chantel Elshout Studio for Davonport; Lisa Petrole / Christina Kim Interior Design)

Modern kitchens are always a popular choice, however, in recent years there has been a clear shift in trends. Minimalism has a new look and it's less about stark spaces and clean lines and more about blending this pared-back look with other, softer styles. 

Trends like soft minimalism and modern organic have overtaken straight up modern kitchens. These aesthetics toe the line between all-out farmhouse and full-blown contemporary, creating a timeless space that's not only functional but welcoming to all.

If you love the idea of a modern kitchen but want to soften the look, you're not alone – designers have had quite a bit of experience designing these spaces for clients as this look has become the go-to kitchen style. So naturally, we ask these designers how to create this balance between contemporary and cozy to help better understand how to design a kitchen that's both modern and soft. 

1. Blend contemporary and rustic design elements

A modern kitchen with wooden cabinetry and an arched glass door with a black frame

(Image credit: Tracey Benson / Bakes & Kropp)

Though it may seem straightforward, it's important to approach a soft, yet modern kitchen with balance in mind. Blending contemporary and organic features works quite well in any space, but it takes a tasteful eye to get the ratio right. 

'The charm of this softer modern style lies in its ability to blend the practicality of contemporary features with the character and beauty of natural materials. When planning an organic modern kitchen, it’s important to strike the right balance between these two design aesthetics,' says Mike Whitfield, head of sales at luxury homeware brand Lusso.

Layering in the right amount of nature-based, organically imperfect finishes makes a modern kitchen more welcoming and homey. Your kitchen shouldn't feel like a showroom, and it's important to 'offset the cold, impersonal feeling of a strictly minimalist style,' says Bob Bakes, head of design at Bakes & Kropp.

'This approach layers warm elements with the contrast of a very high-gloss finish for a timeless kitchen design that feels sophisticated and cozy,' he says.

2. Bring the outside in

An organic modern kitchen with an island and large windows

(Image credit: Chantel Elshout Studio for Davonport)

Naomi Neilson, founder and CEO of Native Trails, says she s this shift away from uber-modern kitchens as part of a larger interior design trend. With a growing interest in blurring the boundaries between indoor and outdoor areas of the home, homeowners and designers are both looking to natural elements that lend a bit more warmth to their space.

'In recent years, a noticeable trend among homeowners and travelers is the prioritization of health and well-being, with a preference for integrating natural and organic elements into lifestyles and living spaces. Design-forward kitchen spaces are employing natural organic finishes that provide dramatic accents to a space,' says Naomi.

3. Make use of natural materials and textures

A rustic modern kitchen with beamed ceilings and skylights, and a wooden floor

(Image credit: Amy Neunsinger / Leanne Ford)

To get this balance right, look to organic, natural textures and materials that will envelop your space and add a touch of warm, welcoming charm. Richard Davonport, managing director at bespoke kitchen company Davonport, says this style of kitchen is 'all about' using texture in interior design. He explains that 'even the smallest elements should be carefully thought out' to ensure the best use of characterful design details.

'If you are considering a display cabinet in your kitchen, then look to reeded glass as it adds an additional dimension to your kitchen,' says Richard.

Texture can come into play on any surface of the kitchen, and keeping it natural is key. Audrey Scheck, interior designer and founder of Audrey Scheck Design, says 'earthy materials like wood or stone' pair well with sleek, minimalist cabinetry and fixtures. She loves to 'infuse the space with warmth through textured finishes' and by decorating with earthy colors when designing with organic modern in mind.

4. Keep the palette neutral and let texture add the interest

An organic modern kitchen with wooden beams on the ceiling

(Image credit: Christina Kim Interior Design)

Elizabeth Sims, founder of California-based CALAFIA Home Design, agrees, sharing that her personal favorite textures to incorporate are 'stain-grade wood cabinetry, hand-painted ceramic tile backsplashes and real marble countertops.' She then lets these earthy textures inform the overall color scheme of the space.

'Let natural materials define the palette – I love a blend of warm and cool neutrals. Wood, tile or brick floors add organic warmth, but I try to stay away from any luxury vinyl options that don’t have the same patina and character,' says Elizabeth.

Trying to match extremely rustic materials with sophisticated clean lines can get a bit messy, so finding a sweet spot is key. Christina Kim, owner and creative director of New Jersey-based Christina Kim Interior Design, suggests creating a through line in your space with an earthy finish of your choice to avoid overwhelming the modern side of the style.

'When using wood finishes, be sure to repeat the finish a few times within the room, whether it's on the ceiling beams, on the island cabinetry, and again on the leg of a chair. That repetition of a natural element grounds the room. Steer clear of elements that are very extreme in either direction. For example, if you're using a very rustic reclaimed wood, it might be jarring to pair with uber-modern lacquered cabinets,' says Christina.

5. Blend modern cabinetry with earthy tones

A kitchen with dark cabinetry and marble backsplash

(Image credit: Stephani Buchman / Jessica Cinnamon Design)

Color scheme is key when designing any style of space, and a kitchen is no exception. Finding the right blend of earthy and contemporary can be tough, but designers say there's an easy reference point to turn to when curating the softer atmosphere: nature.

'Stick to the principles of biophilic design and take inspiration from nature's elements. Materials such as marble and wood are so essential to this look as they bring a rustic mutability to your color palette. To let these organic textures shine, keep the rest of your scheme neutral and earthy. Cocoon your space in warm ecrus, sandy beiges and muted greens,' says Mike.

Rushda Hakim, interior designer and founder of Rushda Hakim Design, agrees, suggesting 'neutral and earthy tones such as whites, beiges and grays.' 

The design world is moving away from the pared-back, all-out neutral look that dominated spaces for years, adding a bit more warmth and depth to color schemes. And when you're crafting an organic modern color scheme, you've been gifted the perfect opportunity to try it out.

'Think muted light colors for cabinets and for walls. Whites should have a slightly warm undertone and be paired with beiges, taupe, and subtle shades of green,' says Trish Knight, interior designer and co-founder of Vancouver-based Knight Varga Interiors.

6. Stray on the side of minimalism

A minimalist organic modern kitchen with open shelving and an island

(Image credit: Lisa Petrole / Christina Kim Interior Design)

The key to getting the modern element of an softer, more organic modern kitchen down is sticking to a minimalist mindset, only introducing the colors, materials, and objects you need to thrive within your space: 'The secret to a welcoming modern kitchen is to not overcomplicate it. Keep things stripped back, simple and streamlined to allow the beauty of your natural materials to do the talking,' says Mike.

Mike suggests 'organic materials and shapes with intentional modern finishes,' and says that ultimately, 'it all comes down to your styling.' Opt for 'streamlined built-in cabinetry and vertical storage' to keep your space clutter-free,' he adds. 

Rushda agrees, saying kitchen cabinetry is the perfect place to implement a straightforward, contemporary style within your rustic-leaning space: 'Use clean lines and minimalistic designs for your cabinetry and hardware to create a sleek and modern look,' she says.

For Richard Davonport, leaning on the side of minimalist kitchen ideas matters throughout the whole design process, perhaps especially so when you're selecting accessories and finishing touches for the space. He says the 'finer details are hugely important to getting this look just right,' and we can't help but agree.

'You won’t want to overclutter the space – that’s far too maximalist for modern organic – but you’ll want to find touches that do bring texture and that organic feel. Consider raffia rugs and wooden bar stools – in fact, anything wood is your best friend when it comes to adding those last finishing touches,' Richard says.

7. Opt for open shelving

An organic modern kitchen with open wooding shelving

(Image credit: Janis Nicolay / Knight Varga Interiors)

Open kitchen shelving ideas are growing in popularity, and its minimalistic, laid-bare look works great to blend modern with a softer, more characterful style. Floating or open shelves allow you to display your design accessories and organic modern details for all to see, plus allow for easy access to all the kitchen and hosting essentials.

'Use open shelving, storage solutions with glass fronts, and functional organizers to ensure that the kitchen stays clean and clutter-free,' says Rushda.

8. Don't overlook style for functionality

An organic modern kitchen with rafter ceilings and open shelving

(Image credit: Raquel Langworthy / Christina Kim Interior Design)

While modern do best when designed with minimalistic principles in mind, Mike says functionality shouldn't interfere with welcoming, inviting style. Even though the kitchen is meant to be one of the home's most function-forward spaces, it's important to pay attention to how the space feels to live in, as well.

'In modern homes, kitchens can easily be overlooked in terms of characterful design, prioritizing functionality and cleanliness – which can result in the space feeling uninviting. To avoid falling into this trap, try to keep things soft and supple – avoid overly angular cabinetry or overwhelming patterns,' Mike says.

9. Embrace the natural lighting

A brightly lit kitchen with white counters and wooden bar stools

(Image credit: Chantel Elshout Studio for Davonport)

If you're lucky enough to be designing your kitchen from scratch, make sure to integrate expansive windows and increase the natural light in your home. An integral part of nature, sunlight will open up your space and make it feel like a peaceful, awakening retreat. Richard Bubnowski of New Jersey-based Richard Bubnowski Design says to 'bring in as much natural light as possible' in an organic modern kitchen.

'Natural light is very important and should be maximized with large windows, clerestory windows or skylights,' says Trish.

In this kitchen, designed by Chantel Elshout Studio for Davonport and pictured above, a sleek window with black trim illuminates the kitchen worktops and adds to the space's light, airy atmosphere.

10. Start with a focal point

A minimalistic kitchen with a spherical white light fixture

(Image credit: Lisa Petrole / Christina Kim Interior Design)

Christina suggests starting your design scheme by identifying an eye-catching focal point for the space.  It's a solid rule of thumb to reference when designing any space, but particularly when blending a softer look with a modern kitchen, which benefit from natural simplicity.

'When striking a balance between modern and organic in a kitchen, I like to start with a focal point in an organic material. This could be reclaimed ceiling beams or statement-making marble countertops. From there, it's about creating a balance with modern elements. For example, if I'm using a lot of wood on the ceiling, I may decide to use a clean-lined, slab front cabinet door or a range hood with a metal accent,' she says.

While she says every kitchen is unique and therefore its design should be personalized and considered, Christina says she likes to begin with ceilings and countertops. These spaces bode especially well for creating emphasis in interior design.

'These are fantastic areas to use a strong organic element. The perfect veiny marble or a beautiful wood finish can set the tone for the entire design,' she says. In this kitchen, pictured above, an oversized, spherical light fixture steals the show, contrasting beautifully with geometric vaulted ceilings.

11. Go for eye-catching shapes

A bar area in a kitchen with black and white marble and a large window near the ceiling

(Image credit: Mike Chajecki / Shaunn Lipsey + Co.)

A mixture of sleek, clean-cut lines and softer, more organic shapes makes for a stunning organic modern kitchen design, say designers. Mike suggests 'softening the clean lines typically associated with modern design' with 'irregularly shaped fixtures' like curved sinks or lush marble worktops.

'Soften the corners on the countertops, add stools with a curve. If renovating, look for opportunities to include an archway, or arched door,' adds Trish.

This design idea applies to smaller design details as well, says Eugenia Triandos, principal designer of Montreal-based Hibou Design & Co. She suggests considering the intricacies and finishing touches that might benefit even the most minor elements of your organic modern kitchen's design scheme. 

'Consider incorporating tiles with irregular edges, reminiscent of artisanal craftsmanship, along with wood featuring subtle patterns. Embrace earthy tones, natural woods, and hammered hardware to cultivate a genuine organic ambiance. Overall, aim to opt for items that embrace irregular forms,' she says.

12. Pick out handmade accessories

A kitchen with marble counters, a spherical light fixture and a large kitchen island

(Image credit: Mike Chajecki / Hibou Design & Co.)

When it comes to accessorizing your near-finished kitchen, the same design rules apply. Look for natural textures and materials, and integrate an organic color palette throughout your space, even in the more minor details. 'Accessorizing is key – in this case display your wooden chopping blocks, earthenware and ceramics,' says Rushda. 

This idea can take many forms, but Eugenia also suggests elevating your interiors with ceramics that are both functional and lovely to look at. 'We suggest integrating elements that evoke a sense of being lived-in and handcrafted, while adding touches of decor such as bespoke stoneware or terracotta vases,' says Eugenia.

13. Select metals with living finishes

A tile backsplash in a kitchen with patina metal finishes

(Image credit: CALAFIA Home Design)

For the fixtures, look to a metal with a living finish – one that will develop a lovely patina over time. Trish says this is a stunning way to introduce organic charm into a space that blends that aesthetic with modern sleek style.

'For the metal finishes like light fixtures, hardware and plumbing consider a living finish like unlacquered brass which will continue to darken and change overtime providing interest and authenticity to the space,' she says.

Shaunn Lipsey, principal designer and owner of Lipsey + Co., adds that brass and bronze finishes feel just a touch more organic: 'Lean to using muted matte finishes and stay away from using any finishes or materials that are too shiny,' she adds. 

With these all-encompassing ideas in mind, you'll be cooking, hosting, and living in your dream cozy contemporary kitchen in no time. With the perfect mix of old and new, the space will last the long term.

Abby Wilson
Interior Design News Editor

I am an Interior Design News Editor at Homes & Gardens. Most recently, I worked with Better Homes & Gardens, where I wrote and edited content about home decor, gardening tips, food news, and more. Before that, I studied Journalism and English Literature at New York University. I’ve moved around quite a bit in the last several years, most recently making the trip to London, and love transforming each new space into a comfortable retreat that feels like home. When it comes to decor, I’m most drawn to unique vintage finds and calming colors.