How to design a transitional kitchen – 10 simple ways to create a classic old-new look

Create timeless kitchens that beautifully balance old and new with these design ideas and expert tips

How to get an old-new look in a kitchen to create a timeless space
(Image credit: Heidi Caillier Design, photograph Haris Kenjar / Cohesively Curated, photograph Carina Skrobecki / Herlong Architecture + Interiors, photograph Julia Lynn)

'How to get an old-new look in a kitchen to create a timeless space?' is a question lots of interior designers and homeowners alike ask when starting a new project. Kitchens are the busiest spaces in the home where we spend so much of our time, plus they are a big investment, so creating a design that will stay feeling fresh and functional over the years is important. 

Working with a designer to create a kitchen design customized to your needs, which combines style with practicality, as well as old and new design elements, is often the key to a space with enduring appeal. Below we asked the interior design experts for their advice on how to strike the balance and embrace transitional style in a kitchen..

How to get an old-new look in a kitchen

Whether you have a historic home or a modern home, introducing both old and new elements when designing a kitchen is a brilliant way to achieve a welcoming space that will stand the test of time. New builds fitted with sleek modern kitchens can result in spaces feeling stark, clinical and not particularly comfortable to live in. Similarly, a historic kitchen with too much old wooden furniture and frilly window valances can end up looking like Grandma's outdated 80s kitchen. In short, leaning too heavily on one style doesn't always make for an inviting space.

Whatever the look you’re after, be it a modern kitchen or a farmhouse kitchen, most kitchens benefit from transitional design – from having a mix of styles and materials to achieve visual appeal and balance. Of course, the real hallmark of a timeless kitchen is its functionality. Kitchens designed with a practical kitchen layout, made from durable cabinet materials, and fitted with the best kitchen appliances, are a sound investment that should last decades. 

1. Choose classic Shaker-style cabinetry

White kitchen with brass fittings and brass pendant lamps

(Image credit: Interior by Cohesively Curated, photograph Carina Skrobecki)

For a timeless kitchen you can’t go wrong with classic Shaker-style kitchen cabinets in a neutral color. Characterized by a simple frame and panel door of pleasing proportions, the Shaker kitchen style takes its name from the Shaker community that came to America from England in the 18th century. The Shaker furniture makers followed principles of purity, honesty and simplicity in design and rejected ornamentation in favor of utility. 

Made from solid timber, Shaker doors will stand the test of time and can be repainted as and when tastes change. Emily Ruff, founder and principal designer at Cohesively Curated, chose the style to create the perfect new-old look in this 1920s home.

‘Our goal here was to make the kitchen feel like it belonged in a historical home, but was fresh and bright for this young growing family,’ says Emily Ruff. 'The home was built in the 1920s and my client loved classic British kitchens that have inset cabinets with shaker details on the doors, but all flat drawers.'

'We added some fluted details to the inside panels of the shaker doors on the coffee bar cabinets to create visual interest. For the finish we selected Agreeable Gray from Sherwin Williams. It is a very light gray with warm undertones so it still feels fresh and bright.'

expert headshot of Emily Ruff, Cohesively Curated Interiors
Emily Ruff

Cohesively Curated is a full-service design studio based in Seattle that seeks to marry interest and invitation with modern livability and a textural, eclectic aesthetic.  Emily is known for her discerning eye and ability to craft spaces that are equal parts comfort and conversation-starter. She specializes in new construction, full home renovations, kitchen and bath remodels, and full home furnishing projects. She most enjoys helping clients hone in on their personal style and educating them on materials and furnishings that are worth the investment. 

2. Incorporate natural materials

White shaker-style kitchen with marble worktops and a wooden island

(Image credit: Colette Interiors / photograph Linda Pordon Photography)

Wood and stone have an enduring charm that never goes out of style so for a timeless space you can’t go wrong by incorporating these natural materials into your kitchen design. White kitchens can have a tendency to feel cold and stark, but incorporating natural materials helps bring instant softness and a relaxed, aged feel, as demonstrated in this beautiful space by Colette Interiors.

‘We paired rich, warm wood tones, with authentic stone, classic fixtures, and traditional profiles to provide this kitchen with a timeless aesthetic,’ explains Trish Lynn, founder and principal designer at Colette Interiors. ‘Our approach to layering in vintage elements with modern finishes helped to lend itself to this old meets new world vibe.’

3. Let architecture take the lead

Traditional light grey kitchen with a large navy blue island and quartzite worktops

(Image credit: Martin Moore)

When it comes to timeless kitchen design it’s important to take a lead from the architecture to make sure it complements the style of your home. In this beautiful English Georgian home, the owners asked kitchen maker Martin Moore to create a kitchen that complemented the grand, classic proportions of the home whilst also being a practical family space.

‘The brief was to create a space that had a sense of belonging; although part of the room had a modern extension, it needed to feel as though it had always been there and was a natural and integral part of the home. Ample kitchen storage was also a must-have for the client,' explains Martin Moore designer Matthew Sedgwick.

'It’s a voluminous space so proportionally, the furniture had to comprise pieces of a grand scale. Symmetry in Georgian properties is always a key factor so the centrality of the chimney breast and the “framing” of the window with equal dressers helped create the synergy with the setting.'

4. Switch up hardware

Herlong Architecture and Interiors white kitchen with black hardware photograph Julia Lynn

(Image credit: Herlong Architecture and Interiors, photograph Julia Lynn)

Upgrading hardware is an easy way to dial up a classic neutral kitchen without adding extra color. Here the team at Herlong Architecture and Interiors based in Charleston have given a classic Shaker-inspired kitchen a modern edge with sleek black hardware. 

‘The homeowners wanted a clean classic kitchen with a touch of modern including accents of black contrasting light fixtures, cabinet hardware and a glossy tile kitchen backsplash. They were after a high contrast look, while still keeping in tune with a coastal design as they live on the marsh with a beautiful water view,’ says, Heather Allison, interior designer at Herlong Architects and Interiors.

5. Add a rustic feel with handmade tiles

Small sage kreen kitchen with patterned tiles and terracotta floor with marble worktops

(Image credit: Interior by Heidi Caillier Design, photograph Haris Kenjar)

Boasting beautiful, varied textures, handmade tiles make a wonderful way to bring instant character to kitchen floors and splashbacks. Here interior designer Heidi Caillier chose a mix of handcrafted terracotta kitchen floor tiles with hand-painted tiles above the oven to bring a touch of rustic European charm to this San Francisco pied-à-terre. Although not old, the handcrafted tiles have an aged quality that brings a relaxed, lived-in look to the space.

6. Make the most of your space with bespoke cabinetry

Devol Classic English kitchen with bespoke alcove shelving and pantry

(Image credit: deVOL Classic English kitchen)

Having a kitchen tailored to your lifestyle and built around your space is the best way to ensure that the space serves its function for years to come. Working with a kitchen designer to customize storage to your requirements can be a costly but worthwhile investment, as they can make sure every space is efficiently utilized. This deVOL Classic English kitchen features cabinetry custom-made to fit the space; custom-made shelving units make the most of tricky alcoves and an existing cupboard has been transformed into a handy pantry – a great example of old-new in kitchen design. 

7. Mix in freestanding antique furniture

Chapel House Ambrice Miller

(Image credit: Future / Darren Chung)

If you love the vintage kitchen look, mixing built-in cabinetry with antique freestanding kitchen ideas is a wonderful way to bring character, plus, freestanding kitchens have multiple functional benefits. Easily picked up from online marketplaces, boot sales and flea fairs, antique furniture brings flexibility to layout as they can easily be moved, plus you can also bring them with you should you move house.

‘Kitchens need to be functional so having new cabinetry that is well organized and functions well (glides and hardware that operate smoothly), appliances and new plumbing fixtures, are all important to helping with function. That said, there are ways to bring in patina to new kitchens; there are some really cool old butcher's block tables or pastry work tables that can be used as an island,' says interior designer Allison Babcock

'Incorporate antique and vintage furniture and accessories. An antique kitchen table and chairs, vintage dough bowls used as fruit and vegetable containers, cutting boards, and vintage glassware all can add patina to a new kitchen.'

Allison Babcock
Allison Babcock

Allison Babcock is known for her sophisticated aesthetic: a modern sense of elegance that is fresh, crisp, and comfortable, imbued with warmth and enhanced by sumptuous textiles and organic materials. She and her team at Allison Babcock LLC have worked on a wide range of projects from coastal residences to renovated historic properties and modern urban residences. The firm collaborates with architects and builders to seamlessly integrate architecture and interior design.

8. Add vintage lighting

White Shaker-style kitchen with an island and black vintage pendant lamps

(Image credit: Interior Allison Babcock, photograph)

Adding character with vintage kitchen lighting is a subtle way to get an old-new look in a timeless kitchen as they can easily be switched should tastes change. With its shaker-style cabinetry, this white kitchen by Allison Babcock is guaranteed to endure across the decades while the oversized vintage ceiling pendants bring a unique twist.

‘Antique lighting is a fun way to bring in patina. I love finding interesting and one-of-a-kind lighting fixtures and having them rewired to use above an island,’ says Allison Babcock.

9. Paint cabinets to bring fun to a classic kitchen

Blue kitchen with an island, terracotta floor, marble worktops and splashback and brass pendant lights

(Image credit: Interior by Phillip Thomas Inc, photograph Genevieve Garruppo)

Opting for a kitchen with traditional painted kitchen cabinets in a vibrant, head-turning color makes a fun juxtaposition and is guaranteed to put a spring in your step, as demonstrated in this space by Phillip Thomas. Similarly, if you have inherited a traditional kitchen, painting the cabinets in a vibrant hue is an easy way to breathe fresh life into the space.

‘My favorite kitchens seem to have a perfect blend of old and new elements that really feel timeless,’ says New York City-based interior designer Phillip Thomas. ‘Adding a fresh new punch of color to cabinets or incorporating a bold metal accent like a shiny brass hood, mixed with your grandmother's china and your favorite vintage stools found at an estate sale are a fun way to balance a classic kitchen space.’

Some colors to consider – Farrow & Ball's Pea Flower Tea, Benjamin Moore's Blushing Red and for a really vibrant but soft green shade try Sherwin-Willams Courtyard.

10. Style with vintage accessories

White kitchen with antiques

(Image credit: Brent Darby)

Styling a kitchen with antique and vintage pieces will bring instant rustic charm to a modern kitchen. Items like old chopping boards, French confit pots and old wooden apple crates bring warmth and texture and are easy to pick up and flea fairs and boot sales.

When it comes to styling kitchen shelves, 'I like to use contrasting textures, for example, reflective glass against a raffia bottle or a rough pottery vase to make the items stand out,' says interior designer Julia Dempster. 'I love the rough textures on antique chopping boards; they work well displayed vertically. Concealed recessed lighting in shelves can throw illumination on the beautifully curated items - one of my favorite things to do in a kitchen as it adds an extra dimension to the interior.'


How can I make my kitchen look timeless?

Opting for Shaker-style kitchen cabinets is a great way to create a kitchen with timeless appeal. Simple, and with elegant proportions, the framed panel door design complements most architectural styles and interior looks, making it a versatile choice for kitchens made to last. ‘Shaker cabinetry feels very safe for clients because it coordinates well with various styles, but also has been around for a long time so it doesn't feel trendy,’ says Emily Ruff, founder and principal designer of Cohesively Curated.

Opting for cabinets in neutral colors will ensure the space has lasting appeal and makes a calm and bright backdrop for styling with artwork and accessories. Stark whites and cool grays can leave spaces feeling unwelcoming, instead, warm neutrals continue to be popular. ‘Many clients are tired of seeing white kitchens and want something that will feel warmer, that is why we are seeing so many cream, warm gray and putty kitchens,' adds Emily Ruff.

Sometimes leaning too heavily towards one particular kitchen style can leave a space feeling dated. Often, opting for a mix of materials and design elements, both old and new, can help bring a welcoming, lived-in feel. 

How do you make an outdated kitchen look modern?

If your kitchen is looking outdated there's no need to despair, as there are so many ways to give your space an instant refresh. Painting kitchen cabinets is a quick and easy way to transform the look and feel of a space and there are clever formulas available that can be applied to all manner of materials. Alternatively, if you have a little more time and budget then try replacing the cabinet doors for a simple, streamlined design. Of course, this is only worth doing if the frames of the cabinets are in good condition.

Updating the handles on an existing kitchen for more on-trend hardware is another quick way to add character. Similarly, try switching kitchen light fittings to more sleek, minimal designs for a modern look.

Pippa Blenkinsop

Pippa is a contributor to Homes & Gardens. A graduate of Art History and formerly Style Editor at Period Living, she is passionate about architecture, creating decorating content, interior styling and writing about craft and historic homes. She enjoys searching out beautiful images and the latest trends to share with the Homes & Gardens audience. A keen gardener, when she’s not writing you’ll find her growing flowers on her village allotment for styling projects.