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The Home

3 Ways I Turned My Shades-of-Taupe Rental Kitchen into Something Joyful

Creative Ali Labelle shares her story of turning her rental kitchen from "the saddest tan-colored rental blah zone to something Nancy Meyers would be proud of" in the latest installment of our home renovation series.

Mine isn’t a unique story: about 3 weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic, I was staring at every corner of my rental apartment and wondering if I could stand to look at it all for an unknown number of days/weeks/months ahead of me.

It’s a small space and I knew I’d need to make some adjustments in order to not only make it function, but to bring me joy (it’s no secret that our surroundings have an impact on our mental health). So, I decided to start with the kitchen... namely the old, generic, oak cabinets that made me never, ever want to cook. Ever.

Ali Labelle Kitchen Transformation

Before we dive in, I know what you’re thinking... how did she get permission to do this?

My landlords live in the building and I know them well, so when I asked them for permission, I came prepared! I brought a mood board, paint swatches, and a detailed plan. While they were hesitant, they were willing to let me make adjustments as long as I promised to discuss options with them when I move out someday. (They mentioned that by the time I leave, they may want to replace the cabinets altogether, so we’ll cross that bridge later.) If you don’t know your landlord, or don’t know who to ask, think of it this way: the worst case scenario is that your landlord isn’t cool with it and you lose part of your security deposit. It might be worth it to take the risk if it’s important to you!

So, if you do decide to roll up your sleeves, these are the three areas I focused on that made a huge impact.

1. Paint... everything

Well, maybe not everything, but paint is your friend here! Painting the cabinets changed the look of the space right away, especially because I chose a bright pistachio green from Clare Paint. (By the way, use trim paint for your cabinets! It holds up better than wall paint does and will be easier to keep clean.) But perhaps the more shocking paint choice I made was to paint the backsplash a high gloss white! I sanded, primed, and painted it, just like I would anything else, and it totally worked – it fades away into the wall and I don’t even notice it. It’s not a forever solution, but it’s easy to touch up and again, is super easy to keep clean. Perfect for a rental.

2. Reconsider your storage solutions

Ali Labelle Spacing Saving

I realized I had a LOT crammed into the cabinets, and my countertops were crowded with appliances. I also had a good two feet of unused space between the tops of my cabinets... the ceiling that was just SITTING there. The tops of the cabinets were raw and not flat, so storage wasn’t really an option until I commissioned my sister’s boyfriend to build me a shelf!

He installed a piece of wood that runs across the tops of the cabinets and is anchored to the wall (not the cabinets). This way, it can support a significant amount of weight, and it opened up a whole world of space for me! I store cookbooks, serving tools, and dishes that I don’t need every day, freeing up space in the cabinets and counters for items I do need often.

We also painted my old rolling kitchen cart (you know the kind) and installed a butcher block top for a more cohesive look. Above it is a kitchen rod with hooks for my Caraway Cookware Set to hang off of, and a couple of floating shelves to store spices, vases, and kitchen tools. I even hung a basket from the rod to keep Pot Holders and Oven Mitts! For me, the less I have on my counter, the better, and utilizing the vertical space in my kitchen to put things away has been a huge space saver.

3. Accessorize

Kitchen Details

Outside of the normal items that can bring a little personality to a kitchen (like cute Tea Towels and dishes), I invested in a few items to make my kitchen feel like an extension of my adjacent living room, which has a lot of textured textiles, ceramics, and art. I had a piece by the artist Michael McGregor framed to sit on my countertop and bring some color into the room, and I bought a couple of decor items (a HAY vase and a vintage enamel tea kettle) for texture.

I decided to keep my Caraway Cookware out on display – they’re just too pretty to hide! Plus, the Cream color works really nicely with the tones in the rest of the space. To hide my ugly floors, I bought two rugs off Etsy that I layered, which coincidentally has made a huge difference when I’m on my feet cooking all day. For me, it's all about the little details that help to make a room feel warm. And while I didn't design this kitchen from scratch, it still feels like me.

And there you have it! There are tons of other hacks you can find online – contact paper countertops, peel and stick floor tiles, even painting a refrigerator! In the months since I updated my kitchen, I’ve found myself cooking a ton, diving into old cookbooks, and really enjoying learning my way around a recipe – all unexpected ways this project brought me joy in a tough time.

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