How to Avoid the 5 Worst Kitchen Design Mistakes

Table of Contents1 SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS2 HANG ‘EM HIGH In a kitchen in Oklahoma City,

ALL-WHITE kitchens that look like operating theaters aren’t all that inspiring or even practical. But the overcooked alternatives—kitchens featuring grease-accumulating ceramic roosters or cabinetry festooned with grape-leaf swags—can seem depressingly cluttered. “It’s a place for creating meals, not Versailles,” said New York architect Kevin Lichten.


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Homeowners should view their kitchens first as machines for preparing food, he advised. “Then slowly add luxury to make it sensually appealing”—and ideally inject personality of the right kind. We asked design pros like Mr. Lichten to share their biggest kitchen-decorating pet peeves, from oversize islands to mixed-material counters, and to recommend chic, functional fixes.

HANG ‘EM HIGH In a kitchen in Oklahoma City, Okla., the upper cabinets continue to the ceiling, avoiding a common design error: a dust-collecting gap between the top of the millwork and the ceiling.


David Tsay

Scattered Appliances

Countertop gear—coffee maker, toaster, blender, air fryer—might be essential to getting your three squares, conceded Los Angeles designer Amy Sklar, “but honestly, they don’t look so hot spread out over every usable surface.”

Instead Gather your gadget diaspora behind an accordion-doored “appliance garage” (think: a built-in bread box for your blender and such). This allows easy access to contraptions while hiding them. To ensure your juicer stays juiced, plan around an electrical outlet. Pullout drawers in lower cabinets, too, can be hidy-holes for lesser-used appliances.

Unintelligent Counters

Along with other dumb 1970s ideas like water beds, renounce tiled work surfaces. New York designer Alan Tanksley calls out their uneven surfaces and unsanitary grout lines. Even perfectly flat tiles installed tightly can pose a challenge, Mr. Tanksley noted. Any individual tile is more susceptible to chips and cracks than unified slabs of natural stone. That said, porous natural stone can add anxiety to food prep, too. One big stone no-no: mixing natural marble with engineered-quartz marble. “Two different but veined materials in the room force the eye to choose a favorite,” said Nashville designer Lori Paranjape, “and Mother Nature wins every time.”

Instead When Mary Maydan’s clients want a worry-free marbled look, the Palo Alto, Calif., architect recommends porcelain faux-marble slabs, which she says have “come a long way in recent years.” She also favors Corian countertops as an alternative to natural stone, especially paired with integrated sinks to “create a very sleek and seamless look.” Ms. Paranjape sticks to solid quartz for prep surfaces and applies natural stone only to walls, “where it can be seen but not damaged.”

Truncated Backsplashes

A stovetop backsplash that ends mid-wall at the bottom of the vent hood or in line with the bottom of the upper cabinets looks to Houston designer Benjamin Johnston “like you ran out of money for the project and couldn’t finish the job properly.” Another common head-scratcher: countertop material that extends 4 inches up the wall. It reminds Seattle designer Charlie Hellstern of a doctor’s office and presumes that food doesn’t splatter any higher.

Instead Mr. Johnston recommends extending the backsplash behind the stove to the ceiling. “It’s a perfect opportunity for a wow moment,” he said. To avoid the “doctor’s office” look, Ms. Hellstern continues countertop material all the way up the wall. For a less costly backsplash in general, fix a piece of glass over the painted wall, she said.

Island Takeovers

Ms. Sklar once came across a kitchen island so enormous “the homeowner had to climb on top of it to clean the center.” Another sign your island is too massive, according to Amanda Mole, an architect in Kiawah Island, S.C.: You can’t circulate around it freely anytime an appliance is open. And don’t even think about putting a cooktop in the island. A vent hood hanging mid-ceiling looks like an industrial exhaust that’s escaped the factory.

Instead Ms. Mole suggests that in lieu of an island, expand work surfaces or seating by extending the countertop to form an L shape. If storage is the goal, a caddie at the end of a counter can hold silverware and dishes.


Naomi Clarke

Unconnected Cabinets

The no man’s land above upper cabinets that don’t reach the ceiling is a source of frustration for Michelle Lisac, a designer in Scotts Valley, Calif. The break creates an unwelcome horizontal line and the gap collects dust and grease. “Why not just go that extra foot!” she said. The trend of mismatched upper and lower cabinets strikes Santa Monica designer Christine Markatos Lowe as similarly disjointed: “They should visually act as a single unit in a single color,” she said.

Instead If new cabinets aren’t in the budget, Ms. Lisac suggests filling the breach with a flat panel and crown molding to create the illusion of ceiling-high cabinets. For people who like the look of two tones in the kitchen, Ms. Markatos Lowe recommends painting the island in an accent color and keeping all woodwork attached to the walls the same hue.


Pros recall the most egregious design decisions they’ve witnessed

I have seen a few kitchen island ideas that are striking but come at a price of very little functionality. For example, islands where the entire [structure] is a fish tank and others that look like a sculpture and provide no storage and little or no seating.” —Mary Maydan, architect, Palo Alto, Calif.

A model car collection on top of the wine display.” —Scott Dresner, designer, Chicago

We rented a house when I was growing up that had a faux shingle-roof detail in the space between the top of the cabinets and the ceiling, and the same kitchen was carpeted.” —Amy Sklar, designer, Los Angeles

We came across a kitchen with plate-glass mirror for a backsplash, even behind the range. Can you imagine trying to keep that clean?” —Erin Gates, designer, Newton Centre, Mass.

A collection of empty bottles of fancy booze displayed around the kitchen.” —Jenna Kincaid, art director, Lulu and Georgia

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