before and afterDIY

Before & After: A Drab Kitchen Gets A One-Day Makeover

by Maxwell Tielman

Design*Sponge | Apartment Kitchen Before & After


Beautiful, functional kitchens are sort of the holy grail of a renter’s life. Unless you are one of those rare, oh-so-fortunate souls that stumbled upon a beautiful rental kitchen serendipitously, you have likely encountered the dreaded and tragically ubiquitous Rental Kitchen of Doom. The RKD has a long and sordid history, haunting many an apartment renter throughout its terrifying reign. Although its exact origins cannot be pinpointed, it can be easily assumed that this abominable trifecta of generic wooden cabinets, faux-stone laminate, and sporadically functional unmarked appliances came to the fore in the 1990s—that sad time in design history where new wasn’t necessarily synonymous with quality. For whatever reason, the RKD continues to dominate the rental scene even to this day. Fortunately, there are ways of dealing with and coexisting with the RKD—even on a renter’s budget! Teddy Lee, a designer living in Manhattan, is one such renter who managed to work within the constraints of his East Village apartment’s kitchen. With just a few cosmetic touch-ups, Teddy was able to transform his RKD into a RKA (a Rad Kitchen of Awesomeness—do you like what I did there?). Even more amazing—the entire project took less than a day and cost slightly over $300. BANG! If that’s not inspiration for all us renters out there, I don’t know what is! Check out all of the photos plus Teddy’s design notes and sources after the jump! —Max

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“The space felt small, dark, and cluttered,” Teddy writes. “I needed to find a way to brighten the space and give it a fresh look on a small budget. My starting point was the faux wood block countertop that I could not replace. I looked for inspiration kitchens that had real wood block counters and decided that white would compliment the counter well and make it look more expensive. From there I decided to add elements that were semi-country and industrial. I always feel that a designer should keep to the bones of the space and add a twist to update it. I knew my cabinets had a country contemporary feel so I was not going to go ultra-modern, but instead used industrial elements to update the look.
“I believe that the final look is such a difference because of the cabinet color and lighting. Paint can do so much to transform a space. Also, good lighting is key to add warmth and depth to a space. Both paint and lighting are inexpensive things that anyone can install in a short amount of time. Lastly, the whole look was executed within a day, but that’s after many days of research, prep, and organizing. Most times my design is organic, but my advice is to always stick to the plan. Sticking to the plan will not only help you accomplish things more efficiently, but it will help narrow down your search when you are bargain shopping or browsing through sale sections.”


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teddy_ba_form_4 Design*Sponge | Apartment Kitchen Before & After

  • Paint/Supplies/Hardware – Home Depot – $120
  • Drum Pendant – CB2 – $59
  • Undercabinet Lighting – Home Depot – $39
  • Rug – West Elm – $20 (Sale)
  • Bar Table – Craigslist – $30
  • Stools – Amazon – $140

Suggested For You


  • Sorry if I missed it in the article but I would love to know the paint color you used on the cabinets. And, great job! My parents have very similar cabinets and I have been trying to talk them into painting them white for years! This may be the perfect inspiration to get it done!

  • Is this really doable in just one day? How do you have time to sand + paint + do a second coat? Do you only do the outsides of the doors/faces of the drawers? I feel like it would take at least a long weekend to paint all my kitchen cabinets (something I’ve been DYING to do!).

  • I’m curious as to what type of paint was used. And how many coats it took. I have always been under the impression that it was best to allow paint to dry throughly (overnight even) before doing the next coat! Am I mistaken?

  • I love this! I swear I have the exact same cabinets in my rental kitchen. Which paint did you use-more specifically the finish or grade? Great job all around.

  • What were the under-cabinet lights you used? Would love to find something that gives off a warmer glow (and it’s hardwired) like so many of the blue-ish LED’s I’m seeing.

  • I painted our kitchen cabinets–inside and out–and it took me a few weeks for prep, a layer of primer to cover the dark wood cabinets, and a coat of paint. Cabinets first need to be cleaned with TSP and lightly sanded. It took much longer than I had anticipated! The picture shows a very small cabinet area which probably made a big difference in the amount of time needed.

  • what kind of under cabinet lighting did you use and did it require hardwiring? i’m trying to figure out something similar for my kitchen. thanks!

  • I see that you’re a designer AND a real estate agent – I feel like you could best answer this: how do you swing painting cabinets in a rental? Do you not fear the wrath of your landlord? I ask, because I’m dying to do this as well.

  • I have the same cabinets in my Rental Kitchen of Doom! I wish I were allowed to paint mine though, unfortunately, I’m pretty sure my landlord would sue me if I did!

  • Wow, what an amazing transformation, considering how few changes were actually made! This post comes at a great time for me, as I’m currently apartment shopping and finding so, so many RKDs!!

  • I’m also curious if we can get more details about how to prep and paint the cabinets. Can you just sand by hand or does this require some machinery? What’s the best kind of primer to use? And what kind of finish is the paint? I definitely want to do this in my kitchen so the more specific the better!

  • I did a similar update in 2010 with my dark maple cabinets. It took several weeks- removing all the hardware, cleaning, sanding, priming, and painting 3 coats with good quality brushes and paint. Drying overnight and sanding with a fine grit between each coat, and then using a vacuum and tack cloth before the next coat. Then putting all the hardware back on and re-assembling. Hope your finish holds up- the look sure is great right now!

  • DS folks: I believe you are doing your readers a disservice by allowing them to think that this kind of project can be done in one day. LOTS of work and time went into this project. Not to mention quite a bit of background in this type of up fit.
    I’m all about DIY but misleading articles like this can place unsuspecting renters in a bad situation.

    • Kathy

      I completely disagree. Our team is living proof that painting a small kitchen and changing out hardware can be done in one day. If you start early and finish late, you can most definitely do this. I’ve done it myself in three different kitchens (repainting door fronts and changing hardware) and so has Amy. Repainting door fronts and changing our hardware doesn’t day multiple days if you’re working with a tiny kitchen like this.


  • Looks great but I would be interested in knowing how well the paint holds up, say a year later. My friend painted her kitchen cupboards herself and within a year the cupboards looked terrible. She re-painted, the second time with oil-based paint. It lasted about 3-4 years before the paint looked worn. I love reading about DIY projects (on this site and others) but I’m always curious about the longevity of many of the projects.

    • DNA

      How did her paint damage over the years? I’ve never had paint do that. Did it chip? Most high quality paints with any gloss (even semi) clean easily with soap and water.


  • Any thoughts on how to get the paint to spread evenly? I just painted my white cabinets a dark blue and they look great, except when the sun shines directly on them; then you can see the uneven brush strokes. Is there something I should have done differently besides gotten shades? Thanks, Isabel

    • isabel

      thin coats, completely dried in between coats. that’s the best way to avoid those lines. you can also do thin spraypaint coats if you don’t want any lines (hold the can high above the doors and spray in wide circular motions).


  • 1. Although it may have taken a day for these folks to do the work, I’m sure it took much, much longer to do all the planning and shopping. ;)

    2. I would also love to know the answers to Anna’s questions: “How do you have time to sand + paint + do a second coat? Do you only do the outsides of the doors/faces of the drawers?” #detailsplease

    3. Although I think it’s amazing that these folks got so much done and so quickly, I also have a small kitchen (9×10 feet), and I only painted my cabinet doors (not frames, not insides), and it took me a month of weekends. #justsaying

    4. Tip for anyone trying this project – label your cabinet doors and drawers to make sure they go back in their same spots. Do not assume that all of your doors and drawers are exactly the same size – even slight differences, combined with warping over time, can create a puzzle if you don’t carefully label your stuff. #tip

  • I think some people are taking this too literally. Even if it did take “more than one day” they are giving you an idea of what simple steps you can take to make a small space an entirely new and improved space on a tight budget in a short amount of time. I appreciate all of the helpful hints and ideas that I obtain from posts like this. The space looks great, and now I’m going to search for some under cabinet lighting for my very small kitchen!! Amazing what a can of paint can do. Grace… I love your blog (have followed for years) and the fact that you will respond to your reader’s comments and questions. Thank you. xo

  • Could you include a link to the Undercabinet lighting from Home Depot? We’re also in the market for lighting.

  • Whether it took a day or a week to paint the cabinets is not important to me. What I wonder is…in a small kitchen when you declutter, where do you put the clutter when you finish or do you only declutter long enough to paint and take pictures. Kitchen clutter is usually those things you want to grab quickly like the French press etc. People in your kitchen makeovers never seem to have small appliances. I have a microwave, coffee maker, electric kettle, slow cooker, food processor, stick blender, convection oven, and blender out on my countertops because I use them so often and I have no cupboard space to hold them. I have a lot of upper cabinet space but the shelves are too high to use them for storing oft used and heavy items.

    • Isabelle

      It depends on the home owner. Lots of people in cities don’t actually keep so many electronic kitchen gadgets precisely for this reason- we don’t have space. I think a lot of people downsize and focus on the pieces they use most often and narrow down to only the most essential pieces. If this home owner isn’t a huge cook and entertainer, there may not be a lot of kitchen clutter to get rid of. That said, in terms of general advice, I think the best thing to do is pair down only to the pieces you use daily. Anything else can be stored elsewhere at home (storage bins, closets, storage NEAR your kitchen, etc.)


  • I used melamine paint to update kitchen cabinets in my first house; after a few years it looked great, no chips, no problems with the paint of any kind. Definitely recommend melamine!

  • Did the lighting really change the backsplash that much? It looked so yellow in the first picture! That’s pretty amazing:)

  • Even though painting was likely the most work, I really really like what the hardware and the rug do for the space. :)

    Lovely job!

  • I have done this type of remodel before, and have found that using Rustoleum 2x heirloom white spray paint and primer makes the cabinet work very simple, with great results. When finished painting, rub with Minwax clear finishing wax and the paint job will look professional. Having all the materials at hand, finishing in one day is not unrealistic. This is a good example of what can be accomplished on a low budget with great results!

  • On the advice of my contractor, I painted some oak kitchen cabinets using my commercial paint sprayer. It was a complete nightmare. I cleaned, sanded and primed the existing cabinets. But, oak has a very large grain, and it took at least four coats to fill in ugly black grain lines that appeared in the white paint. On the plus side, the house has been used as a rental for four years and the cabinets look like new, with absolutely no chips. I have recently seen products in Home Depot, etc. that are specifically made for priming cabinets, so it would definitely be worth checking out.

  • Could anyone tell me more about the prep/ primer part of this rehab? I’m looking into redoing my cabinets and a certain amount chemical cleaner, sanding, and primer that takes way more than one day is suggested by everyone I’ve talked to. I’d be happy if I didn’t have to use the toxic prep chemicals.

  • This is an amazing redo that I would love to embrace if I wasn’t certain that my landlord would almost literally kill me. I do have to point out how the room behind the kitchen changed as well. You don’t notice it as easily because your focus is on the kitchen but it does factor in the overall look of the redo.

  • looks fabulous, but something extremely noteworthy is the fact that this is a rental!!! Most landlords would not allow someone to come in a do this. Wall paint yes because it can easily be changed back to how it was to begin with, but not cabinetry. And to those saying it cannot be done in one day…it most certainly can. It’s only 8 cabinet doors and very small cabinet space. A palm sander, a coat of good quality primer, and a coat of quality paint wouldn’t take long at all.

  • For those of you who are so concerned and/or certain that your landlords would not allow remodeling, show them this article and these before and after pics. Offer to pay for the supplies and handle the labor and you may be very surprised. Remind them that kitchens and bathrooms are what sell (rent) an apartment!!

  • you did a great job for that small space! Are the under cabinet lights hard wired and did you do that wiring yourself? Was each lite unit $39. ? Or what appears to be 3/39?

    Thank you in advance for information on lighting.


  • You have to sand better for get that wax off and the sealer and grease off makes the paint stick better, you don’t want to have to redo it next year cause the paint is coming off

  • I’m getting ready to sell and want to update the kitchen,we have 70s look and off white ceramic tile counters. How do you paint cabinets in white with the dark color showing in the weathered look and update the counters for an almost nonexistent budget?

  • Why have none of the questions been answered in over a year? I would be interested in this… along with the questions which were asked.

  • I see this article pop up from time to time in my news feed. I would certainly recommend leaving a little more time for the primer and paint to cure if you want the paint to hold up to daily wear and tear for any length of time. Prep typically includes a light sanding and de-greaser (Krud Kutter works great and is non-toxic/biodegradable). Shellac-based primer has great adhesion and works best for sealing wood tannins, with oil-based primer being a close 2nd. My best results have come from PPG BREAKTHROUGH, and Benjamin Moore Advance & Sherwin Williams Pro-Classic Acrylic Alkyd also do a nice job. I have used BREAKTHROUGH on roughly 20 sets of cabinets over the last several years and had 100% positive feedback. Any sort of bright white will look great, and ideally you can match the cabinet color with the rest of your trim. Good luck everybody, freshly painted cabinets make a HUGE difference in a dated kitchen ~

  • WOW.. now THAT is a makeover! :) That really blew me away. So tasteful. Im so used to seeing cold, industrial style makeovers that take away the cosiness… and then I see this! Gorgeous. Finally someone with taste

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