Modern doesn’t mean featureless’: an award-winning kitchen designer’s top ways to a contemporary but characterful kitchen


When it comes to kitchen design, the term “contemporary” often brings to mind sleek minimalism and an almost clinical aesthetic. However, a truly contemporary kitchen doesn’t have to be devoid of character and charm. In fact, it’s possible to have the clean lines and modern conveniences of a contemporary space while still retaining warmth, personality, and unique flair.

In this article, we’ll explore how an award-winning kitchen designer skillfully strikes that delicate balance in her projects. We’ll look at some of her top tips and tricks for creating a kitchen that’s fresh and current yet still brimming with subtle bespoke details. From smart material choices to creative custom elements, we’ll see how she effortlessly melds contemporary and characterful.

Whether you love the look of modern minimalism but don’t want a space that feels generic and impersonal or you gravitate toward more traditional styles but still want up-to-date functionality, the ideas presented here will help guide you to the best of both worlds. Read on for an insider’s perspective on crafting a truly contemporary but characterful dream kitchen.

Choose Timeless Materials with Interesting Textures and Finishes

One of the secrets to making a contemporary kitchen feel warm and inviting is through smart use of materials and textures. While the overall look may be streamlined and unfussy, subtle variations in finishes and surfaces add depth and personality.

For cabinetry and built-ins, combine sleek fronts in minimalist shapes with open shelving in rich wood tones to soften hard edges. Mix glossy lacquers with matte stains, or go for cabinetry in stark white or dark charcoal paired with a natural wood countertop.

Consider quartz or Caesarstone for countertops and backsplashes. These engineered stone materials come in an array of unique patterns and textures – from bold aggregates to subtle marbling – that provide visual interest without looking dated.

Similarly, look for porcelain, ceramic, or glass tile backsplashes that offer dimension and sheen while still feeling fresh and contemporary. 3D tiles, statement geos, or combining multiple tile sizes can make for an eye-catching feature wall.

Embrace Unique Materials Like Concrete, Metals, and Recycled Glass

In addition to wood, stone, and tile, don’t be afraid to incorporate more unexpected materials that lend a modern, bespoke vibe. Concrete counters, metal accents, and recycled glass surfaces can provide cool industrial flair while still looking cutting-edge and current.

Concrete has a raw, utilitarian aesthetic that contrasts beautifully with sleek cabinetry and stainless steel appliances. For a softer look, opt for concrete in warm grey tones rather than stark black and white. Distressed finishes or embedded aggregate add further character.

Metal offers eye-catching shine and can be used in creative ways as a kitchen accent. Try brass or copper for shelves, range hoods, or sinks. Industrial piping makes for an attractive pot rack, while a corrugated metal backsplash injects modern edge.

Recycled glass countertops provide eco-friendly flair with surfaces made from salvaged bottles and windshields. Opt for neutral, organic color blends rather than jarring multi-hued glass fragments. This material is endlessly unique.

Spotlight Artisanal Elements Like Handmade Tile and Textured Wall Treatments

Handcrafted accents are an excellent way to interject character into a contemporary kitchen. Bespoke ceramic tile, textured plaster walls, custom-built cabinetry, and other artisanal details add a layer of imperfection that balances sleek, factory-made components.

Commission a local artisan to fabricate a statement backsplash from handmade tiles. The subtle irregularities in shape, size, and color lend organic charm. Or install a textured wall treatment like Venetian plaster, troweled finishes, or hand-molded tiles for dimensional flair.

Work with skilled craftspeople and carpentry shops to create built-ins one-of-a-kind cabinetry and shelving using old-world techniques joined with clean, contemporary lines. This marrying of bespoke and modern elevates the space.

Repurpose salvaged materials from barns, factories, or demolition sites. For example, use reclaimed wood beams or weathered metal as an accent wall or rustic dining table. Celebrate natural imperfections.

Incorporate Character Through Clever Custom Elements and Creative Details

Thoughtful detailing and custom elements are an avenue for infusing character within a contemporary context. Add tasteful whimsy or unique functionality with specially designed features.

Have shelving or cabinetry fitted with unexpected angles, cutouts, or asymmetric shapes for sculptural appeal. Or incorporate curved corners, boomerang handles, convex drawers and other custom details.

Make a statement with three-dimensional tile designs, hand-painted backsplashes, or laser-cut metal panels full of delicate patterns and perforations.

Use lighting as a creative focal point through suspended geometric configurations, smart sconces, or LED strips concealed in interesting ways.

Build in unexpected functionality like storage nooks, hidden compartments, or spaces for charging devices and hiding clutter. Things like low-profile waste and recycling centers promote decluttering without detracting.

Take Color Cues From Nature Using Soft, Organic Palettes

Color is key in creating a soothing, inviting atmosphere. While all-white kitchens may look pristine, an totally neutral palette can end up feeling unimaginative and stark. Instead, take color cues from nature, using soft, organic hues that lend a contemporary yet comforting vibe.

Warm white and pale grey base cabinets keep things airy and light-filled, while accent walls in muted greens, light blues, or clay-based earth tones provide subtle depth.

For bolder pops of color, look to terra-cotta, mustard yellow, or sage green in finishes like paint, tile, or textiles. Use sparingly against neutral backgrounds.

Rich wood cabinetry and butcher block countertops bring in organic texture and warmth. Match these with polished concrete, stone, or quartz counters to achieve a harmonious material mix.

Choose Characterful Finishing Touches Like Vintage Finds and Collected Treasures

The right accessories and finishing details create a collected, curated look while retaining modern minimalism. Vintage serving pieces, salvaged architectural elements, and other found objects make for characterful accents.

Display collected pottery, timeworn books, or antique glassware in open shelving. Use an old industrial cart for additional storage.

Mount a set of repurposed factory lights over an island or hang salvaged pendant lamps for rustic illumination. Use an old door or window as a statement backsplash.

Finish the space with natural touches like dried botanical specimen, wood cutting boards, woven baskets, or a live edge slab dining table. Add some reclaimed brick or stone.

The key is keeping the look cohesive. Limit accessory items and focus on a few special vintage or handcrafted finds that tie into the overall aesthetic.

Strike a Balance Between Sleek and Rustic

The most successful contemporary yet characterful kitchens find a harmonious balance between sleek and rustic elements. Contrasting streamlined components with rugged natural features prevents the space from reading as too stark or too rough-hewn.

For example, pair polished quartz counters and glossy cabinetry with an exposed wood beam ceiling and oversized brick fireplace. Or offset concrete floors and metal stools with cozy textiles and wood shelves full of books.

Use restraint when blending industrial and bespoke details like reclaimed wood or salvaged finds. Their worn appeal looks best when combined with clean lines rather than overload.

The overall look should feel curated rather than haphazard or overly cluttered. Aim for a soothing sense of harmony and warmth.


Creating a kitchen with a contemporary yet characterful feel is all about melding sleek, minimalist forms with unique handcrafted elements and natural, organic warmth. Tactfully chosen materials, custom details, and collected finishes allow personality and flair to shine through.

With these tips from a top designer in mind, you can comfortably achieve the ideal balance in your own space. Embrace both flowing modernism and rustic charm by following principles of cohesive harmony. The result will be a kitchen that feels anything but generic – a contemporary gem brimming with special hand-picked details.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some examples of characterful materials to use in a contemporary kitchen?

Some great examples of characterful materials that can add warmth to a modern kitchen include wood finishes like reclaimed barn wood for shelves or ceiling beams, handmade ceramic tile for a backsplash, concrete countertops, recycled glass surfaces, and metals like brass, copper, or galvanized steel.

How can I add custom elements to make my contemporary kitchen feel unique?

Custom elements like asymmetric shelves, artistic tile design, concealed storage nooks, unexpected cutouts or angles in cabinetry, pendant lights, and laser cut metal backsplashes all lend distinct character to a contemporary kitchen. Work with experienced craftspeople for a truly bespoke look.

What’s the best way to use vintage accessories in a modern kitchen?

Limit vintage finds to a few key accent pieces and display them artfully, like a set of antique glass bottles on open shelves or an old metal cart next to the fridge. The space should feel thoughtfully curated, not cluttered. Stick to a cohesive color story.

Should I choose warm or cool neutral tones for a contemporary kitchen?

Warm, organic neutrals like soft whites, light wood tones, and pale greens, blues, or greys make a contemporary kitchen feel more natural and inviting. Stay away from stark black and white or icy grays for the main palette. Use cooler shades as accents.

How can I add rustic architectural elements to my contemporary kitchen design?

Salvaged factory lights, vintage pendant lamps, reclaimed wood beams, worn metal accents, and repurposed brick or stone make excellent architectural additions. Exposed wooden ceiling beams and oversized fireplaces also lend rustic flair.

What kind of tile works best in a contemporary kitchen?

Porcelain, ceramic, or glass tile in muted tones, interesting shapes, and 3D formats give a nice modern look. Handmade art tile for a backsplash provides rustic charm. Combine tiles in different sizes and finishes for added dimension.

Should I avoid patterns and textures if I want a contemporary look?

Not at all! Subtle variations in materials add vital visual interest in a contemporary space. Look for countertops with aggregates and marbling or statement geometric tile. Just opt for organic textures like concrete over fussy or traditional patterns.

How can I make a contemporary kitchen feel cozy?

Incorporate warm lighting, fresh flowers, fruit bowls, wood and wicker textures, soft textiles, and artisan pottery for a cozy feel. Keep the overall palette neutral and natural. A large farmhouse-style sink also adds hominess to a modern kitchen.

What can I do with open shelving to get a contemporary look?

Keep shelves sparsely styled with a few curated accessories matching your color scheme. Stagger sizes and place objects asymmetrically. Use shelving materials like wood, marble, and powder-coated steel. Install LED lighting for dramatic effect.