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Photography by Zach Pontz; Design by Fitz Water Interiors

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Philadelphia-based photographer–turned–real-estate agent Kate McCann sees white and gray kitchen rehabs about 20 times a day. “I’ve heard my mom call it ‘millennial gray,’ so I couldn’t stand the thought of going in that direction for my own space,” she says. McCann recently bought her first home and she wanted the room to feel light and bright—basically the exact opposite of what the existing dingy brown cupboards were communicating. 

Working with a $10,000 budget, McCann brought on Dan and Jenna McRorie, the husband-and-wife design team behind Fitzwater Interiors, to update the space. Choosing their battles wisely, the couple transformed the room without altering the layout, replacing the appliances, or even demolishing the existing cabinets. “You could say we undated them in a way,” says Jenna. A lick of paint can do wonders (and so can a bold backsplash). Here, the designers take us behind the scenes of the makeover. 

Start With a Clean Slate

Don’t be deceived by the before-and-after photos: The McRories had to fully disassemble the cabinets and take all the appliances out of the room before chipping away at the beige backsplash. Dan notes unscrewing the frames is a three-person job, especially if you’re planning on repurposing them (if any of the wood chips, you’ll be hard-pressed to find replacement parts). 

It was also during this stage that the designers came across other builders’ lazy mistakes. While tearing out a section of the old tile, they noticed there was no insulation between the drywall and the home’s exterior. The fix? Take the wall down to its studs and start anew.

Ditch Distracting Details 

Not long after they decided to commit to the existing cabinets, the McRories removed the bulky molding from the upper frames. “It totally changed the shape,” says Jenna. The simplified line instantly modernized the room, plus the larger gap makes the ceilings appear taller. 

Prioritize Durability 

Photography by Zach Pontz; Design by Fitz Water Interiors

Painting cabinets is a little more involved than covering walls. Because it’s a high-traffic space, the surface has to be scuff- and chip-resistant. After sanding the cupboards down so there was no sheen left, the designers swathed them in Behr’s Juniper Ash in the form of an oil-based trim enamel (the urethane in it makes it extra-durable). “Another workaround is to use regular wall paint and then apply two coats of a water-based polyurethane,” says Dan. 

Save on Bespoke-Looking Tiles

While McCann was considering higher-end ceramic tiles from fabricators like Fireclay and Zia, the products didn’t align with the budget. Then she came across this option from Bedrosian—the variety of tones gives the squares a handmade feel, but they were only $7 per square foot, not $35. 

Keep What You Love 

Photography by Zach Pontz; Design by Fitz Water Interiors

McCann was a fan of the existing small coffee bar in the corner, so they kept the same setup but updated the countertop with the quartz and installed a modern light fixture and new floating shelves with cylindrical brackets.

Stick With Similar-Shaped Handles 

The designers replaced the stainless steel bars with matte black versions from Etsy. By using the same general silhouette, they were able to save themselves the trouble of patching a hole in the door front.

Splurge on Bright Stone 

Photography by Zach Pontz

If McCann had to pinpoint the update that made the biggest difference visually, it would be the quartz countertops, which alone cost $3,000. “The granite is what I disliked most about the old kitchen and what, at first, was going to be my only edit to the space to keep costs down,” she recalls. With only one main window in the kitchen, the white surface helps lighten up the back of the house but, more important, it marks a new beginning. 

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