At first glance, the kitchen in this South London home looked like your typical, modern city kitchen: The backsplash was swathed in sleek gray subway tile, the cabinets were a glossy white with integrated hardware, and there were even LED lights under the lower cupboards. But from a functional standpoint, the space wasn’t cutting it. “Superficially, the existing kitchen looked okay but it was pretty soulless,” explains Laura Stephens, an interior designer who had previously helped these same homeowners decorate the rest of their Victorian-era house. “And it didn’t work ergonomically. They couldn’t open the bin and use the oven at the same time. It wasn’t well-thought-out.”

The kitchen, before.
The kitchen, before.

The dream of the owners was to open out the kitchen with a transformative extension down one side of the long, narrow space. But the not-so-small matter of the couple’s first baby arriving imminently meant they had to act fast—and smart. Stephens sought to completely reconfigure the room to make every square foot work harder without simply cramming it with cabinetry. She also injected it with an abundance of character, making it look handmade and lived-in rather than builder grade. Here, Stephens reveals how she made budget materials feel elevated to turn this once boxy room into a charming space layered with thoughtful touches.

Tear Up the Layout Rule Book

Pendant Lamp, Straw London; Art, Anthropologie.

It’s often standard practice in this style of narrow London house to put the dining table at the garden end of the room, but Stephens favored that area for a galley-style layout to open up the space. Instead, she embraced a smaller seating area by the entry door with a banquette (the couple didn’t need a large dining table anyway, plus reducing the number of chairs made the footprint more efficient). The designer saw it as an invitation to embrace textiles with a seat pad and graphic cushions. “Often kitchens lack that softness,” she explains. 

Put Your Own Spin on Stock Materials

Light Bronze Green Paint, Little Greene; Lampshade, OKA; Lamp Base, Pooky; Sconce, Mullan Lighting.

For speed, the kitchen was sourced from Howdens, a U.K.-based retailer specializing in stock cabinets that come preprimed. But you’d never know; Stephens painted them in a rich, mustardy shade of green and decked them in handpicked brass pulls and knobs. She then used lighter tonal colors to add warmth. “I wrapped it all around, including the ceiling, which was low,” she says. The walls are clad in sheets of tongue-and-groove paneling that can withstand dampness and changes in temperature, and proved just the material to conceal the extraction fan, something that Stephens would happily live without but which the clients were set on keeping. The Silestone worktop, with its grooved edge, makes the whole outfit look even more high-end than it really is.

Use Your Upper Cabinets Wisely

When Stephens learned that the cost of moving the pipes to reposition the radiators was comparable to installing underfloor heating, she did away with the bulky heaters entirely and enjoyed the freedom this afforded (it also helped cozy up their choice of floor tile). To avoid the galley kitchen feeling tunnel-like, the designer steered clear of upper wall cabinets and opted for airy open shelving. But that meant she had to be clever with the tall storage units opposite the seating area: They house a pantry with spice racks in the doors (to maximize every inch) and an integrated refrigerator-freezer. 

Layer in the Lighting

This kitchen is proud to be a no-spotlight zone. “They wanted lots of options for creating different moods,” says Stephens of her clients’ brief. She did just that with angled wall lamps above the open shelving, which act as task lighting and boast an industrial edge. Above the dining table is a wavy-edged terracotta pendant lamp, and on a wall beam is a shaded style with a more contemporary feel. She also took the unusual step of adding a table lamp to the worktop. “I love doing that—it gives a nice, soft glow for the evening. Now they have the option to zone the room and choose which spaces they want to light up,” says Stephens. It’s also perfect for a light-sensitive newborn, who will be blissfully unaware of the kitchen their parents had to live with until Stephens worked her magic. 

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