The perfect Mid-Century Kitchen Update … for YOU

15 min read There’s no right answer to how to update a Mid-century kitchen – there’s only the right answer for you. But here are some helpful MCM update strategies to keep in mind!

I can’t tell you the right way to update your MCM kitchen;  the right choices you make in a mid-century kitchen update are going to be based on your life, your home, your needs. So … are you ready to make those calls for yourself?  

Today I’m sharing some quick background on mid-century kitchens and how they came to be the way they are and then my go to design strategies for improving the layout and functionality of this kind of kitchen for my one-to-one design clients. 

Listen in on this snippet of the Mid-Century Kitchen Clinic workshop recorded last month! Here are just a few of the design tips we are going to discuss in the episode.

Some work spaces in a mid-century kitchen should face in.

Mid-century Kitchen Design Tip: Some work spaces should face "in"

Plan for both General lighting and practical task lighting.

Mid-Century Kitchen Design Tip: Plan functional task lighting

Contain entry doors with “drop zone” mini mud room storage.

Mid-century Kitchen Design Tip: Create Mud Room "drop Zones"

Borrow space from other rooms … or outside

Mid-Century Kitchen Design tip: Borrow Space from Outside

Are you ready for more … listen in!

Need more Mid-Century Kitchen Updates …

Want more on kitchens – you want to check out season SIX of the Mid Mod Remodel Podcast.  Get eight episodes in a row on how to update an MCM kitchen to fit your life … down to the smallest details!

  1. Get What You Really Want out of your Kitchen Update
  2. The History of the Mid-Century Kitchen with Sarah Archer
  3. Solving Mid-century Kitchen Layout Problems
  4. Kitchen Building Code Issues You Should Know About before you Remodel
  5. How to Choose Mid-century Materials for your Kitchen Remodel
  6. Yes! Your Kitchen Remodel DOES Need a Master Plan
  7. Spot Your REAL Kitchen Problems … then use Design to Solve Them in a Mid-sized Remodel
  8. Quick Kitchen Update Ideas to try Right Now

In Today’s Episode You’ll Hear:

  • The resource of the week: Sarah Archer’s The Mid-Century Kitchen.  Collect all 89 right here!
  • What they were thinking when they built the kitchens we live in today (hint: it was “hurry, we have to get this one finished and do 15 million more just like it!”)
  • Why it doesn’t really matter if the mom-focused mid-century kitchen is popular with contemporary thinking or out of fashion.  
  • My go-to kitchen design tips rattled off so fast you’re going to want to take notes!

Listen Now On 

Apple | Google |  Spotify | Stitcher

Resources to Learn about Mid-Century Kitchen updates and design

Read the Full Episode Transcript

So here’s the kicker. I can’t tell you the right answer because all the right choices you make in a mid-century kitchen update are going to be based on your life, your home and your needs. So are you ready to make those calls for yourself? If not, let’s chat about it.

Hey there, welcome back to Mid Mod Remodel. This is the show about helping you match mid-century home to your modern life. I’m your host Della Hansmann architect, and mid-century ranch enthusiast. You’re listening to season eight, episode three

Tomorrow I’m gonna be chatting again with Sarah Yearout of Mid-century homes in Boise answering some of the most common questions she hears all the time as a realtor specializing in Mid-century homes. The topic for Friday’s chat: kitchens. Seeing that on my schedule made me wanna share a little of my big picture philosophy around updating Mid-century kitchens.

We’ve talked on this podcast before. In fact, if you’ve got kitchens on the brain right now, you should go back and listen to season five from start to finish because we talked about mid-century kitchens for eight episodes in a row. It’s such a big topic though, and such an important part of the house that we are basically never going to be done talking about it. I see a kitchen as a microcosm of your whole Mid-century home remodel. If you get that right, you know how to do the rest of your house and if it goes wrong well, well, let’s just say, people will know what year you updated your kitchen when they walk into your house next year, five years from now, ten years from now. Yeah, you don’t wanna make a dated choice here. We all know what that looks like in the past.

To make sure you plan a kitchen remodel that’s just right for you and your home I wanted to share today some snippets from last month’s amazingly fun Mid-century kitchen clinic. This was a live two hour workshop. Actually it ended up being more like three hours when I stuck around at the end to answer all the questions that people had had of about their own particular cases or the design exercise we’d worked on during class. Long story short, we had such a blast applying the master plan method and it’s five focusing steps: Dream, Discover, Distill, Draft, and Develop to the kitchen in real time. And if you miss that class and you’re sad about it, well, we missed you too, but you can still get access to the recording and the DIY design exercises for your kitchen paired with the program inside of Ready to Remodel.

I’m gonna going to be reopening, Ready to Remodel for the new cohort really soon and if you wanna be the first to know when you can join us on the inside to plan a smooth and successful remodel for your Mid-century home, get your name on the waitlist: midmod-midwest.com/waitlist.

On last week’s episode, I shared my updated Mid-century ranch resources list with you. It has my favorite 89 articles, books, blogs, movies, TV shows, and product suppliers to get you set to plan a Mid-century remodel in style. I decided to start a new feature on the podcast, the Mid-century resource of the week. So this week’s resource is a thematic no-brainer of course it’s Sarah Archer’s The Mid-century Kitchen.

This book is a detail packed photo and text history of our favorite era. It has high level history, context about the lives of the people who built our homes and so many beautiful pictures of colorful kitchens. Get it, read it, skim it again, study it for resources and inspiration. Share it with your friends, grab the resource list, download it and check this one right off your list. There’s a link to that. Download on the show notes page, which is of course, midmod-midwest.com/803.

Alright, I can’t share the whole Mid-century kitchen clinic in a podcast episode. For one thing, it would take too long and it was intentionally very interactive, but here are some snippets that I didn’t want you to miss out on.

Okay. Before we get into the work of today’s workshop, let’s talk a little bit about history of the Mid-century kitchen. Have you ever wondered why your Mid-century kitchen is so hard to hang out in sometimes? For those of you who still have your mid-century original kitchen layout, shout out in the comments.

Tell me if this sounds familiar, you’re putting on a kettle of tea and someone comes into chat. You have to turn around and turn your back to the stove to say, hi. Two people are prepping a meal, constantly bumping hips and reaching around each other for tools. It gets super old, really fast. Oh yeah. That’s a great way to describe it. You’re looking for a two butt kitchen. That’s that makes the point perfectly. Alright, here’s another one. Back when we used to have parties at home, everyone wanted to hang out in the kitchen, but then ended up having to lean against the counter, turning back around to pick up their drinks or plates and getting asked to move so someone else could get at the silverware drawer.

Sound familiar? Yep. Yep. I’m I’m getting some yeses. None of this is an accident. That’s because the mid-century kitchen was never intended to be a hangout space or to facilitate more than one cook at a time. It was supposed to be a work zone for one person. And that person was mom. Here’s the thing. The era of the Mid-century construction was the best and the worst of times for kitchens. Here’s why. On the good side, there was this incredible spirit of optimism through the whole mid-century era. We felt like technology and society we’re coming together to create this great new future. There was an increased opportunity of access to home purchases for some people. A lot of people who’d never been in the demographic that could hope to own suddenly became new home owners.

And there were so many new materials, new technology, new labor, saving devices. These are things we can’t imagine living without in our kitchens today that all were thrown into even the most builder grade basic mid-century kitchens.

On the not so good side, people were building really fast and on a snug budget, they were experiencing a housing crisis equal or greater to what we have right now. And they were addressing it super fast.

There were some pretty patriarchal ideas about what home and labor in the home should look like. That set up the house so it hard for people to share some of the work of keeping the house up. And there were homogeneous values and assumptions about what a home should be that led to, along with the efficiency of building quickly and efficiency, very cookie cutter designs for kitchens and houses in general. The assumption was just that people living next door to each other would be living in houses that looked just like each other. They would be living lives that looked just like each other. And would be cooking food that looked and tasted and was prepared in just the same way. And that was maybe not even true at all then it’s certainly not true of us today.

So there are some major problems for many people with that sort of single person, super efficient one cook kitchen. Actually we did some lives in Instagram during the last couple of weeks leading up to this workshop and I had a bunch of people yelling out “yeah, patriarchy kitchen doesn’t work for me” and other people saying, “oh, but I love my U-shaped kitchen. It’s super efficient and I’m the only one that cooks in my household.”

This is, okay so here’s what we get to it. The fun, the history, the background of why a mid-century kitchen is the way it is. None of that actually matters to your kitchen because your kitchen is not one size fits all. I can’t tell you what’s the right design for your mid-century kitchen because all the right choices you make in your mid-century kitchen update are going to be based on your life, your home, your needs. So are you ready to make some of the as calls, if not, we’re gonna use the master plan method to discuss exactly how you can tune a perfect mid-century kitchen update for you. Let’s go.

We had so much fun going through design exercises in real time talking to people about how to get to the essence of what they wanted from their home, how to identify the, uh, real and problematic features, the best features of the existing kitchens. They had, how to figure out what elements of their home’s original style they wanted to build on. If any, some people were dealing with flipped kitchens that didn’t have a lot left to keep them going.

But we had so much fun with all of that. What I hop now too, is the part where I gave some specific design advice. These are some of the things that always run through my head as I plan a mid-century kitchen update for my one to one clients. And this is absolutely advice that I want you to take. And I want all of my ready to remodel students to take if they are planning. So let’s hop back into another snippet of the mid-century kitchen clinic.

One of the most important things that I consider when I’m planning a mid-century kitchen update is that you need at least some workspaces in a functional kitchen that face in towards themselves rather than the classic mid-century kitchen design of all of your work surfaces are base cabinets that face a wall and often that have those upper cabinets in front of them, blocking your view and kind of taking up some of your head space.

So in this image, you can see, this is the minimum viable inward facing work surface. If you have a U-shaped kitchen, that’s just seven feet across from counter to counter. So refer back to the, just did in the discovery section, you can probably fit in a two foot by two foot free standing butcher block. This is the minimum viable internal facing work surface. It is less than the standard. Internet kitchen resources will recommend that you have at least three feet between one counter and another that’s absolutely true. 42 inches is better.

If you’re doing a standard kitchen island, you might want four feet, especially if you’ve got to open refrigerator doors between one work surface wall and the other. But if you have a small kitchen , having the ability to circulate all the way around to free standing butcher block; it’s better than nothing. It really does help.

Now here’s an example of a remodel where we’d actually push the wall out a little bit, borrowed some space from the outside to create the more of the current dream kitchen, the four foot wide double base counter by eight foot long, big island. But even if you can’t do anything else, trying to create some space where you can have work services that face in.

The next thing I always look for is to maximize the counter height work areas. So even if base cabinets face a wall, if there are upper cabinets, I’m going to think about removing those. To get back that storage area, I’ll look for someplace in the kitchen where we can have full floor to ceiling, full-height storage; a built-in pantry if you will. This is a more modern solution than the older idea of base cabinets with wall mounted cabinets above and it gives you a little bit more workroom and more practical storage. It’s often a great way you can mix and match. You don’t have to take every single wall cabinet you have off the counter, but it lets you feel like you’ve got more space in the kitchen.

And when we’re talking about social spaces within the kitchen, it’s great to create some place to sit to rest within the kitchen that might just be putting an armchair in an empty corner. If you have kind of the L-shaped kitchen that has a big open space and then work surfaces along one wall, it might mean putting a dinette or a little space, a banquette, a place to eat in inside the kitchen.

It can be really nice to take a break between prep and just sit down with your coffee cup inside the kitchen space; rather than having to go away to another area. It’s also nice if you’re working while keeping an eye on something. If you’re working on your laptop or for that socialization inside the kitchen. Or if one person is cooking and someone else is hanging out, doing their homework. Having a space to sit and be at rest inside the kitchen footprint is always really useful.

Now, when I’m thinking about creating space inside the kitchen, one of the tools I use is to use light to create different types of spaces.

So I’ll often use pendant lighting to create a little bit of a separation between two more open areas. A line of pendants over the top of a peninsula or an island can help create a visual artificial wall. This divides a more open concept space up into smaller sub spaces that feel more human scale. Lighting, particularly sort of dramatic lighting that looks beautiful even when it’s off can really be used to define areas of the kitchen. You can also use light when it’s on to highlight specific task areas. So you wanna use light for beautiful objects, pick beautiful pendants, use it to create space, but you also need just light to shine on the work that you’re doing.

So in this image, you can see working at a counter, the classic kitchen design, I have this in my mid-century kitchen I haven’t updated yet, is that you’ve got basically one central kitchen light in the middle of the ceiling, like here and it shines on the back of your head while you at a wall engaged counter and then you create a shadow with your own body that makes the place that you were working, the darkest spot in the kitchen. That’s so silly.

So you can fix this in a quick fix. You can get stick on under mounted lights and put them under your current wall, hung cabinets. If you’re doing a more involved remodel, you might think about placing lights almost at directly at the counter edge. Don’t create a shadow with your head of the work surface that you’re doing at the counter. And you can augment those with an under shelf or an under cabinet light at the same time.

But light doesn’t only come from artificial light sources. We can also make a lot of use of a light in a good kitchen. Original mid-century kitchens often weren’t really long on windows. They typically had one window over a kitchen sink the eyes on the street or eyes on the backyard window.

I always look for spaces, especially when I’m taking wall cabinets, wall mounted cabinets down to add extra windows for views out from a kitchen. And if I can’t get that, I’ll look for places to in bonus daylight from skylights. Either a big open skylight that almost creates an artificial raised ceiling, or even just a light tube. A little tiny bubble skylight on the roof level that comes down through sometimes just an eight inch diameter tube that comes down into an object that looks like a surface mounted light, but it brings in magnified daylight from outside.

You can actually connect those to a switch light as well. So at night it acts like a surface mounted ceiling light and then at daytime it’s extra daylight. Win, win. You can borrow light from opening up the kitchen to other spaces. You can also borrow space from other rooms or outside the house by having view lines go through them. This is an example of a kitchen that was really long.

In fact, this is a problem most of us don’t have a two-big kitchen, a kitchen and dining space next to each other that just felt very oversized, empty and cavernous but at the same time, really long and narrow. They were attached to an existing deck that was outside the house, but they weren’t really operating as connected spaces.

Changing the configuration of the windows a little bit and by changing the design of the deck, gave it more of a boundary around the outside. We added some built in seating in the opposite corner from the kitchen. This changed the long rectangular space into the psychological effect of a big square space that felt much more open and flowing and also enticed the family to go out and make better use of their beautiful deck.

We can also borrow space from other rooms inside the house. Either by removing walls or even just opening up interior windows so you can have longer views. Anywhere you can see further, even if your actual foot space, like in a galley kitchen, is relatively small, you will feel less confined. You will feel like you have bigger access to bigger spaces.

Now here’s a design thing I often have to make sure I’m introducing into a kitchen. Most mid-century kitchens are very multi access spaces. My own has doors going to the former breezeway now mudroom to the dining room, to the basement down the stairs and to one of the bedrooms. Four doors in a relatively small space. And this is super common. It’s very common for a mid-century kitchen to have an outside access door. And often there’s not much space originally designed into the kitchen to create a drop zone, to screen out all of the things of outside that need to be set down when you come into the house.

It’s great to have easy access to bring in your groceries. But it’s much more inconvenient to make the kitchen, the place where all of the shoes and coats and backpacks accumulate. So one thing we often add is a drop zone, a mini mudroom along one wall. Even if there is a mudroom somewhere else, or if we can build a mudroom off of the kitchen to create a space, to catch those spaces.

Here’s an example where it’s just shelves hooks and a bench next to the kitchen door. And here’s an example where we actually pushed the kitchen back, relocated it and borrowed a 10ft by 6ft space next to the kitchen without a wall, separating them, but with low shelving to catch extra things, and it has a bench and closed storage for you to put away all the outside things and then come in. You can actually put your groceries onto the counter as you come in, but then sit down and take your shoes off.

Very convenient. Okay.

Last design trick that I always think of is that I love to raise things up off the floor. If you can do wall mounted cabinets, if you can do wall hung shelves.n Basically in some places break up the contact between the heavy cabinet objects and the floor you can instantly create and more of a space that seems to flow from one to another.

For a divider, a wall between your kitchen and dining room. If you want to dissolve some of that structure by which I mean, take a sledge hammer and reconstruct it. You might think about having not just a window height opening, but having some divider, some storage space. So you can’t walk right through the whole opening, avoid the open plan emptiness. But make sure that you can actually, you could roll a soccer ball across the floor from one space to another. And this just really creates again, that psychological sense of more space than you to work with. You can magnify your spaces by borrowing between one and another, by having a little extra room.

Total sidebar off the topic of kitchens. In a bathroom this is even more important because it’s an even smaller space. I am such a huge advocate of wall mounted everything in a bathroom. And for one other reason that applies to the kitchen. Not only does it make a small space feel bigger, but it’s easier to clean. In a space that you’re gonna be keeping hygiene in mind. You want to think about what’s easy to clean up and anything that doesn’t touch the floor. It’s easier to keep the floor clean. It’s easier to keep that storage surface or fixture clean.

Those are a bunch of the thoughts that run through my head. Every time I walk through a kitchen design with a one-to-one client. I wanted to make sure that all of those concepts were in the air. I was asking my mid-century kitchen clinic attendees to take notes on which one of these seemed more relevant to their own kitchen, the challenges that they face right now,. I’m wondering which one of these seems like the most pressing challenge and the best solution for your kitchen. Do you lack space, storage, natural light, evening artificial light? What’s the thing that drives you the most nuts about your kitchen? I’d love to know.

And if you have more kitchen thoughts, you want more kitchen tips, I hope you’re gonna tune in tomorrow on Instagram. Check out my chat with Sarah of Mid-century homes in Boise. We’re gonna be to talking about all the frequently asked questions about kitchens.

Next week on the podcast, we’re gonna be talking about meeting yourself where you are. You want to not be taking on too much, but also not taking on too little with your remodel plans. I’m always excited to talk about this topic; I think that no one needs to hold themselves back from living in a home they love. There are always manageable steps you can take at any level to tweak your house. Steps to make it more your home.

And for now, if you have mid-century kitchen questions, send me an Instagram DM reply to one of my emails. I would love to talk to you about your mid-century kitchen and what you need to do to it, to make it great for you.