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Writer Shoko Wanger and her husband Rob had a complicated relationship with their 70-square-foot Harlem kitchen.

While the tight space played host to countless friend gatherings and dinner parties for the better part of a decade, it sported dated black appliances, brown faux-marble countertops, and orange cabinetry that screamed the 1990s. “We were always annoyed by it, but it wasn’t terrible,” says Shoko, laughing. “It was your standard, cheap kitchen, but it did its job.” 

Turning 30 and getting engaged proved to be the beginning of the end for the dimly-lit cookspace. “We decided to stay in the apartment for a few more years, and it struck us how much a new kitchen would upgrade our quality of life,” she explains, noting their love of cooking and entertaining. “That, and we just couldn’t look at the orange cabinets anymore.”

A strict budget, tight timeframe, and a landlords’ watchful eye meant the reno had to be very low-lift. “We knew this wasn’t our forever home, so we needed to keep things affordable,” shares Shoko. “We skipped a proper interior designer and used Inspired Kitchen Design to map out our IKEA layout, Semihandmade for affordable custom cabinets, and Sweeten to match us with a general contractor.” 

Three weeks later, their dimly-lit corner kitchen was nearly unrecognizable. Ahead, Shoko shares the low-lift, high-impact changes that made all the difference in their compact corner kitchen.

White and gray kitchen cabinets

Invest in Thoughtful Storage

Tired of mining their crowded drawers and countertops for additional storage, the couple extended the upper cabinetry to the ceiling. “It really created the illusion of taller ceilings while allowing us to utilize every square inch of the space,” says Shoko. They also invested in sleek, thoughtful storage like a trash pull-out and microwave cabinet to further streamline the look. “We used to store things everywhere, but now every item has a designated place — it feels so organized and in a way, grown up.” 


Brighten the Color Palette 

The couples’ new kitchen is living proof that a lighter color palette can create the appearance of a larger space. The duo went with Supermatte White Slab fronts for the upper cabinets, Supermatte Clay Slab fronts (now discontinued) for the lowers, white Caesarstone countertops and backsplash, and stainless steel appliances to brighten up the cookspace. “A lighter color palette was so exciting after years of orange cabinets and black appliances,” adds Shoko. “We warmed it up with maple floating shelves, a wooden wall clock, and brass hardware to ensure it wouldn’t feel sterile.” To polish off the look, they replaced the pot rack with two pendant lights over the butcher block table, and lined the upper cabinets with LED lights for added glow. 

White open floor plant kitchen

Keep the Decor Light & Airy 

Shoko’s choice of light, tonal decor throughout the kitchen further enhanced the neutral color palette. Decorative accents like the pale blue tea kettle, matte white pendant lights, pastel knife set, and neutral dinnerware all help create a minimalist, almost Scandinavian feel. “It was honestly unintentional,” she shares. “We already had those little colorful accent pieces, and they ended up playing really well with all the white.” 


Tweak the Layout to Maximize Square Footage

Large-scale demo was out of the question due to budget and renter restraints, but the couple did tweak the layout ever so slightly to maximize floor space. “The old sink was at an angle, which ate into the small square footage that we had,” she shares. “We made the sink parallel to the wall and reshaped the corner to regain that little bit of space — it made the layout much more efficient.”

Gray and white kitchen with open shelves

Embrace Modern-Day Design Services 

Shoko counts their use of nontraditional design services as their top financial saving grace. “Inspired Kitchen Design mapped out our entire kitchen layout and even created our IKEA cart for something like $100,” she explains. “I was very stressed out about planning the layout on our own, so this was a huge relief across the board.” Semihandmade fronts also helped rule out the need for an interior designer. “I was blown away by how affordable it was — we were able to achieve the look we wanted while saving so much money.” 

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Island Hopping

A lot goes into a kitchen renovation, but it’s usually hard to tell from a beautiful “after” shot. Our monthly series “Island Hopping” is about getting a behind-the-scenes account of what the process is like through honest conversations—you know, the kind that typically take place around a kitchen island. We’ll chat with designers, homeowners, and architects about their projects, hoping to peel back the curtain on picture-perfect spaces.