Traditional Kitchen Design: What is it?

A lot of people say traditional kitchen design has to do with quality materials (meaning expensive), exquisite detailing, and formality.


These things have nothing to do with what really makes a kitchen feel traditional.

Traditional Kitchen = Historically Influenced Kitchen

The word "tradition" refers to doing something that has been done in the past.  That's all. 
It doesn't mean fancy, and it doesn't mean necessarily having elaborate detail (although it certainly can).

Traditional just means it's been done that way a long time ago, or for a long time.

Why does this matter?  Because I want people to know what options they really have, and because some of the experts out there are missing the point. 

So, what's the point?

People who love traditional kitchen design love it because they enjoy a connection with the past.

A traditional country kitchen complete with woodburning stove converted to electric

Adding anything else to the definition of traditional does a disservice to the person who loves tradition.
Why? Because adding to the definition takes away your options.  And I want you to have all your options.

Taking away options is fine if it saves you time or money (it's why you didn't order a car in that perfect shade of blue- you chose from the available stock colors)... 
But sometimes taking away options costs you time or money! What a waste.

Traditional Italian Kitchen Design

If you are looking for a traditional Italian kitchen, however, linoleum won't work. 
There's too much visual space taken up by flooring, and while linoleum is traditional in America or England, it wasn't really used much in Italy.  Terrazzo, on the other hand, has been used in Italy for ages.  While terrazzo is traditional there, it was "new" in America in the 60's or so. I'd love to see it in an Italian country kitchen in America.

Let me give you an example here.  Someone might tell you that linoleum flooring is not suitable for a traditional kitchen.  But why not?

True linoleum has been used for over a century (not sheet vinyl, but the real stuff). 
It's perfectly at home in an American traditional kitchen design or English country kitchen (countries that have a long history with linoleum) that is supposed to evoke the nostalgia of the early 20th century (cottage kitchen, anyone?).

It's warm underfoot, extremely durable, and a heck of a lot cheaper than tile, stone, or wood floors.  It's an excellent option for people on a tight budget who want an English or American traditional kitchen design.   And, flooring isn't forever.  You can always upgrade later.

So what do we learn from all this?

Traditional kitchen design is for people who love a connection to the past.  Whether it ends up expensive or frugal, detailed or plain, formal or casual, is irrelevant.  Anyone can enjoy a traditional kitchen design.

Traditional Kitchens- How do you know one when you see one?

What makes a traditional kitchen design instantly identifiable?

Certainly darker woods, classic construction methods, and furniture detailing on cabinets come to mind.

Classic furniture detailing enhances a traditional kitchen design

However, anything that's been done long ago, or for a long time, is usually appropriate. 

However, kitchens long ago look nothing like what we're used to now. 
Think Hoosier cabinet, freestanding stove, table to prep on (and eat!), and a bucket to bring water in from the well.

So when someone says "this is a traditional kitchen," remember they're just saying it has a lot of traditional hallmarks, or traditional elements of design.  You want your kitchen to be current as possible in how it functions, however.

You can be formal, or not.
Country or city.
Regional, national, or international.

Definition of a Dated Kitchen:

A kitchen where most people can tell in which decade it was built.
Most kitchens will eventually look dated.  Why?  The avacado green of yesteryear is now probably stainless steel, but who knows?  We can't predict the future. 
To avoid your kitchen going out of style sooner rather than later, choose traditional materials and styles, especially for kitchen cabinets (they are the most difficult and expensive thing to replace in your kitchen design).

So what does this mean?  Well, you've got quite a few varieties of traditional kitchen design to choose from!

Traditional Kitchen Styles

Traditional style includes American traditional styles, country or farm styles, and any international traditional style.
Here are just a few traditional kitchen styles:

  • American Traditional or Classic
  • American Colonial 
  • Shaker
  • American Country (including Farmhouse)
  • American Mission (including Craftsman)
  • American Southwest
  • French Country
  • Italian Country (Tuscan)
  • Swedish Country
  • British Colonial
  • Country Cottage

Traditional Kitchen Characteristics: What are they?

First, remember that no kitchen will have all the traditional characteristics, unless you are creating one for a museum!

But any element borrowed from the past will enhance your traditional kitchen design.

To create a traditional style kitchen, simply make sure that at least 80% of what you see in a photo has a traditional style.

In practice, this means that a traditional style kitchen must have traditional style cabinets- they take up too much visual space to have anything else. 

Look at any kitchen photo, and you'll see what I mean.  The cabinets simply must reinforce the kitchen's specific decorating style, otherwise the style would be a question instead of a statement.

Make a Statement in Your Kitchen, Not a Question

Below you'll find a traditional style kitchen vignette at a Big Box store.  The door styles are decidedly Mission style, but the color isn't dark enough.  It leans towards Craftsman style with the curves and cutouts, but those elements are really country or farmhouse style.  The rope trim is not Craftsman style, or farmhouse.  The baby blue counter is not helping to establish a Mission feel either.  So while all the elements are traditional, this kitchen vignette is an example of a mish-mash of design.  Is it country? Not really.  It has Mission style doors.  Is it Craftsman?  Not really.  No statement here, just more questions!

Mission style cabinet doors compete for attention with rope molding and a light cabinet color

Traditional Kitchen Cabinets

In the past, kitchens were made of freestanding furniture made for the task at hand.  Built in cabinets were fewer, because there things like large (woodburning!) stoves, or Hoosier cabinets in the kitchen.
To make your cabinets look traditional, just use cabinets having traditional construction techniques, or those that mimic it.

In the long past, doors were made with rails and stiles, and had mortise and tenon joinery.  A center panel would fit inside the rails and stiles (tops and sides) of each door. Usually it had a raised panel, and sometimes plain or decorative glass.

In the photo below, you can see where the horizontal rails end because the stain took a bit darker there on the center two doors.  While the design of the leaded glass is a more modern take on the idea, these cabinets are a solid contender for a traditional kitchen design. 

Leaded glass cabinet door inserts enhance the traditional kitchen style

Primitive designs also included slab doors- made from solid wood or plywood (obviously plywood is more recent).  You would have found those in Grandma's cottage kitchen.

In more recent decades, they started making mitered doors.  In my opinion, they are much more difficult to use if you want a very traditional kitchen.
Transitional, yes. Traditional, no.  Mitred doors are just too new of a style to be considered in a traditional kitchen design. 

Stick with stiles and rails, a raised center panel, and partial overlay doors for the most traditional look.

A classic profile in a white oak door

Q: Now that you know that the cabinets must look traditional to pull off a traditional style kitchen, what else needs to be traditional?

A: No other particular design element must be traditional style, but you need to choose enough others to get a traditional kitchen design. 
Otherwise, you will end up with a transitional kitchen, which is wildly popular now too (and makes a beautiful kitchen design).

But if you want your kitchen to be traditional, you must make traditional style choices for some of the other design elements. 

You can add to the design of a traditional style kitchen through flooring, countertops, layout, lighting, appliances, accessories, color, and details.
Just look for historical use of the material or style, and you're well on your way.

And remember- when choosing traditional design elements for a kitchen, you are not necessarily looking only for what was used in kitchens a long time ago, or what's been used for a long time.
Rather, you are looking for things that remind you of designs from the past, materials that have been used a long time (in kitchens or not), and anything with a sense of history.

If you've got questions or comments, feel free to drop me a line!

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> Traditional Kitchen Design