Upper Lower versus Inner Outer

By Kate Riley October 25, 2012

I was chatting with a friend the other day about her kitchen.  She very much wants to paint most of the honey tone wood cabinets white to freshen the space, but wants a touch of charcoal too to go with her black and white granite countertops.  Her kitchen is a basic U shape design with three walls of wood cabinetry, open on one side to a family room, with an island in the middle. 

I’ve been watching kitchen trends for years and one that I’m noticing more and more is the two tone painted cabinet design where instead of the surround being one color and the island the second color, the current trend is to paint the upper cabinetry one color and the lower cabinetry another. 

u shape kitchen plan

And so my friend and I are having what I call the “upper lower versus inner outer” debate.  Should she paint just the island a charcoal color or the lower surround cabinets instead?

Here’s a look at the “Upper Lower” two color painted cabinet style:

blue lower white upper two tone cabinets

The Kitchn


green lower white upper cabinets bhg

Better Homes & Gardens


gray and white cabinets houseandhome

House and Home


mark burstyn kitchen

Mark Burstyn


white upper gray lower kitchen cabinets



lower gray upper white cabinets

Apartment Therapy


life in grace turq and white kitchen

Life in Grace


Versus the “Inner Outer” painted cabinetry mix:

white surround blue island bhg

Better Homes & Gardens



white surround black island trad home

Traditional Home


wood island white surround aaron leitz

Aaron Leitz

gray island white surround cabinets bhg

Better Homes & Gardens


white surround citrine island bhg

Better Homes & Gardens


It’s a tough decision!  Which style of two tone paint do you prefer in kitchens, the Upper Lower or the Inner Outer? 



  1. I’m house hunting right now and I’m sooooo glad you wrote this piece. It really helped me come to a decision about kitchen upgrades…I’ll go Upper/Lower for a small kitchen without an island. If I can find a place with space, you can bet I’ll go Inner/Outer!

  2. I want to transform my oak cabinets as well. I have more of a galley style kitchen with an island in the middle. I LOVE the look of inner/outer. The upper/lower just looks weird to me. It only works if the upper and lower colors are the same shade (probably not right term). What I mean is I don’t want to walk into the kitchen and have my eye immediately find only the lowers or only the uppers. It’s got to blend right.

    I am planning on painting my outers white with a dark glaze and the island black. I can’t wait to start.

  3. The Upper/Lower looks fresh! Maybe she can paint the island first (since it’s part of the “Lower” anyway and wouldn’t need to be repainted if she did all the Lowers later), then decide?

  4. Hey Debbie, we’d likely paint the island white if we did the lowers in charcoal, but hey that’s true, we could aslo do the island in charcoal too, hmmm ….

  5. I like the inner/outer (I sound like I’m talking about belly buttons). It’s hard for me to give an honest opinion about the upper/lower option because these are all high end looking kitchens. Doing that to say- my builder grade 10 year old oak cabinets would look horrendous. But honestly it’s just too trendy for me.

  6. While I think that uppers/lowers can be done well, I think that inners/outers are classic and easier on the eye. I also enjoy the splash of color (or whatever type of accent be it a different color/material) at the island, as it typically serves as the gathering place. I think that Debbie C has the right idea. Start with the island and work from there. Best of luck!!

  7. I love both looks, but I prefer the Inner Outer. I feel that the Upper Lower will be out of fashion sooner, and let’s face it, painting cabinets is a lot of work. But really, you can’t go wrong either way. It is just paint, after all.

    I’m going to paint my island soon. I’m trying to decide between safe (grey) or daring (mustard yellow to match accents in the adjacent living room). Can’t wait to see what y’all come up with!

  8. I love both, but I think I like the look of the upper and lower best. I really want my mom to do something like this!! She has honey cabs too and it would freshen up the space so much!

  9. I like the look of some (not all) of the upper/lowers, but when it comes down to it I am an inner outer girl. For my family room, sure– I will embrace the trends and have a trellis rug and chevron art and a modern sofa with metal lockers acting as a sofa table and the backs of my built-ins painted a contrasting color.

    But my kitchen? I am not as trendy. I don’t want to tire of it that quickly. I have white outer cabs and an espresso brown island. Island top is a nice, warm butcher block and the perimeter is topped with an amazingly soapstone-looking laminate with a matte finish. I like the classic look and I am confident it won’t date as quickly as the upper/lower trend.

  10. Mine is an inner/outer. Dark wood on the island, and painted white cabinets. I do love the look of the upper/lower, but my kitchen is smallish, and it seemed the all white cabinetry was the best look for us.

  11. I love the look of both, but for me it would depend on what type of household one has. With two dogs, a cleaning challenged husband, my love of cooking, and two boys who, when they are home, make a huge mess in the kitchen, our lower cabinets take a lot of abuse. I would paint the lower cabinets and the island a darker color than the uppers. It would also be a way for me to have the creamy white cabinets I’ve always wanted on top, but without the upkeep lower white cabinets would require.

  12. I absolutely thought I’d go with upper/lower UNTIL I saw all of those pictures. Now I’d definitely go inner/outer with an island. Especially that first inner/outer with all white and the blue island. I’m dying for that one!!!

  13. Upper/Lower. I think it is different than what most people have and is edgier. Unique = cool.

  14. I like the inner/outer look…I think it makes the island a focal point. (And kitchen islands tend to be the hub of all the home activity. Might as well make that statement visually.)

  15. Hi Kate! My kitchen was just painted- uppers are gray (with a slight hint of green), lowers are wood, and the center island is gray as well even though it is a lower. Something to consider :-) I have dark charcoal/almost black granite around the perimeter, and a lighter cream granite island. Subway backsplash. Sounds busy but it is very warm and cohesive!

  16. While upper/lower can look great in pictures, I prefer inner/outer. Sometimes I feel like we’ll look back at the upper/lower trend in a few years and go, “What were we thinking?” lol.

  17. I love both looks, too. In my own kitchen where we suffer from inadequate cupboarditis we are going to follow the inner-outer strategy when we add an island. Since we’re not updating the whole kitchen (yet), we’ve taken a “same but different” strategy. We’re going to be painting the island white and keeping the perimeter cabinets in their wood finish. I found some doors at the Habitat Restore that are different than our existing doors, but have some of the same design elements. I’m hoping everything works together in reality as well as it’s looking in my mind–and in the pictures you’ve shown!

  18. I like them both! It is hard for me to decide too!! I have been wanting to paint my honey oak cabinets as well and this is an issue I am running in to. I think the inner-outter is the “safer” more traditional way of adding that second color to your kitchen! I love the upper lowers but it is the newer, more modern approach! I say paint is paint, you can always change it if you don’t like it! I would go bold and paint upper lowers!!

  19. I think the inner/outer is best for longevity! I work in kitchen design and I think the upper/lower will be a trend that quickly comes and goes whereas the inner/outer is one that has been around a long time and will continue to be. That’s just my two cents though. I still like the upper/lower look.

  20. I struggled with the same concept when I did my kitchen and decided to go inner – outer. My thought was when the trend passes, I can just paint my middle island white to match the remaining white cabinets. I love the look and feel like it kind of anchors the island into the room.

  21. I love the upper/lower look but to me, the inner/outer seems “safer” and probably less trendy. “If” I ever work up the nerve, I’ll be painting our kitchen island.

  22. I vote for upper lower. And I really like the photo with the white on top and dark blue on bottom…it is giving me ideas!!!

  23. I didn’t think I would have an opinion but after looking at the photos, I like inner/outer much better than upper lower.

  24. Well, I like the inner outer the best. I really like the island being set off and not so much the lower cabs painted differently, but that’s just me. I also like the look of selecting a few cabinets (uppers and lowers) and making them look as if they are free standing pieces of furniture by painting them in a different color. However, I think it should be up to the homeowner and their preferences, taking into consideration the style of the home and the style of the other rooms sharing the overall space with the kitchen. Again, my humble opinion.

  25. One thing that I notice as far as the examples that are showing is that the upper/lowers don’t have an island. Maybe when you throw the island into the mix of upper/lower it gets too busy?? And then what about the wall color/backsplash … will that have a separate color as well?
    I like them both but would lean toward inner/outer.

  26. Inner/Outer for sure. Upper/Lower only looks good with the right cabinets which I don’t believe come in your standard home =)

  27. I have green lowers and white uppers and I LOVE it. What I would consider is how you enter the room and how prominent you want the island to look. Dark lowers with a white island would draw the eye deeply into the room, while a dark island against white cabinets would create a visual “stop”. I always design around circulation – do you want people to get drawn to the island to sit or pause? Or do you want them to head right for the counter part of the kitchen. Dark colors will cue people where to go. Just my architect psycho-babble two-cents. Good luck!

  28. There is no right answer. The purpose of color is to attract attention to a specific direction and enhance mood. How does she feel when she’s in that U kitchen? If she feels closed in, brighter colors will bring her out. If the island feels too heavy, lighten it up. Just balance out the light and mood of the place for a better feel.

  29. My kitchen is inner/outer right now, but I’ve considered switching to upper/lower. However, upon closer inspection to see how it would work, I have several spaces like around my oven/microwave where the cabinetry starts with a large bottom drawer stacked with oven, microwave, and cabinet doors on top, and the fridge is right next to that cased in wood with cabinets on top. The same wall houses a countertop also with standard upper/lower cabinets. SO, all of that to say if I did the upper/lower, I’m not sure how to do those sections that are basically floor to ceiling cabinetry. Any thoughts? You can see the wall in question in the first few pics here:

  30. I like the inner outer. I think it takes a large kitchen to pull off the upper lower, plus it makes the kitchen seem busy to me. Different cabinet colors, appliances, countertops and all the items on top of them… that’s a lot to keep your eyes moving to and from.

    Plus… it’s a lot easier to paint just an island when tastes or trends change.

  31. At first I was definitely in the inner/outer camp. Then I saw your pictures, and remembered that I like the upper/lower look too. I think upper/lower looks better if the uppers are a lighter shade of the lowers though, so light gray / charcoal gray for example. I think doing the inner/outer look is great if you want to go with a brighter / higher contrast color as your second color because then there’s not too much of it & you can bring it in w/ accessories too.

    I read through the comments, and I think if you do uppers in white, lowers in charcoal, then the island should be charcoal too – otherwise you did a hybrid uppers/lowers/inner thing which might be WAY too much.

    I hope you share pictures when you guys have decided! I’d love to see it.

  32. I love, love the look of the upper lower ones. I didn’t think I would based on the description, but the pictures totally won me over. It did seem like most of the upper lower pics had really tall upper cabinets, I’m wondering if it would look as awesome with just regular, builder grade upper cabinets. Either way, I vote upper lower!

  33. I’m tending toward the inner outer- I thinnk it might be less trendy and more timeless if that makes sense? I am also planning a budget kitchen reno and we like the idea of doing a seperate island as a way of saving money (getting something vinatge perhaps or repuposing something to work as an island…)

  34. I love the example of upper/lower from House and Home, but notice how there are minimal upper cabinets, and the darkness in the grout and contrast of the shelf on the white tile still brings your eye up. I’m not a huge fan of the pictures where they are just a wall of cabinets one color on the bottom and another solid wall of cabinets in a different color on the top. The inner/outer pictures have a lot more depth and distinguish between the spaces in a way that makes sense.

  35. My kitchen already has upper/lower (honey oak/sage-ish green) and I like the look, just hate the colors. I am debating myself if I want to stick with upper/lower when we get around to painting them. I think for me it has a lot to do with what I end up doing with the countertops and the backsplash as well. I think that makes a big difference in if I like how it looks or not.

  36. I love the upper lower ones…I feel it grounds the cabinets. The inner outers are lovely too, though. No wrong answer here…

  37. Inner – Outer. It seems more timeless. I also love how it makes the island seem less like “cabinets” and more like furniture. I remodeled my kitchen $60K worth about 6 years ago, and am not tired of it.

  38. Oh man I love you!! you just played my jam with this post!!! :) I have been thinking to do the Upper/lowers I absolutely love it, but I am terrified to just go for it (I guess my biggest problem is finding the right dark grey)….. and because I am a chicken like that…. I Love the look of the darker grey and the white but I love the all white cabinets too!! My cabinets are builder oak! which I hate, Hopefully I can decide on what to do within the next few months because that oak has to go, along with my terrible counter tops that are my ultimate enemy!! Im sooo torn and I cant decide, I guess when I do I will send you my after pics :) Thanks again!! you are awesome!! <3

  39. Inner/Outer is my personal preference. I think it IS easier on the eye when there is an island (to borrow a phrase from another poster). I went back and forth between the different pictures and my eyes “rested easier” on the inner/outer. All the kitchens are beautiful, however!

  40. I’m tempted to stay safe and say inner outer, but I’m going out on a ledge here and saying upper lower. Upper lower breaks the monotony. A braver option, but really, do I want my kitchen to look like EVERY other kitchen in America?

  41. My kitchen is upper lower. I have darker tile floors in the kitchen which opens up the family room with dark wood floors. I put a coat a cream on the lowers and the change from dark floors to light cabinets was a bit jarring. So I stuck to cream on top and green/gray on the bottom. It makes me happy. Sometimes I do wonder about resell (which is no where in the near future), but worse case scenerio you just paint, right?

  42. I like the upper lower look because I feel like the white on top really opens up the room while the dark on bottom grounds it. But then what color would you paint the island? Dark or light?

  43. I’d say it depends on the layout of the room. If it’s a smaller space, upper lower definitely gives you the feeling of more height and more space. I actually just redid the Oak cabinets in my kitchen. Benjamin Moore Advance- Barren Plain on top, Benjamin Moore Advance-Granite on the bottom, I did the walls in the same color as the top since it’s a small space. I’m loving the results- The darker color grounds them, and the lighter top just makes them kind of blend and lets the eye roam freely up without a real “break” in the flow.

    If it’s a bigger space, Outer/Inner may work better to make it more cozy? Please share the results! :)

  44. I vote for only painting the island the dark tone. Painting only the island a different color gives a nice contrast against the base cabinets. Painting all the base cabinets same color as base cabinets will make them blend in and will not be visual contrast. Usuallu an island blocks your view of much of the base cabinets so paintint the base cabinets darker may go unnoticed from many vantage points in the room. If you want to see the contrast go with only painting the island dark so it stands out against the background of the other cabinets

    my 2 cents


  45. I vote inner outer. I like the upper lower, but as one of the previous poster said, these photos are all really super nice and high end looking. I don’t know how well it translates to an “average” kitchen. I love inner outer though, especially when the island takes on a look and feel of a piece of furniture.

  46. personally, i LOVE the inner-outer combo. i think it’s more classic and will withstand changes in trends etc. but the upper-lower is still such a fun option!

  47. I too love the inner outer (agreeing with Michelle in previous statement) about the other way looks better if there is no island.

  48. This a really interesting comparison; one I never really thought of. But after looking at the pictures, the upper lower looks more fresh than the inner outer. The second picture is my favorite- love that green!

  49. I have the inner/outer-white outer, island dark chocolate. I love that the darker color on the island anchors the room and gives your eye a place to rest. I just feel the upper lower is distracting personally. I feel like it cuts the room in half.

  50. I prefer the look of the upper lower, but none of those photos show an island color! It would be interesting to find a pic of the upper lower look that includes an island painted in the same color as the lowers.

  51. I think if you have a kitchen that has a lot of cabinetry then I say upper lower. I like how it seems to ground the cabinets and still keep the kitchen feeling light. I like the inner outer too, but only if the island doesn’t match the cabinets in style, meaning it looks more like a piece of furniture vs just additional cabinets.

  52. I like the upper-lower but I thin it’s too trendy. The inner-outer would be a lot easier to change up if she got bored…and I think it would be more classic, for lack of a better description.

  53. I think the upper lower will give you a bigger impact, it would also break up all the white. The island could then be either white or charcoal… You’ll have to let us know if and when she decides. :)

  54. I prefer the look of the upper/lower (planning to do the same with mine), I like the way the uppers become a part of the wall instead of standing out so much, therefore making the space feel larger.

  55. My opinion is that the upper/lower combo is more of a current trend whereas the inner/outer is more of a classic style. Plus it will b lots easier just repainting and island vs. all the lower cambinets when you change your mind!

  56. I actually painted my kitchen cabinetry upper lower outer! My upper cabinets are white and my lower cabinets and island are grey. I love it.

  57. My kitchen is painted upper lower, but I don’t have an island. None of the upper lower pics show an island, and the outer inner pictures all have an island. With an island, I’d do outer inner too, but I do love my kitchen! It’s white from the countertop up, and the bottom cabinets are sage green. By far the most complimented room in the house!

  58. Upper/ Lower for a kitchen with no island and Inner/ Outer for those that are lucky lucky ducks :)

  59. I would paint the upper cabinets white, the lower cabinets gray, and the island a third color. I think a color that would compliment the family room might be nice.

  60. I vote inner / outer. It just looks cleaner and less cluttered this way. With the upper and lower cabinets different colors my eyes just don’t know which way to look, especially once you add in all the other colors in the kitchen.

  61. I prefer upper/lower, and I agree that it’s an awesome trend right now – but if she’s feeling at all indecisive then inner/outer would be less of a commitment since re-painting the island would be a heck of a lot quicker than repainting all of those lowers! Either way, though, it will be a fun change. :)

  62. We’re in the process of remodeling our kitchen and I found myself having to make a similar decision when it came time to pick our cabinet colors. We had an island but decided not to replace it because it was always a tight fit to move around especially when entertaining. I thought about doing different upper and lower cabinet colors, white on top and gray on bottom, but after looking at hundreds of pictures from various sources I decided to go with all white for our kitchen. Our kitchen is not overly large and I thought two different colors might make it more choppy looking. I think if a kitchen has a lot of upper cabinets that one color or two less contrasting (depth of color) colors is better. I like the upper lower look when there are fewer upper cabinets and more open shelving or the upper cabinets have glass doors. The size of a kitchen and ceiling height have some bearing on this as well. I pretty much love the inner outer look in all the pictures shown. I wish we had more room for an island in our kitchen. Our cabinets will soon be delivered and I’m looking forward to having my dream white kitchen after 25 years of honey oak cabinets in two different houses, shoot me :). However, bottom line is going with the look you love no matter what the trend or what others think.

  63. Gosh. The upper-lower is a good look; fresh. The inner-outer is clean looking and reliable – possibly dated, but safe. I think my preference would be the inner-outer because it looks clean and organized. I don’t know, maybe that’s my anal retentive side coming out a little too much!
    Either one is going to look great, I’m sure!!

    • Thanks again everyone ! The thought was to paint the uppers and island white the lowers charcoal if we did the Upper Lower thing…. I’m so grateful for all of your input!

  64. I like the inner outer ones best! Upper lower would have never occured to me, but it’s fun! I like the BH&G one best because they brought the green up in the curtain. I don’t think I’m a fan of the wood and paint combination either way.

  65. I like both looks, but I tend to favor the inner outer look for my own decor. I painted my cabinets white and did a black, distressed island, and I like it. Plus, I think it’s a little more trend-proof. :-)

  66. I like the upper/lower look too, but what color would you paint the island?? Would love to see a picture with this process with the island.

  67. I’m an inner/outer, but then I am rather traditional. I think the upper/lower looks much better if the cabinets are different styles upper and lower. I’d also worry that this might be a fad, like avocado appliances – okay, maybe not that bad, but still….

  68. Ooh! I have ogled many of these same pictures myself (and you have some awesome ones here I hadn’t seen yet). I am in the process of doing an upper-lower paint job in my own kitchen. Of course, that was an easy decision for me, since I don’t have an island! But then I built a prep table and painted the legs the same color as my (future) lowers. So, I guess that’s upper-lower/outer. Kinda :).

    Obviously I am biased, but since I’ve never had to consider whether I would set off the island instead, I tried to look at the pictures with a fresh eye. I think that upper-lower has a ton more impact unless you have a really large island. If it’s a normal-sized island, it barely even strikes my eye as a different color (maybe since people so often added island after the rest of the cabinets, and just used a “coordinating” color to avoid clashing?). So I guess from my point of view, it would depend on how much contrast she wants to create.

    Also, a thought on the upper-lower: several people have said that it’s very current/trendy, and that’s certainly true. However, I was originally sold on it by a picture that really looks like it came out of nineteenth-century France. I liked it because I thought it would give a nice collected-over-time, before-there-were-warehouses-full-of-prefab-cabinets look to the kitchen in my very old house (I am removing a 1970s kitchen and trying to go much older). And given the sort of obvious visual logic of having a darker color on bottom and a lighter color on top (even without all the cabinets done, it makes my kitchen look much larger!), I’m not sure this look will go obviously dated. It’s not like everyone is doing it, either – I doubt it will ever be a majority of kitchens. (Now, stainless steel, on the other hand…)

    Excited to see how the kitchen turns out!

  69. I loved all the upper/lower looks and was “eh” on the inner/outers. Go fabulous and do upper/lower!

  70. Inner/outer for me too. The upper/lower makes it look like they didn’t finish painting :) But, if you do go with the upper/lower, doing the white/charcoal or something along those lines is better than doing two totally different colors. At least white/charcoal are sort of in the same color “family”.

  71. I am literally in the middle of painting my kitchen and cabinets, right now. The bottoms are dark gray ( Rockport Gray- benj moore) and the upper are a creamy white . The walls are a pale gray. I don’t have an island.

  72. I prefer the inner outer just because it looks less trendy, so maybe in a few years the upper lower will be out of style. Also I like how the inner outer really makes the island stand out. If you have a unique island, the inner outer might be the way to go. Of course you have to do what suits your style regardless of what anyone says. With the upper lower, I’d do the uppers in a color that blends into the walls like they are in most of the pictures you shared. Best of luck, looking forward to seeing the before and after pictures.

    • Hi Marisa, that first picture in the tour is kind of what I was thinking, except with gray on the bottom and of course there would be white uppers. Thanks for the link!

    • Wow Grace, your kitchen makeover looks amazing, good call on the paint colors, bravo!

  73. I think it completely depends on the kitchen. I prefer a u-shape with just the island painted and a more open kitchen with the lowers painted. I considered both for my u-shape kitchen so I looked at tons of pics.

  74. Definitely like inner vs outer better! One question…how do you decided what color to paint something and what kind of hardware to use?

    • Hi Susie, deciding what color to paint just depends on what your tastes are and if you’re working with existing countertops and backsplash or remodeling the whole kitchen. If reusing existing materials, I think it’s best to work with colors that will complement, although you really can’t go wrong with white, cream, gray, a pale taupe, or black!
      I wrote about choosing kitchen hardware here:

  75. I vote for inner/outer if I have to choose. But I personally prefer all my cabinets to match. I guess I’m a bit conservative, still. Maybe that’s why I don’t write a decorating blog!

  76. I’m all for inner/outer! Let’s not forget the key word here being “trend”. As soon as the trend is over (and for possible resale) it would be easier to repaint an island that a whole row of bottom cabinets if you get tired of the look!

    xo Cindy

  77. Kate,

    Before I looked at the pictures I would have said inner outer. After looking at the pictures however, I LOVED The Upper Lower look…

    Just another thing to add to my future house.


  78. I love the upper lower look. I actually just finished up a three week project in my own kitchen. I painted my upper cabinets white and the lowers black…I couldn’t love it more!

  79. I like the upper lower look. It allows you to add more of that color (whichever you choose) to your kitchen versus just having the island be a contrasting color. I don’t think it is too trendy either.

  80. The upper/lower is fun but seems more casual then the inner/outer which has more of a classic feel to it. What is the style of the rest of the house?

  81. I’m not a fan of the UpperLower look – I love the look of the InnerOuter, but I think your friend should go with what she likes, not just the trend of the moment.

  82. We just finished our kitchen remodel and chose quarter-sawn oak cabs. for both upper and lower. We used the copper quartz highlights on our countertop (Cambria in Canterbury), custom tile backsplash (Mercury Mosaics), and a pumpkin color paint (BM) to bring everything together. We don’t have an island but if we did, I would have stayed with the same scheme. I think different colored uppers and lowers make the kitchen look like an oops happened! It seems trendy to me. If I had to choose, though, I would have the island a different color.

  83. I like both looks! The uppers painted lighter than the lowers really opens up and brightens the space and the lowers painted darker grounds them and has the advantage of hiding some of the dirt and wear & tear that befalls them. Having the island painted a different color than the cabinets sets it off, gives it status, & highlights it as a beautiful piece of furniture. In this case, I think I would paint the uppers white, the lowers a light to mid-gray and the island a deep, rich charcoal!

  84. I like inner/outer. You can also have more fun with a backsplash if you don’t have different colors on the upper and lower cabinets.

  85. I feel like the inner/outer looks less cohesive, as if someone ordered kitchen cabinets or paint color but they ran out of the same look for the island. At least with the upper lower there’s a section of cabinets that all have the same look, so it doesn’t look as much of an afterthought.

  86. The upper-lower look is hit or miss. I prefer where the bases are darker or bolder and the doors are simple. I think it grounds the look very nicely. Ultimately, I think it depends on whether you want to focus attention on the island. The inner/outers you show all show islands with amazing details. If she is dealing with a standard contractor grade island, making the island blend with the lowers is probably better. Lucky for her, she has a friend who is the queen of adding custom-looking details using stock trim from Home Depot, a nail gun, and some liquid nails! Then she can go all “inner/outer”.

  87. Definitely Inner/Outer. I really like uniform cabinets but love the pop of colour you can bring in an island or backsplash

  88. I like the inner / outer. The Aaron Leitz and Traditional Home folks can come redo my kitchen any time. I will leave the front door unlocked!!

  89. I prefer the inner/outer. Every time I see upper/lower painted cabinets my first impression is that something is wrong or off, no matter how beautiful they are.

  90. agree totally with Ginny “Inner/Outer is the way to go if you have an island. Upper/lower works if you don’t :)”

  91. I love the inner outer! I agree with previous posts…upper lower can be too trendy for some. Though without an island, I would def consider it. Inner outer makes the island look like a beautiful piece of furniture!

  92. I really like the lower cabinets being a different color – I think it’s unique. That’s how the cabinets are in my work kitchen. The bottom are a dark wood grain type of look and the tops are mint green. I like it but I think I like the cabinets being one color and the island being another color better. That’s what I would do. =]

  93. I like upper/lower. I painted my uppers white and my lowers cobalt blue 15 years ago. I had never seen it done before at that time; I did it simply because I liked the look and thought it was diffrent and funky. I am very suprised to see that is a trend now!! My husband doesn’t think I’m totally weird now for doing that so long ago.
    I will always do upper/lower, no matter what the trend is because I really love the way it lightens up the kitchen without having to worry about white lower cabinets and how dirty they might get. I’m also not a fan of looking at a whole wall of cabinetry all one color; it makes the room feel closed in. I like it to be broken up. The way I see it is, you don’t have everything in your living room the same color , do you?
    I also think color detracts from cabinetry that isn’t ‘good’. If you can’t wow them with your beautiful cabinets you can wow them with color and they won’t notice your worn out cabinets.
    I am currently repainting my kitchen. The uppers will remain white, the lowers will be a muted gray/green, and the island will be muted navy blue. I’m not sure if I will like the tri-color’ look, but heck–it’s only paint and my cabinetry is cheap builders grade.

  94. I was looking through the photos you used as examples, and I realized that all of the “upper-lower” photos either do not have islands at all, or the islands cannot be seen. This leads me to believe that the upper-lower/inner-outer connundrum is actually a question of what the kitchen set-up is. Island? Go ahead and paint it, but leave the regular (both upper and lower) cabinets the same color. No island? Then paint your bottom cabinets a different color.

    • Hey GC! Great insight, yes I think a galley kitchen or one without an island would look great with the “Upper Lower” but I do think it could work with an island, especially if the island is white like the uppers, and with some fab counter stools would be great contrast!!

  95. aaah everyone is voting inner/outer! i LOVE the upper lower. and even though i get that its trendy and when a trend goes out of style it can get old, but i think this specific trend of upper lower has sort of an old worldy/country house/ europeany thing about it that if you do it very elegantly and limit all the variations of color in the kitchen and stick to classy neutrals of dark grey and white like you mentioned, then it could come out very classic and timeless. Upper lower all the way! and i would paint the island same as the lowers.
    Good luck!
    I hope we see pics when its done!

  96. Grace, great job on the kitchen, the upper/lower paint colors are fabulous and I love seeing real kitchens. Thanks for that. All these magazine kitchens are just too far from my reality. I like to see the ideas actually applied to a usable kitchen.

  97. I like the idea of keeping all the lower cabinets (including the island) a darker color while keeping the upper ones white (or a lighter color). The darker color on the bottom just seems to anchor the space.

  98. I like both looks – however, I think the upper-lower combo only works with high ceilings (and therefore high uppers). The darker base cabinets in this situation work to ground the space and give a more “cozy” feel.

  99. the reason for the upper/lower is when there is no island, to break up the color. Since there is an island in this case I would do inner/outer – that way the island doesn’t get lost in the sea of lower cabinets if it is the same as the lower color….

  100. The upper vs the bottom is very popular. It allows you to add a punch of color to your kitchen without it being distracted. I just came across a navy bottom and warm wood top – it was stunning. My vote is for your friend to do this.

  101. I love all of the looks so it would be hard for me to decide. The apple green lowers is fabulous!! Here is the question I’m always looking to be answered and never have seen it. When painting kitchen cabinets do you paint the “inside” of the cabinets or just the outside?

    • Hi Karen, I paint the inside of drawers and doors so when they’re open it’s consistent but not the inside of the cabinet’s interior.

  102. I think it is a cozier feel to a kitchen, a little more “home made” ?? super happy to see the Mark Burstyn kitchen on there, just brought some tile home like that last night for my kitchen. :) happy day!!!

  103. Like Sharon, I prefer the inner/outer. I like symmetry, and it really gives the island more impact. Karen, we just painted our cabinets and inside and out. Plus we bought new doors that made a nice new look. It really freshens up everything and then I’m not reminded of the hideousness of the old cabinets every time I open a cabinet door. :-)

  104. I have a small kitchen that we are planning to refurbish in the next couple of years, there won’t be room for an island, and I really like this idea of the “upper lower” combination. Particularly the dark blue lowers and white uppers in one of the images you posted here.

    Our current plan is all white or off-white cabinets, white fridge & dishwasher, stainless stove (so everything but the stove blends in visually – a stainless full sized fridge in our 10 ft long galley kitchen would look like the 2001: A Space Oddessey monolith!)

    Here’s my question: how to avoid the upper/lower cabinet colour thing looking too confused or visually cluttered in a small space. What tips would you have for using this look in a small space with “regular” height ceilings? Do you think it’s important to have the backsplash blend in with the upper cabinet colour? Splurge on a cabinet-fronted dishwasher for continuity on the lower cabinets?

    Actually, do you have any plans for a post on small kitchens? I’d love to read your thoughts. Expansion is not going to be an option for us, so I’m researching efficient space usage and styling options like crazy.

    • HI Rosemary, I don’t think the backsplash needs to match, merely complement, in fact the backsplash is the opportunity to make a statement but if you’re going with a two tone Upper Lower paint treatment, often a backsplash that blends with the uppers is a good idea (think white upper cabinets with white subway tile). Yes, if you can afford a dishwasher panel that certainly helps with continuity below but not really necessary.

  105. I’m not a big fan of the two-tone upper and lower cabinets, except I do look like kitchen number one. To tell the truth, I prefer to have as few uppers as possible, so its mostly shelves, that would be fine. I love the look of cabinets that are furniture-like, so a piece that’s like a hutch or floor to ceiling doors is lovely. I do very much like the island to be a different color than the cabinets, however. best ~ Laurel

  106. I agree with GG. I don’t like the upper lower when there is an island. Definitely the inner-outer. Also, if she ever wanted to change that look when it becomes dated, it would be an easier fix to change the island.

  107. Count me in the inner/outer camp. Especially in a U-shaped kitchen where you’ll get the color from every angle. Though if there’s no island, upper/lower is pretty fab – I’m thinking about doing that in my own galley kitchen.

  108. Ooh, I like the upper/lower :) We’ve been seeing inner/outer for a long time, and it seems a little dated. The upper/lower seems so fresh!!

  109. In all the pictures of the upper/lower there is only one that shows an island and you can’t see what color it is painted so it’s hard to say how it affects the decision. I perfer the outer/inner option.

  110. I love the upper/lower styling with the dark charcoal. Right about now I am feeling like if I see another all white kitchen I will poke my eyes out with a stick. ( No offense to you all with white kitchens….it’s just that I am SO over it! Too antiseptic and operating room-ish.)
    So, the upper/lower is a good compromise.

  111. It may just be the color schemes…some I like better than others…but on the whole I think I like just painting the island a different color.

  112. Id have to agree with GG! The first thing that came to my mind was that your Inner- Outer pictures all had Islands…as the Upper- Lower pictures did not! So…I think the answer is pretty obvious….when a Island is present…Inner- Outer…when there isnt an Island…Upper- Lower!! I personally think Upper- Lower is FAB!!!

  113. We did white uppers and dark wood lowers in our small kitchen and I LOVE it! But…with a large kitchen and large island (lucky) I would do inner/outer. Classic outer cabinets with a fun pop for the island.

  114. My personal preference is for the inner outer color change, which I feel helps to define zones without breaking up the visual continuity.

  115. You just gave me the solution I was looking for..I am in love with the upper/lower..This is going to look great!!! Thanks Kate!!!

  116. Inner outer if only two choices. Personally, I like the island and cabinets the same colour – white!

  117. I’m glad you brought this up. It took me a while to notice, then realize I did not like the upper/lower trend. There’s already so much going on in the kitchen, different colors for the cabinets is visually cluttering in my view. It makes one or the other look unfinished.

    Inner/outer, on the other hand makes the island look like a custom piece of furniture and adds interest and dimension (if it’s done well and the right contrast or coordination).

    I am no designer. Far from it. I just have noticed the negative visceral reaction I have to the upper/lower difference in color. Don’t do it! You’ll be wanting to change it in 2-3 years-if that. More likely, you’ll be so tired of answering the question….”when are you going to finish the (lower/upper cabinets)”, you’ll want a whole new kitchen!

  118. You said she was looking to paint with a charcoal color to bring out the black and white of the countertops so, are the countertops mostly lighter or darker in color? Seems most of the upper/lower has light countertops that make the lower cabinets pop. Dark countertops would have a different feel to it.

  119. Upper Lower! I made the mistake of painting it all off white, and keeping the lowers clean is a *itch. That said, I will eventually paint the lowers a darker color so that the drips don’t show as much.

  120. I love the upper lower but I have the inner outer. However, my island is 10′ long and very green. Much like the picture at the top of the post. I love the BM green so much that I could see doing all my lower cabs in it but then I’d want my island to be white. Since this is a reno only 2 years old I have many more years before considering any changes. I hope you share what your friend goes with.

  121. Oh and I just painted the top third of my laundry room in charcoal. (Bottom 5.5 feet is white board and batten). It is BM Wolf Grey and its great but I feel it lends a bit to the navy side. I think cabinets would look better in a true deep charcoal with no blue hint.

  122. I did my kitchen in Upper Lower (white on top and black on the bottom with white counter tops.) We don’t have an island. We have high ceilings and the white makes them even higher and brings in SO MUCH light. We love the dark on the bottom – it anchors things and makes the counter tops pop! Upper Lower feels modern to me.

  123. My outer cabinets are a distressed and coffee glazed maple (somewhat light). My island is a distressed dark alder wood. The same granite is on everything, although my cabinetmaker said that a trend right now was to use gloss on some of the granite and a leather sheen on the island or vice-versa. I used all glossy dark granite. It is stunning.

  124. Hello everyone! I definitely agree that with this layout the inner/outer looks better. It makes the kitchen island a statement piece. Since most of the action is likely happening around the island anyway, why not give people some additional eye candy to be drawn too? I love it!


  125. Taryn Lund and GG had the wisest insight. Almost all these picture are high end kitchens, with lots of space ie larger than 12′ x 16′ , high ceilings an INSET doors. Probabaly the only non custom cabinetry example in the bunch is the one via Apartment Therapy. So to even get the painted finishsay in a kraftmaid line in a color other that white is a huge upgrade. Since a majority of normal kitchen remodels where resale is an issue are designed with islands, i sayinner/outer. Then you can do white/wood. Althought the martha stewat line at Home Depot has a great stock colors.

  126. I like the upper lower look better. I would do the island the same color as the lower cabinets as well. Good luck!

  127. I love the upper/lower look. We moved into a very traditional house from the 70’s with the original oak cabinets…very sturdy, and we like the layout. Bad news…the original owners had tried to “update” the cabinets by slapping bright white paint on them…hinges and all. Obviously we had to paint. We did the uppers, and a wall with a pantry and the panel covered fridge in an off white color and then antiqued it with a brown glaze. The lowers and island we did in a very very dark brown (Behr ‘Starry Night’). We are so glad we did the lowers a different color because now, with two small children and three years later the lowers need to be repainted. They take a LOT more wear and tear than the uppers. The uppers are still in perfect shape. I’m actually pretty excited about trying a slightly lighter color on the lowers. However, if I had to repaint all the cabinets, especially if I had to repaint AND glaze…I probably wouldn’t. The upper/lower looks more updated to me.

  128. I am having this same debate in my head. Have to say, these photos make me think I could go either way and be just fine! Also…just to throw a little wrench in the works, Edie at Life in Grace (turquoise cabinets above) actually did both! Her island cabinets were painted a third color! :)

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