How Do I Make My Cheap Kitchen Look More Expensive?

I don’t know if m/any of you know but I have been writing a column in Red Magazine for nearly two years now. I began in the depths of lockdown in May 2020 and am delighted to still be there. It’s one of my favourite magazines and one I have bought since it first launched in 1998 with its appeal to what it called The Middle Youth. That was women who may or may not have chosen to have children, who had careers alongside families (if they wanted to) and were interested in furniture as well as fashion, going out and staying in. It felt revolutionary at the time and, as well as being a magazine I have grown up with, it’s one I have continued to buy over the years and still love to read.

So today, I’m sharing an updated version of the first very column I wrote for them with a peek at my latest which is all about shopping vintage for their sustainable issue.

superfront make doors for ikea kitchens
superfront make doors for ikea kitchens

The column started as a sort of Design Dilemmas page and this was the very first question, which I think is a perennial that never stops being relevant. So here, with some updated ideas it is.

How can I make our new kitchen look expensive without spending designer big bucks? Where should I save or spend? I know there are so many companies now who make custom doors for Ikea cupboards or you can add expensive handles, but I’m a little confused about if this is actually cheaper or even worth it?

very simple kitchen are based in bologna
very simple kitchen is based in bologna but ships internationally – their kitchens are modular and designed to be moved

Many of us are used to the shoe purchasing equation that is balancing cost per wear and coming up with something so justifiably cheap that it would be a crime not to buy them. Kitchens can work on the same principle, except we use them every day. Which means that you need to get it right if you are going to both justify the cost and love it for a long time. But that doesn’t always mean you have to spend a fortune.

First decide if you are a cook or an eater; if you are always in the kitchen at parties or prefer a purely functional space. That will help you work out if you want to invest in a state-of-the-art oven or if the cooker is just for storage. Should you find the money for a wine fridge, or will a couple of vintage stools bring the party?

So, the question then becomes not ‘how can I save and where should I spend?’, but ‘what are the fundamental elements of the kitchen I need for who I am?’ By answering this question you will immediately start to understand where you can compromise and where you need to spend.

superfront japandi kitchen doors for ikea kitchens
superfront japandi kitchen doors for ikea kitchens

Begin with affordable carcasses such as Ikea or Howdens; the latter come ready-assembled, so that’s a couple of days of labour you don’t have to pay the builder. And I do think that is one of those hidden costs that you need to factor in. As I update this in 2022, there is a real shortage of labour and materials and even if you can find a builder you like you will need to be prepared to wait for him to get round to you and for it to cost more than you had thought. Sometimes spending a little more on what you want in the first place can save you the hidden costs of putting it right or correcting it later.

Still, having found one that turns up, pay him to make new kitchen doors you can paint yourself. This means you can do it again and again as your mood changes and with Ikea kitchens guaranteed for 25 years you might go through several colour changes in that time. Annie Sloan has many videos on how to paint kitchen cabinets so they look good. And don’t forget you can paint UPVC windows too these days – look at Little Greene All Surface Primer (ASP) and cover with the colour of your choice. This will also go a long way to making your kitchen look more expensive.

ply kitchens by milk furniture
you can paint your kitchen cupboards to create a more bespoke look ply kitchens by milk furniture  

Several companies now make doors for cheaper carcasses – it’s not as cheap as using the ones they came with and it’s probably not as cheap as paying a builder to make you new ones from MDF, but this is where you have to decide if you are staying with this kitchen for 10 years (back to the cost per wear) or if you will be moving on soon and a quick paint job might be better. Especially if you can do it yourself.

Next add your own handles – prices range enormously on this as there is so much choice, and it’s always good to invest in the touch points because these are the things that linger in the memory – who hasn’t been slightly shocked by a weak handshake from a large man? Handles are important. I have just been sent a sample from Plank Hardware – they feel solid. And, if you keep the original ones you might be able to take the investment ones with you when you move.

sustainable kitchens by holte
sustainable kitchens by holte subway tiles are really affordable so you can spend more on cupboards

Now choose a worktop. Wood is the cheapest (but quite high maintenance as it can turn black if it’s next to a damp sink and it doesn’t like hot pans either). Stainless steel gives that ‘professional kitchen’ look (but is very industrial in style and not for everyone) while natural stone is expensive and porous (so prone to stains). Quartz surfaces such as Caesarstone combine the beauty of stone with the practicality of steel. This, after four houses and five kitchens is where I have ended up and, for the record, it’s where I would go again. There are lots of designs, many of which are timeless and it looks just as good with industrial metal cupboard fronts as painted wooden ones.

Always spend money on the working bits – like taps – and check eBay for A-Grade appliances which are in perfect working condition but might have a scratch on the side, or damaged packaging, meaning they can’t be sold at full price.

birch ply kitchens from pluck
birch ply kitchens from pluck – mix and match your materials for a more individual look

If you are starting over rather than just tweaking then get the floor right. A good floor makes everything look better. Whether you choose parquet – tiles or wood – or bring the pattern in the tiles – ceramic or vinyl – there is a huge choice at a huge range of prices and you don’t need to bust the budget. If you prefer classic cupboards in neutral colours the floor can be where you can add some personality. Or with wall tiles although the current fashion – if you have stone or quartz worktops is to take the material up the walls as well – perhaps behind open shelves. This, by the way, is not a cheap option but, as I said earlier, if you have bought cheap carcasses and added painted MDF doors then this might be where you can throw some money at the finishing touches. And don’t forget – the worktop is the thing that people see and that you touch all the time. Yes they might notice the colour of the cupboards at first but probably not the fine details but they will see the worktop.

It is my firm belief that every kitchen should include a treat. Not everyone likes cooking, not everyone has a kitchen big enough for a table or an island, so you need to see if you can find space in the budget for one thing that will make you happy to be in there. I have a boiling water tap that I use every day and would never be without. For someone else it might be a steam oven or a dishwasher.

Plykea make custom ply fronts for ikea carcasses
Plykea make custom ply fronts for ikea carcasses

Talking of which integrated appliances are more expensive than free-standing so if your budget lands there then make full use of the current curtain trend and make a curtain from fabric that you adore to hide it. This tends to be a more rustic look but your curtain doesn’t have to be floral – a bold check or geometric design in black and white in a stainless steel kitchen can look great.

Now colour – white kitchens are classic/ubiquitous. Choosing a strong colour will look more expensive – especially if it’s dark. You can use different colours on base and wall units – or the same colour in different tones. This will add to the idea that you have paid for a bespoke kitchen rather than an off the peg one. Adding some vintage wooden shelves, or a stool completes this idea.

shaker kitchen by
shaker kitchen by

Lighting – spotlights practical in kitchens, particularly small ones where pendants might get in the way of opening cupboards. Look for the recessed versions which disappear into the ceiling rather than sitting on the surface.

In short, there are no, particularly, cheap answers, but by working out your priorities and saving on hidden details – like carcasses – to spend more on the visible ones like worktops – you can create a kitchen that is bespoke to you and looks more expensive as well as reflecting your style and needs. And that, surely, is priceless?



Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. Thanks for the inspiration, because I am faced with the task of renovating the kitchen. I love Scandinavian influences, so it will definitely visit my home, although I do not associate Scandinavia with the effect of “luxury”.

  2. I was told by a kitchen designer to fit a laminate worktop till I had the money for a stone or quartz worktop. Easy to remove from the carcasses. His point was that get the rest (lower level) right because it’s starting bottom-up, spend less at the top and it’s easier to make changes.

  3. With great respect….why is there need to make things “look more expensive”? Changing things, adding new touches here and there to delight and inspire…….but “more expensive”?

    1. Choice of words perhaps – the point being to look as if you have spent more money than you have – to bring more luxe – all of which will also delight and inspire.

      1. I guess I am just not concerned with’ looking like I’ve spent more money than I have’. “Luxe” has, for me, never been a priority for achieving delight and inspiration. This, from a happy designer on a shoestring. All good.

  4. Thank you. As a Red fan since it hatched all those years ago, I have been a loyal reader and believe it has aged well 😊 Your kitchen piece is well timed. Wanting to give an expensive kitchen that has aged very well, a bit of a colour uplift, you want to make sure your not going to botch it up. So maybe, all it takes is giving surrounding walls a makeover!

Comments are closed.