If any room in our homes got a workout last year, it was the kitchen. Cooking and baking were popular for both practical and relaxing reasons.
All that time in the heart of the home got some of us wondering whether we should deep clean, organize, upgrade or even remodel our kitchens. But a kitchen renovation is a huge investment; the average new kitchen costs between $13,295 and $37,603 as of early January, according to HomeAdvisor. And when we do take the leap on that kind of remodel, either for part of the space or the whole room, we want to make choices that will last for years.
We talked to designers about how to make classic updates that will stand up over time. Here are their suggestions.
Use marble counters
Whether you're doing a whole-kitchen remodel or making savvy moves to refresh the space, Wendy Blackband of Blackband Home & Design in California likes marble counters. "It's been around for a long time, and you see it whenever you're traveling through Europe," she says. Blackband suggests Calacatta, a whiter marble with veining.
Marble is an investment, at $40 to $100 per square foot. But Leanne Ford, a Pittsburgh-based interior designer and HGTV star, says it's worth it. "Being that the kitchen is the most-used room in the house, anything you love is worth the investment," she says. "Scrimp somewhere else."
Marble requires sealing every six to 12 months to prevent stains and acid etching. If you want a similar look with less expense and upkeep, Blackband suggests the engineered Neolith countertop material.
Quartz countertops from companies such as Caesarstone and PentalQuartz are another good option. Blackband recommends sticking with white or, if you don't like white, a neutral color such as tan, beige or ivory. Go with a subtle pattern and low veining for a longer-lasting look.
Mind your lighting
Everything looks better and more upscale in the right light. "We believe kitchens should have sufficient and flexible lighting, as if there was never any natural daylight in the space," says Kelly Emerson, a designer with Aidan Design in Silver Spring, Md. (Natural light is a bonus.)
If this isn't already the case in your kitchen, upgrade to recessed downlights on dimmer switches in the ceiling, so you can control the light levels, and add task lighting under cabinets. A layer of recessed wall-washer ceiling lighting, pendants or sconces add decoration and directional lighting, especially if under-cabinet lighting isn't possible.
To replace dated pendants, designer Sarah Zames, principal and founder of the Brooklyn, N.Y., design firm General Assembly, and Colin Stief look for fixtures with warm materials, such as brass in a natural or black finish. Go bigger rather than smaller with these lighting fixtures.
"Globes of any size are forever - frosted or clear," says Ford, co-star of HGTV's "Restored by the Fords." For more information on sizing and placement, look to Circa Lighting's online guide to lighting.
Choose the right cabinets
Choosing or replacing kitchen cabinets is one of the biggest investments in a kitchen, so you'll want something you won't have to change, paint or refresh anytime soon.
"Walnut is the timeless, classic wood species," Emerson says. "Rich variations of light- to medium-warm gray stains on maple, cherry, hickory or walnut" are also good, as well as "natural stains on cherry and walnut." Whatever you do, she says, "stay away from yellow and pink-red coloration to wood stains."
Although white cabinets are a popular choice, Emerson warns that they are on their way out of fashion. If you still like the lighter look, Emerson recommends linen colors vs. stark whites, which can help "achieve more layered tone-on-tone palettes."
As for style, Blackband says to look at slab-panel cabinetry, which features a flat door over the cabinet box and lends a modern but classic look. Installing panels over appliances is a luxurious extra touch if you can afford it, making the room seem less like a kitchen full of machines and more like a living space with furniture.
Like counters, cabinets are a place to spend your money wisely. They are expensive, but investing in the highest quality you can afford will pay off in more long-lasting materials.
Select quality hardware
Updating hardware is one of the easiest kitchen upgrades, but what if you're choosing for the first time - for the long haul?
"Our office tends to like things that have a natural, warm feeling," Zames says. She specifically looks to oil-rubbed bronze knobs and pulls, because the patina can change over time, giving them a classic, well-worn look.
Knobs don't have to match plumbing hardware, Blackband says, as long as they're complementary, such as black knobs with a polished chrome faucet. Emerson recommends keeping all the hardware warm or cool, such as satin and nickel finishes that go with stainless steel appliances.
What matters more than the type of metal, though, is the quality of the hardware, according to Zames and Stief. For example, even though brass hardware is trendy right now, if that brass is well-made, has been worn in and has an aged patina, it can still have lasting value.
Choose a classic backsplash
Subway tile is the most enduring choice for a backsplash. Avoid bold, trendy colors, and instead look for white or neutrals. Keep it simple, and bring in color elsewhere in the kitchen with more easily replaced items such as dish towels, art, rugs and bowls of fruit.
If, as Zames says, white subway tile feels too much like "playing it safe," there are ways to up the interest. Blackband suggests choosing a larger tile than the standard 3-by-6-inch size, or changing the orientation; try stacking the tile vertically or in a chevron pattern.
Another way to make this classic feel more personal is to choose subway tile that's handmade, Blackband says, or to get creative with your grout color.