thrift-store decorating tips: the kitchen

kitchen view (October 2014)

As the kitchen is one of the most-used spaces in a home, it should be a comfortable and pretty, as well as functional, space. But the most important part of decorating a kitchen isn't what's at the thrift store or garage sales but in the apartment selection itself. I looked at dozens of rental kitchens in photos and several in person while apartment hunting last year, and this unit by far had the best layout—a basic galley kitchen with none of the weird spatial gaps and odd appliance placements of many older apartment kitchens. That's step one: a good, practical layout. Sometimes, of course, renters must take what they can get. So, as I prepare to leave this most favorite apartment to date and give up my solo kitchen (small sob), here are some tips practiced over the years that may help others create an attractive kitchen on a limited, environmentally-friendly budget, prioritizing secondhand reuse.

Simple Kitchen Decorating Tips:

1. Change out the cupboard knobs or drawer pulls. The cheapo gray plastic kitchen knobs in this kitchen looked like a lactating woman's nipples, only silver (seriously, who designs this stuff?), so, over time, I found an unmatched array of bronze knobs at Goodwill and our local ReStore and ReBuilding Center, which came preloaded with patina. The search took time—a few trips to the building reuse stores over several months—but I much prefer the dark knobs contrasted with the cream paint. It's a cheap fix and makes a huge difference in looks. The plastic nipples, of course, will be replaced upon move-out, while the bronze hoard will go with me.

vintage bronze knob via Goodwill grab bag

2. Remove (and store, if a renter) blinds and put up shades or curtains. Let's be frank: aluminum blinds suck. They're dust-and-grime magnets almost impossible to keep clean. Avoid them—take them down, donate them, temporarily store them, but never ever buy them. I added the simple linen curtain panel on a tension rod only recently—something that should have been done right after I first moved in because of how much the curtain panel dresses the room (and limits what the neighbors can see). Both the linen Pottery Barn panel and thin white tension rod were Goodwill-thrifted, so this window fix cost under $10. My apartment manager, fortunately, was okay with my storing the old blinds elsewhere in the building, though they will need to be reinstalled upon move-out.

Pottery Barn linen panel, knotted

3. Add ceiling hooks or a pot rack for vertical storage. I found the hanging metal basket at a Goodwill "Bins" Outlet and my friend Jeff found for me the large black hook at a regular Goodwill. We didn't think the lathe-and-plaster ceiling could bear the weight of a heavy pot rack, but that's what I'd do in a future kitchen to free up cupboard space, especially to show off a thrifted cast-iron or Le Creuset pot-and-pan collection. (For example, here's a clever DIY pot-rack from 3191 Miles Apart.)

4. Use stackable jars for dry goods storage. I have a useful collection of square Anchor Hocking jars in different sizes, a mix of new (bought fifteen years ago when I had more income and less sense) and others thrifted within the last several years. (See a previous incarnation of them here.) Lined up along the counter against the wall, they store beans, lentils, unmilled grains, and other dry goods not needing refrigeration. In this kitchen, they happen to fit on a wall ledge above a countertop. Stacked this way, out in the open, pantry supplies are easily visible and add a changing variety of natural textures and colors as food is used and replaced, primarily via grocery-store bulk bins. Liking the storage idea, my friend Jeff built up his own collection entirely from Goodwill, thrifted here and there over the last couple of years. He has at least as many square jars as I do now, so they can be found 100% secondhand, with patience. And the biggest bonus aside from looks and functionality is that Anchor Hocking glass is one of those few remaining products still made in U.S.A.

5. Repurpose filing cabinets or carts. Standard filing cabinets, easily found for $15-20 each at thrift stores, or rolling butcher-block or stainless-steel carts can offer extra storage and prep space in corners too small or layouts too wonky for a table and chairs. Two black HON filing cabinets I'd gotten for free (from a previous employer who was tossing them out) happened to fit perfectly, side-by-side, between the left-side kitchen counter and the gas wall heater (see top photo). If you dislike the standard black, beige, or gray options, paint them something colorful using one of many online tutorials.

cork roll via Goodwill

6. Line cupboard shelves and drawers with cork. Cork gives great texture and natural protection without adding to the list of off-gassing household chemicals. (See cupboard examples here.) My cork liners give me a little inner glow every time I look at them.

7. Store cooking utensils upright in vintage containers. Keeping oft-used utensils vertical frees up drawer space and offers easy access to wooden spoons, rubber scrapers, and such when cooking. A few years ago at Goodwill, I'd found a vintage 1980's set of flour-sugar-coffee canisters whose wooden lids had seen better days, so the round canisters were repurposed as utensil holders. (Here they sit in a previous apartment.)

8. Put a plant or two by the window. Plants clean indoor air and fill a room with life. Research easy-care plants like Mother-in-Law's Tongue, jade/Money Tree, or common orchids and water them regularly per their variety. Or see if family or friends will give you free cuttings off a philodendron or pothos, if you have more time than money. Hang a plant to free up counter space. Replace any plants that happen to die (bad energy). But whatever you do, don't buy fake plants. Fake plants are just that—false—which is no way to live. Use a grow light instead, if the kitchen lacks windows or good light.

gifted: golden pothos cutting, July 2013

9. Use coated wire shelves for added storage and organization. I found a couple black-coated freestanding wire shelves at Goodwill, which enabled me to store more in my largest cabinet. Underhanging shelf baskets are also a great idea for extra storage if cupboard and shelf sizes allow.

10. Switch out an unwanted light fixture. Instead of the standard boob light found in many rentals and new-home construction units, find a secondhand ceiling light you actually like. I found some simple but striking white globe fixtures at Portland's Rebuilding Center for very little money but never got around to completing this fix in this apartment (next time, though!) because it would have required finding (or making) a ceiling medallion and repainting that area of the ceiling since the landlord's light fixture covered the extra-wide electrical hole (?!) but the globes didn't. Sadly, this fix isn't as easy as it should be in theory. You'll need basic wiring skills or a friend with such skills.

vintage Stemlite lamp on refrigerator, striped African shopping basket, hanging pizza peel

11. Add a table lamp. Non-overheard lighting provides ambience, even in the kitchen. I tried out various secondhand lamps (on loan from my reseller friend Jeff) on top of the refrigerator before finding this small mid-century Stemlite globe lamp sitting lonely and out of place at an antique mall down in Sellwood. Because of keeping a lamp on the fridge, I rarely turn on the harsher overhead light.

12. Hang secondhand art. I had started a gallery wall of framed black-and-white food photos (found at thrift stores and garage sales), an original watercolor (via the thrift store), and a painting gifted by an artist friend. Avoid poster prints and instead seek out original pieces, real visuals to inspire your cooking. They don't have to be food-themed, though mine are.

basket-hung onions

13. Skip the rug. While they look cozy, rugs in the kitchen are hard to keep clean if you actually cook. (Food does spill during prep and cooking, even at the hands of careful clean-freaks.)

The kitchen is (or should be) the heart of the home, not just the hearth. Those who both cook and lack a dishwasher spend a good chunk of each day in there, so it's worth making the room comfortable and welcoming. Keeping a music source and even candles nearby can also help turn kitchen tasks into something more pleasurable and relaxing than mere chores. (This is life. Be present for it.) With time and patience for the hunt, along with attention to sensory details like sounds, smells, and cleanliness, a thrifty decorator doesn't have to spend much money to create an organized kitchen with a full, generous heart.

Please add tips of your own to the comments!


  1. Jars are an excellent idea for storing dry goods I buy in bulk. It makes it easy to see what you have and everything is portioned out.

  2. Good point about easy portions. I love a visible pantry. Dry foods are so pretty and textural in their own right. I've gotten better over the years at eyeballing at the bulk bins what will fit into one of my square jars at home. A lot of co-op grocery stores will also let people bring in their own jars and mark the tare weight, though the bigger grocery stores seem to frown on that practice, at least the ones here in Portland. For tighter-sealed storage, I use Kerr canning jars and European canning jars for the refrigerator and freezer and for taking leftovers to work. Goodwill sells American canning jars here in Portland for just 33 cents each, though the Euro jars are a few bucks each. I'm a big fan of bulk aisles as they both save money and reduce the overall material stream.


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