Upper Lower versus Inner Outer

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? 



189 Responses to “Upper Lower versus Inner Outer”

  1. Julie says:

    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”.

  2. 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.

  3. Christa says:

    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.

  4. Hi Kate, I just toured a House & Home showhome and how about this possible trend….no refridgerator in the kitchen! Makes for a very symmetrical look.

  5. I like both looks, although I did the upper-lower thing in our kitchen since we don’t have an island. Actually the kitchen in the photo that is 6th down from the top was our inspiration photo. I used white on the uppers and medium gray on the lowers and I still love the look. You can see our kitchen here: http://gracie-senseandsimplicity.blogspot.ca/2010/08/our-250-kitchen-makeover.html

  6. Jennifer says:

    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.

  7. Susie Omang says:

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

  8. CentsationalGirl says:

    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:

  9. CentsationalGirl says:

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

  10. CentsationalGirl says:

    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!

  11. CentsationalGirl says:

    Trish, be sure to share your pictures with me when you’re done!

  12. Karen says:

    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!

  13. Inner/Outer is the way to go i you have an island. Upper/lower works if you don’t :)

  14. Cindy says:

    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

  15. Abby says:


    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.


  16. Kimm says:

    I vote for upper lower, I love the look!

  17. Lisa E says:

    Inner outer for sure!

  18. Tiana says:

    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!

  19. i vote inner outer. It seems more clean and streamlined to my eye – not confusing. But you can’t really go wrong!

  20. Jenn A says:

    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.

  21. Audrey says:

    As always, this is a very timely post! I’m totally forwarding this to my mom…

  22. Carmel says:

    This is a tough one. I like both looks. Sorry – I’m no help!

  23. janna says:

    I designed our kitchen so the lowers were finished in a dark inky black and used white on the uppers. It really grounds the space and looks great in our small U shaped kitchen. You can look at them here (the reno isn’t finished yet!) if you wish!http://www.swooninteriors.com/search/label/Kitchen
    Would love to see what she chooses! I love mine two tone kitchen!

  24. Crystal says:

    Upper/Lower for sure. Its more current and fresh.

  25. This is so interesting! I would never notice this! I actually think the upper lower seems more fun and different. We do not have a kitchen island and so doing an upper lower would add a fun pop of color to our space!

  26. Merri Jo says:

    Inner/outer is much more appealing to me.

  27. Jess says:

    Inner/outer with the island – more visual interest.

  28. Evelyn says:

    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?

  29. Denise says:

    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.

  30. Carolyn says:

    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.

  31. Jessie says:

    I prefer the inner/outer look myself.

  32. Jacqueline says:

    I prefer the inner/outer look. The upper/lower seems too trendy and mismatched. I prefer a more streamlined look.

  33. Diane says:

    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!

  34. Tisa says:

    I prefer inner outer myself!

  35. Kate says:

    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.

  36. DinaM says:

    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.

  37. Ken in Istanbul says:

    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”.

  38. Meghan says:

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

  39. Susan says:

    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!!

  40. Lorri says:

    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.

  41. jessvii says:

    Inner-outer is much more appealing to me.

  42. molly jo says:

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

  43. Janelle says:

    Love the inner outer!

  44. Crystal says:

    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!

  45. Runt says:

    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. =]

  46. Teresa Foley says:

    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.

  47. Jenelle says:

    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.

  48. For me it depends on what you want to draw attention to. If your island is pretty terrific, then go for the color there.

  49. Esther says:

    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!

  50. felicity says:

    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.

  51. Kim says:

    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.

  52. Taryn Lund says:

    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.

  53. I prefer “upper lower” all the way! If my cabinets were something worth painting, that’s what I would do. If your friend goes through with it, you have to show us pictures!

  54. Sharon says:

    I prefer the inner/outer – it looks cleaner to me. But I don’t think you’d go wrong with either!

  55. GG says:

    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….

  56. Kimberley says:

    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.

  57. CentsationalGirl says:

    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!!

  58. Karen says:

    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?

  59. karlene says:

    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!!!

  60. Joan V says:

    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. :-)

  61. Dawn says:

    Definitely Inner-Outer for this kitchen layout! Much cleaner and polished look.

  62. 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.

  63. Laurel says:

    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

  64. Cindy says:

    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.

  65. Debbie says:

    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.

  66. Jeanna Walton says:

    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!!

  67. Richelle says:

    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.

  68. maggie says:

    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.

  69. Teddee Grace says:

    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.

  70. Rosie the Renovator says:

    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!!!

  71. JK says:

    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.

  72. Amanda says:

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

  73. Nancy says:

    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!!!

  74. CentsationalGirl says:

    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.

  75. CentsationalGirl says:

    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.

  76. Janice Black says:

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

  77. Kim says:

    I like inner outer, but then I am always behind the times.

  78. Beth says:

    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!

  79. Angie says:

    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.

  80. becky says:

    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.

  81. 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.

  82. 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.

  83. Diane says:

    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.

  84. Jackie B says:

    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.

  85. 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!


  86. laura m says:

    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.

  87. Rachelle B says:

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

  88. Heidi says:

    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.

  89. rhonda says:

    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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