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. Valerie says:

    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. Melissa Hardin says:

    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. Debbie C says:

    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. CentsationalGirl says:

    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. Tamara S. says:

    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. Jen says:

    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. Emma B says:

    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. Kimberly says:

    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. Karen says:

    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. Kathy says:

    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. Peggy says:

    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. Julie says:

    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. Allison says:

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

  14. I love the inner outer hands down, especially since she has an island. If there wasn’t an island, I would say upper lower.

  15. Kacey says:

    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.)

  16. Nathalie says:

    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!

  17. Veronica says:

    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.

  18. 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!

  19. Laura says:

    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!!

  20. 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.

  21. Wendy F says:

    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.

  22. Debbie says:

    Inner/outer wins in my book!

  23. 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.

  24. Emily C says:

    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!!!

  25. julia says:

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

  26. StagerLinda says:

    Upper/lower looks much fresher! I think it much more practical from a cleaning perspective, too.

  27. Sheila says:

    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.

  28. Ruthie says:

    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.

  29. Shawna T says:

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

  30. Crunchy Diva says:

    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!

  31. jasi says:

    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.

  32. Amy Kelly says:

    I’m definitely more a fan of the inner/outer.

  33. Casey says:

    I think both are fun ideas! I prefer the inner/outer look out of the two, though!

  34. Jess says:

    Inner/Outer. I really like the focal point painting an island gives.

  35. 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:

  36. At first I was TOTALLY in the upper lower camp, but then I was seduced by the inner outer pics. Now I’m just plain old confused. : )

  37. CentsationalGirl says:

    GREAT insight everyone, thanks for your input!

  38. Karen says:

    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.

  39. Sarah says:

    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.

  40. Tara says:

    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!

  41. HannahJ says:

    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…)

  42. I thought I was Upper Lower, but after looking at the photos, i definitely prefer the Inner Outer!

  43. 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.

  44. 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.

  45. Teri says:

    I am definitely an inner outer person. I just think the upper lower makes your eye bounce too much.

  46. Lauren says:

    I prefer inner outer, personally

  47. Catherine says:

    I vote inner/outer! I think it looks cleaner.

  48. Lori H says:

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

  49. Tobi says:

    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.

  50. Stephanie says:

    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

  51. Tamra B says:

    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!

  52. Centsational Sis says:

    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?

  53. Alison says:

    I love the upper/lower look!

  54. Kate says:

    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?

  55. Jenna says:

    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?

  56. Teresa says:

    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! :)

  57. 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


  58. Jen says:

    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.

  59. darker on the bottom and lighter on top work better if there is no island

  60. 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!

  61. britt says:

    inner outer. no question.

  62. Sharon Hoham says:

    I, too am in love with the inner outer look. It s pleasing to my eyes.

  63. Mary Ruth says:

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

  64. Peggy says:

    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!

  65. Belinda says:

    Upper / Lower :-)

  66. 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.

  67. 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.

  68. I love the inner-outer combo! That’s the way I would personally go if it were my kitchen.

  69. Angela N says:

    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.

  70. Jan says:

    Inner/outer — love that look

  71. I’m liking the upper lower look, but only if there isn’t an island. The inner outer look is much better with the island since it makes it the star.

  72. jennifer says:

    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.

  73. Kimberlee says:

    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. :)

  74. Kelly says:

    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.

  75. SarahK says:

    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!

  76. Shavonda says:

    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.

  77. Liz E. says:

    Inner outer for my vote =)

  78. Hannah says:

    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!

  79. Dharma says:

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

  80. Lisa says:

    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.

  81. Alla says:

    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.

  82. 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. :)

  83. Laura says:

    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.

  84. Lori says:

    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!!

  85. Wendy C says:

    I like the inner/outer better with the island a darker color.

  86. Kate says:

    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.

  87. 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. :-)

  88. I love this look, but I’m really afraid that I couldn’t pull it off or convince my husband to do it.

  89. Regina says:

    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.

  90. Genna Corwin says:

    I agree with some of the others – upper/lower if there is no island, but inner/outer if there is.

  91. Christine says:

    Inner/outer all the way!

  92. Emily says:

    I just finished my kitchen doing upper/lowers & I LOVE it. It makes the kitchen look so extremely custom & fun!

  93. sarajane says:

    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….

  94. Gina says:

    Inner outer gets my vote.

  95. the misfit says:

    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!

  96. CentsationalGirl says:

    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!

  97. I think both look nice but I prefer the upper lower. It grounds the space but lightens it up at eye level giving an overall lighter look to the room.

  98. Annie says:

    inner/outer hands down

  99. Lara says:

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

  100. Madeline says:

    Oh, I love the bold color on the bottom! Or the dark wood on the bottom, with white cabinets & countertops. We are redesigning our kitchen, and trying to decide on granite- I liked the white cabinets with dark granite, but might like the wood grain bottom with white granite better… check out our kitchen reno here:


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