20 March 2010

Paraphrased Reader Question: What do you think of open shelves?

Open shelving (replacing wall-hung cabinets) has become very popular over the past few years, and I'm curious as to your opinion.

The ever tasteful and hilarious Raina Cox from If the Lampshade Fits posed that question to me last night. Before I answer it though, I need to crank out some effusive praise for the work of La Cox. If the Lampshade Fits is one of my daily must-reads. Poke around on her site and you'll see why.

Anyhow, onto Raina's question. I see these magazine spreads too and there's no doubt that there's a trend afoot.

Mt. Baker traditional kitchen

Done and styled correctly, open shelves in a kitchen photo spread look terrific. But there are a couple of things at work here.

Noe Valley Three contemporary kitchen

The photos you see in magazines are styled and propped extensively. They are also lit perfectly and professionally. Styling and photographers' lighting then gets enhanced further by our pals at PhotoShop so by the time it's all said and done, what's left is a cartoon of a kitchen, it's not real.

Cabinets have doors on them for a couple of reasons. One of those reasons is that they keep dust and airborne cooking goo off your stuff. The other thing cabinet doors do is hide your stuff. Stuff stowed behind a door doesn't have to be pretty or arranged.

When you replace wall cabinets with shelves you seriously limit your storage capacity and you set yourself up for the additional chore of arranging and dusting your magazine-perfect kitchen shelves.

However, all is not lost.

I love the idea of limiting the number of wall cabinets in a kitchen design and I love the idea of white space in any room, kitchens particularly. In my own designs I lobby tirelessly to go easy on the wall cabinets and instead rely on tall cabinets and efficiency-minded base cabinet inserts for storage. The kitchen in the photo below illustrates the concept perfectly.

:: nicolehollis :: contemporary kitchen

The only wall cabinets in that photo are very short and they're probably where glassware goes. All other dish storage has been shifted to the two-drawer base cabinet on the rear left and into the tall cabinet between the wall ovens and the refrigerator on the back wall. Once all the storage needs were met, there was ample room for two display shelves on the left side of the rear wall. The next photo shows a variation on the same theme.

Palo Alto Kitchen traditional kitchen

The two stainless shelves are for display only, the storage heavy lifting gets done by the wall cabinets to the left.

So as lovely a fantasy as this may be:


This is closer to reality.

De-Victorianization on Division
Proceed with caution is all I'm saying.


  1. Re open shelving, I totally agree with you on all the negative points you mentioned but feel they definitely can earn a location in a well designed kitchen.

    By the same token though; as I am a believer in 'low maintenance function' I personally prefer an abundance of door clad floor-to-ceiling pantry cupboards and lower base storage drawers. -Brenda-

  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my question, Paul.

    Readers, I had run across a photo in a real estate listing of an open-shelved kitchen that seemed like a dose of "reality" had hit it, and I wondered what Paul's opinion would be.

  3. Brenda: I'm with you. My goal as a designer is to make my clients' lives easier and less complicated. All shelves all the time rarely works although for some people it does.

    Raina: Thanks again for the idea. Did I miss anything?

  4. Nice new look, Paul. I think people need to pull out everything that they think will go on open shelves, put it all on a table and make sure they want to look at it every day. If so, go for it!

  5. Richard Edic how the heck have you been? Thanks for the compliment on the looks of things around here. Your suggestion is a terrific idea, I think I'll integrate that into my shtick.

  6. Great points this morning.

    It gets dusty here pretty quickly, especially the more inland we get.

    The other thing we think of is earthquakes. Not sure I'd like some of those vases coming down on my head...

    Love the final picture--it's true!

  7. That final picture is the norm rather than the exception in my humble experience. Open shelves and a house full of kids, cats or a hoarder are frightening to consider.

  8. I guess I have to wonder what the impetus for choosing open shelves over say --nothing at all or cabinets on the walls. If it's to save a buck to add storage in a manner that is cheaper than cabinets, then I say: save up until you can afford the whole kitchen. If it's a clean look you're going for, be sure you have enough storage elsewhere in the plan and nix the wall storage completely (or at least mostly). Be aware that you will need to spend a lot of time dusting open shelves and everything you store on them. If you like to cook a lot, you'll probably have an accumulation of grease and dust, even if you have a great ventilation system. Many people habitually don't use the fan even though they have one. (Fess up folks --that's most of you!)

    I have some open shelving in my kitchen and have to rinse everything before I use it because I live in a pretty dusty place. We have landscapers whose favorite gadget is the leaf blower and they blow all the dust from the outside to the inside of my house weekly. It's a constant battle!

    Have you collected the stuff you want to display on the shelves yet? Or are you creating shelving with the expectation that you will? If the latter, you are setting yourself up for the "hoarder" scenario that can look make you look like the garage-sale queen or king if not careful.

    I guess if you have to have open shelves in a kitchen, keep it minimal (at least to the degree that you are realistically willing to maintain) and display collections minimally as well. If you have a collection, it's probably wise to only show a few pieces of it at time. Switch out the pieces occasionally to keep it interesting.

  9. Hey, love the new look Paul. Open shelves, ah yes, my love~hate relationship. It's all about the dust factor for me. Ugh, more housekeeping chores for those of us who do not employ a housekeeper.

  10. I actually took the doors off of 4 of my main cabinets in my kitchen so that I have open shelving on the one wall. I absolutely love the look & it is s-o-o low maintenance. I have all white dishes, glassware, & a few silver pieces (displayed on the top shelf), so it always looks nice. I never had to go out & buy "coordinating" dishes. The dust is not a problem if you actually use your glasses & dishes. Please don't discourage anyone from open shelving. It looks so much better than cabinets that are sub-par. Unless you have beautiful, pricey cabinetry, open shelving is the way to go.

  11. Pam: Thanks for the thoughtful response. My experience mirrors yours exactly. And this is coming from a man who has open shelves in his kitchen. If I had it to do over again I wouldn't do it. It look great in a magazine but Lordy they are a bother.

    Laurie: Thanks for the compliment. And thanks for the reinforcement that they are not a look most people can pull off successfully.

    Anon: I will continue to discourage most people from adopting open shelves simply because it runs counter to my primary job --to make my clients' lives easier. Most people do not live in a way that lends itself to that degree of open storage. Your anecdote is the exception. I'm glad you found a way that works for you. Doorless cabinetry is not the same thing as an open shelf. Wall cabinets with no doors and matching interiors is a compromise, and it's certainly a lot easier to live with than a true open shelf. Thanks for your comment!

  12. When my husband (then boyfriend) was looking at houses in 1998, we looked at a condo that had been created out of an old heating plant. It had a kitchen that was open, with all open shelving above and mostly stainless steel. It looked great then and would still look great- but the owner confessed that he didn't ever cook. I can't imagine myself in that kitchen as much as I liked it- if I didn't clutter it up, someone else in my family would and I don't think I would keep it clean enough. The other thing is that in a small kitchen, a lot of floor space is used for appliances, sink and trash bin and there just isn't much room for base cabinets. Finally, my youngest, nicknamed the hurricane, could do some frightening things around shelves of unprotected dishes, with absolutely no ill intent!

  13. Amy: Thanks for your comment. What's practical rarely makes it into magazine spreads and that's OK. The near omnipresence of this open shelf thing is selling a lot of magazines apparently or it would be around so much.

    The person who can live with this is a rare bird. I live alone and I can barely keep mine in something approaching presentable shape.

  14. Paul - You didn't miss a thing. And I think Richard's suggestion to visually assess all that one intends to put on the open shelves is a smart one.

  15. That last picture is hilarious!

    I went to a wonderful panel discussion moderated by Clint Smith of Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles Magazine, with Phoebe Howard, Jennifer Boles (Peak of Chic), and architect Stan Dixon on the panel. One of the topics was kitchens - what seems to be the current trend, what trends are on the wane. One of the the trends perceived to be on the wane are the open shelves.

    One of the first things I said when talking with my kitchen designer: no open shelves. I am not a neat person, and I do much better when I can hide my things away. I love the idea of floor to ceiling cabinets, and we are going to have two of those - a few overhead (not many), several windows and doors that will bring the light in from the north, south, and east. It will be a fresh, airy, sunny place (with no desk!). I can't wait!

  16. I have been wondering if I could do one open shelf. There are always so many fruits in the fruit bowl. And then the tomatos or garlic I don't want in the fridge but all this various produce is annoying on the counter.

  17. I have a very small, cheap kitchen. I now have THREE corner cupboards (of 4) where the doors have suffered catastrophic failure, so I have open shelving by default. It is now a lot easier to get into the backs of the two base cabinets. But there is grease on everything in the wall cabinet because I have a matching cheap range hood next to it :-(
    It strikes me that the equipment out on the open shelving has to be the stuff that is used (and therefore washed) daily. Open shelving for display in a dining room seem much more sensible.

  18. Things: Boy you add a lot of tone to the place, thanks for your comments! I'm the shoot from the hip guy, Kelly's the one who speaks in measured tones. We tend to agree most of the time though. Tiny desks are a waste and a kitchen without closed storage is a mistake for most people. She has a photo on her blog right now of a perfect kitchen command center by the way.

    Johnna, if you need a shelf or two, go for it. My plates, bowls and the rest are stored on mine and it makes me feel as if I live in a Pottery Barn. I have to arrange my dishes and I hate that. I live alone so I never have large amounts of tomatoes and garlic around. Whatever I have I can fit into a small bowl on my kitchen table. You have a family and it would make sense to dedicate an open shelf or two where you could keep your produce.

  19. Chookie: You are not alone in your experience. Open displays in a well-used kitchen are a mess.

  20. Raina: I'm glad to hear that I covered everything. That Richard Edic's a smart one.

  21. I love open shelving, especially floating shelves. While they may not be the most practical I think it's a small price to pay for the look you want to achieve...

  22. Keith: Thanks so much for your comment and welcome to K&RD. Your website's really well done and that walnut kitchen is a stunner. Wow!

    Through it all, I think that open and floating shelves are attractive too. My only issue is that they are wildly impractical for most people. I'm not as enthusiastic about them as you are but I value your opinion never the less. Keep the comments coming from your side of the Atlantic!

  23. You have enough comments to this effect, but I agree so strongly that I had to add my voice: DITTO!!! :)

  24. Our new friend Keith seems to be the lone voice of dissent. That's OK though, we still value his opinion and want him to keep coming back.

  25. Hi Paul, thank you for the kind words.
    I think there are a lot of impractical design feature to everything. Take curved doors in a kitchen, they look great but have little or no storage in the actual cabinet!
    I love the walnut kitchen myself, I think the led lighting adds to it. I actually built that kitchen and we build all our kitchen designs.
    Looking forward to more of your posts.

  26. We call them radius doors on this side of the Atlantic and they're another bad idea that most people think is perfectly fine. I have regular commenters from all over but so far as I can tell, you're the one and only from Ireland.

  27. Open shelves seems very bright but they are not suitable for small kitchen i guess. The kitchen in the last photo seems small, it seems confusing to me..

  28. I think it confuses a lot of people, thanks for dropping in Muftak.


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