Closed Cabinets v. Open Shelving, Revisited

By Kate Riley June 12, 2017

In a recent article on controversial kitchen choices at Apartment Therapy, a reader quiz revealed a 2/3 to 1/3 split on open shelving, most readers preferring closed cabinet doors to open shelving in kitchens.

What are the pros and cons? With closed upper cabinets, the kitchen can look visually cleaner and more cohesive. Closed cabinets conceal disorganization, a benefit to those who don’t want to be styling their kitchen shelves every day. However upper cabinets can make a kitchen feel more cramped.

Open shelves can make a kitchen feel more airy and open. Yet it takes effort to maintain the open shelf look, not only cleaning and dusting the shelves but constantly organizing the items that live there.

 

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Personally, I love a mixture of glass and closed upper cabinets, especially when designing a kitchen for resale (see this kitchen) but I also love to add a little bit of open shelving for display (see this kitchen).

Today I’m in Vegas overseeing my current kitchen remodel and the installation of the kitchen cabinets at the flip house. When designing the new kitchen cabinet plan, I opted for a mixture of cabinets and open shelves for storage and display. This kitchen design plan was for resale purposes so I took a more traditional route using upper cabinets on either side of the hood but also added two open shelves next to the sink window to give the space modern appeal as well.

 

 

 

Another option that looks very fresh is the medley of shorter closed upper cabinets and an open shelf below. This is a really happy compromise giving you both closed storage to hide all the things and open storage to display all the pretty items. I like how Brit did this in her kitchen, adding a DIY shelf below her upper cabinetry.

 

house updated

 

Chris and Julia did the same thing in this recent kitchen remodel, adding a display shelf below closed upper cabinetry.

 

chris loves julia

This look requires more distance than the traditional 18” spacing between a countertop and lower cabinet. More examples:

 

 

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terra cotta design build

I dug into the archives and six years ago I asked you all in this article what you thought of open shelving. There were 166 comments weighing in on whether open shelving was “trendy”, some of you loving it some of you questioning the practicality. I thought it interesting to revisit the topic after all this time, especially since having open shelves has become a really popular kitchen feature.

I’d love to hear from all of you again six years later, what have you chosen for your own kitchen? Closed cabinetry, open shelving, or a medley of both? Why did you make that choice?

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57 comments

  1. I do like the one open shelf underneath cabinets in many situations, but overall I’m in the cabinets with doors camp (although I also like some glass doors for display of pretty dishware).

    There are exceptions to every thing, but in general when I see open shelves I see “ran out of money”. I also know that I could not keep open shelves looking remotely decent.

    • That’s interesting that you think “ran out of money” when it comes to open shelves since its such a trendy design element. We had shelving manufactured by the cabinet company put in our living room built ins and I can tell you, it isn’t cheap. I think most of the open shelving serves as a decorative rather than functional component.

  2. I’m just finishing a major kitchen remodel and I’m doing open shelves on my range wall. It is a small kitchen and had upper cabinets on that wall previously. It just felt too tight. Yes, I will have to keep all those shelves clean but having marble backsplash all the way to the ceiling and the shelves will make the space feel bigger. I don’t see how it will be any harder to keep the dishes straight on the shelf than in a cabinet. I am a fairly neat and organized person though. Having some closed cabinets is nice for storing the not-so-pretty stuff but I believe I am going to absolutely love the open shelves. Every picture I saved when planning this renovation had either no upper cabinets or open shelving so I know that look appeals to me. Can’t wait to see your flip house kitchen. I always love your designs and backsplash choices!

  3. I don’t like the visual clutter of open shelving. I do, however, like the single shelf below the closed cupboards if moving the existing cupboards up to the ceiling.

  4. I like the look of some open shelving, however, unless the items on the open shelving are used in regular rotation they just end up collecting dust and getting dirty. I also wonder how thing look when items are in use, so instead of a pretty stack of 3 bowls you only have one, or none.

  5. I do love the look of open shelving but did not have enough space to incorporate them into our kitchen when building. I don’t think I would like open shelving above the stove however. I just see that being very hard to avoid grease and splatters getting onto the dishes.

    • That’s always been my thought too, they look good but for practical reasons are best kept away from the range where grease can splatter. However I’ve never lived with a kitchen that had open shelves next to the cooktop so it makes me wonder just how much grease or residue actually ends up on the shelving, I’d love to know from people who’ve cooked and lived in a kitchen with open shelves next to a stove.

      • I have open shelves in my kitchen five feet plus from my stove and items there get greasy and dusty. We are Southerners. My husband likes to fry things like bacon and okra and potatoes. When I remodel the open shelves will be no more. I can’t imagine how messy (and unsafe) shelves right over a stove might be.

      • I love the aesthetic look of open shelving, but I’m in the camp who’s concerned about dust and grease.

        I don’t fry food; I do saute often and cook every night. If I’m using a recipe on my cell phone near the stove, it gets a fine coating of grime just from a single pot or pan on the stovetop. I can’t imagine how gunky my sparkling glassware or Heath dishes would become.

  6. I’m with most that a single shelf is probably my preferred look. I have a full kitchen and wet bar on my main floor with full cabinets. I also have a kitchenette in our TV room. It came with full lowers and uppers but if I get a chance to do redo it, I think open shelving is perfect in a space like that. We use it often enough that I don’t anticipate dust being a big issue but it’s more fun and handy for the guests that use the space. We also don’t need too much storage like cabinets provide since we have a full kitchen elsewhere.

  7. As a kitchen designer and member of NKBA I would never design for a client or recommend an unprotected surface so close to a cooking surface. The guideline is that an unprotected surface not be closer than 30“ to the top of the cooking surface, while a protected surface, can be placed 24 “ from the cooking surface. Those shelves are too close for my comfort to the top of the range.

    • I agree with this cautionary note. In one of the pictures it even looks like the shelf is between the cooktop and the vent hood! That’s just weird.

    • Excellent point! Codes for venting and fire prevention must always be followed.

  8. I currently have 9 feet ceilings and cabinets that don’t go all the way up. I have debated the idea of shifting the cabinets to the ceiling and adding a shelf, but worry if a future buyer might think it looks DIY or cheap as we didn’t just get new uppers to go all the way up. Curious to see others take!

    • I’d do it in a heartbeat. It satisfies both the visual breathing space & maintaining a satisfactory amount of closed storage. I think as long as the materials are cohesive & appear intentional, it won’t feel like a cheap cop out.

      I wanted to do this in our last home after a major kitchen remodel in which we maximized layout, function & storage. We converted what had been a tiny u shaped design with a tiny eat in corner into a much larger L shaped kitchen. It accommodated another tiny L shaped corner with the fridge & a slice of counter on its opening side with a pass thru to the dining room with a 3 seat breakfast bar & a small island if one deemed it necessary. I hadn’t seen the open shelf design under upper cabinets done before then or it would have been part of the original remodel as well. DH nixed the revamp, so I opted to remove 3 cabinet doors to fake the open shelving around the sink for our everyday dishes & glasses.
      My DH & kiddos have this awful habit of not shutting doors on those cabinets routinely & I hated running into the open doors while cooking.

    • I like that idea, I think it’s clever as long as the shelf doesn’t block venting as others have pointed out. And if the backsplash ties the cabinetry and shelf together and makes it all cohesive it can look really great.

  9. I love the look of open shelving, but couldn’t keep it neat looking. Plus, I have a cat who would jump up and knock everything off the shelves. I love him, but he keeps me from having several decorative items.

  10. Please put me in the “HATE! open shelving in the kitchen” camp. It looks okay in professionally styled kitchen photos but most people can’t pull it off well in a real, working kitchen that is used every single day. I’m not patting myself on the back but I am one of the neatest and most organized people I know. My closet and drawers are organized by color and the majority of my (closed) storage in the kitchen is neatly (obsessively) organized. Even my can goods are sorted and grouped by contents and the labels are turned a certain way. Still, I would never, ever want any open shelving in a high traffic area like the kitchen.

    I guess you know what the market demands in your area but it makes me sad to see you’ve chosen to remove what looks to be the largest upper cabinet in the flip house kitchen. It seems like such a mistake, especially when surveys say most people don’t think open shelving is practical. In my opinion, it’s better to have cabinets and let the new homeowner replace cabinets with open shelving if they prefer that look. As the home buyer, I would not want the headache of trying to find matching cabinetry or the added expense of purchasing a cabinet to replace open shelving after move-in. Depending on what other amenities the house had to offer, open shelving might even be a deal breaker for me, as a prospective buyer,.

    • Thanks for the feedback! I replied in another comment about an entire wall of complementary storage cabinetry I’ve included opposite the layout shown. That will be a huge selling point I’m sure. :) I can’t wait to show you all when the kitchen is complete.

  11. Like the look yet had not interest when we remodeled last yr. Not interested in yet another surface to dust plus I know my husband would not keep it looking the way I would want it to be.

    • Ha so funny about “husbands keeping it looking good” :) I wouldn’t want to pester my partner about that too

  12. Absolutely would not want open shelves near the stove. Generally, I think it looks good in design mags but just one of the many things designers seem to love but have no business being in kitchens (and other parts of a home) that are really used.

    In your flip house, the open shelves would be okay. I probably would end up using the for cookbooks among other things. And for that purpose, I’d probably like it.

    • I failed to mention there is an entire wall of storage I’ve incorporated into this space opposite the layout shown. It includes two tall pantry cabinets and 9 feet of lower and upper storage cabinets so storage is thankfully not an issue with this space. That extra cabinetry will be perfect for cookbooks, etc. :)

  13. I agree with Shari, above. Open shelving looks ‘cheap country kitchen’ and I would never buy a house with it. Also, in some areas of the country, especially those with prevalent desert dust, there will always be a coating of dirt on the shelves and the dishes that are displayed on open shelving. I am older, and when I was young, people had open shelving and that curtain/rag across the area below the sink, mainly because it was cheap to build. When I see that trend coming around now, I laugh out loud.

  14. I don’t like open shelves, think they are impractical in real life. In your flip house design, I would not put glass door cabinets next to the range. The grease splatters would leave a film and in most houses, that’s where you store all those cooking things like oil, vinegars, spices.. not too pretty in my opinion.

  15. I agree with a previous commenter, open shelving actually looks kind of cheap to me. Cabinets all the way for me–but I live on a gravel road, and the dust problem is real. If I wanted to use anything on an open shelf, I’d have to rinse it off an dry it first. What a waste of time and water! I’d rather stick with glass doors to display pretty dishes.

  16. Open all the way! Geez, it really is controversial :)

    I’ve only had rentals, but being in various people’s houses I can see how much extra crap people keep when they have closed cabinets and it really does look and feel more cramped.

    I think the key to open shelves is to only put on them things that you use regularly – glasses, plates etc. rather than things that gather dust. It gives you an excuse to buy things that you really like as well :)

  17. Love the look of open shelving – in somebody elses kitchen. In our small galley kitchen there is not nearly enough storage as it is and I need cabinets that can be filled with necessities not just for styling. My guys would never put things back the way I would want them and it would just add another battle to our lives. If you have a huge kitchen with room for a display and lots of extra time to dust and clean, sure, but I would pass.

  18. I don’t mind a couple of open shelves but for the most part, I prefer cabinets. I think in a couple of years or less it will look like the trend that has passed. The stress of keeping my shelves dusted and styled would be too much stress.

  19. I live in the desert Southwest – it’s windy and sandy…..well you get the picture. I love the look in pictures of open shelves, but they are very impractical for here. You should see what I sweep up in the great room / kitchen and my dust rag – I couldn’t imagine having to wash every item you take off the shelf.

  20. Six years ago I was probably in the dislikes open shelving category. Today I am swaying more toward the idea of using a few open shelves in the kitchen. It especially makes sense to use it for items that you might use everyday such as a salt cellar or some pretty white dishes and cups. It also makes the kitchen look and feel more open and functional, almost like a professional chef’s kitchen.

  21. I love the idea of the open shelf below the cabinets! How clever, I would have never thought of that. It’s a great idea to store the things you use daily – maybe coffee cups, drink glasses, etc! Love this. I have a mix of both cabinets and one wall with open shelving. I find it hard to “style” the shelves and they end up looking cluttered to me. But I wanted a place to display my love of ironstone :)

  22. At this point I don’t have a choice since I’m not building or remodeling; however, I do love the look of open shelving. I would enjoy styling the shelves, but once getting everything as I want it, I would not ruin the look by using the items. So it would end up being a work of art that would need dusting and wiping once a week. That would be fine as long as I have plenty of closed cabinets for all the dishes and items I use on an everyday basis.
    Also, just want to add that liking closed cabinetry doesn’t mean you are disorganized or that your kitchen items are not pretty. It just means you like to keep things dust free as much as possible and don’t prefer everything in your cabinets to be seen all the time.

  23. It doesn’t seem practical for a hardworking kitchen. I love the look, but I wouldn’t want to have to keep everything perfectly in it’s place all the time. Plus there’s extra cleaning. I have a smaller kitchen, with 8 foot ceilings, and I wouldn’t have the luxury of a “display” type shelf. I did one glass front cabinet over a small bar, and that’s enough for me.

  24. We are just in the planning stages of a renovation and I’m pondering this question for my kitchen. I’m planning to go with a mix – mostly cabinets but a few open shelves around the window. One thing I like about open shelves is that they can be a little lower. Doing the combination of a shelf underneath cabinets would NOT work for me – I wouldn’t be able to reach the cabinets!! And like other readers above, I think having a shelf above a stove seems terribly impractical and dangerous!

  25. We’re remodeling our kitchen right now and have chosen closed cabinets. While I like the look of open shelves in other people’s kitchens, it’s just not a good fit for my life. 1) my plates, bowls, and glasses can look a little haphazard (and not in a cute way!) 2) I have 2 dogs who shed a ton and fur seems to get everywhere. I like that closed cabinets help keep my dishes and glasses fur and dust free!

  26. A combination of both is what I miss from my last kitchen. I,loved the ease of putting away items and for grabbing things quickly. They never seemed to get dusty or greasy. Why don’t people use vents!!! Anyway, I don’t have them I. My current kitchen and I HATE opening cabinet doors to put things away. Each to his own. But the bigger question is drawers vs. cabinets on the lowers!

    • So funny we must have been posting @ the same time about our base cabinet preferences, amen!

    • Both drawers and cabinets for the lowers is ideal! Also a pull out 18″ for both garbage and recycling is key!

  27. I couldn’t have a full kitchen of open shelving or no upper cabinets unless I had a good sized walk in style pantry or butlers pantry. I do however love open shelving near the dishwasher/sink area for everyday dishes & cups/glasses. They never have time to get dusty & it actually allows dishes to finish drying more readily & forces others to maintain order. I also love drawer base cabinets, no crawling into dark holes looking for things.

  28. To be completely candid… I absolutely love the look of open shelving in other people’s kitchens. However, I know that it would be a disaster in my own kitchen :)

  29. I love the open shelving look and the shelf below the cabinets as well. My husband does not! So I put an industrial style etagere on a small open wall in the breakfast nook and that allows me to display a few things and have extra storage. The key is to keep it simple and cohesive to avoid a cluttered look.

  30. Cyndi J says it perfectly for me: “visual clutter”. As if the obsession with ultra busy backsplashes screaming “look at me, look at me” weren’t enough, every open shelf (in a real working kitchen) can become distracting. Not to mention all the other issues many of us have with open shelving. Plus the obsession with open planning where the kitchen is open to the dining room and family room and living room and the entire house takes on the look of a furniture store showroom. Major visual clutter headache! I’m not totally against open shelving but it very much depends. In my case, I have a small U-shaped kitchen with 8’ ceilings and a corner sink with two windows and a patio door in the almost non-existent breakfast area. I debated for quite a while about the upper cabinet to the right of the sink between the window and the patio door, removing the doors initially and storing my pretties there but finding myself distracted every time I turned toward the kitchen (I can see into my kitchen toward the sink from my office in the former dining room). Inspired by Melissa Michaels’ reno of her previous house kitchen, I finally decided to remove the cabinet completely but primarily because I realized the cabinet completely stopped the light coming in from my south window and closed in the kitchen. I’m extremely pleased with this decision and what I’ve done with that wall but there’s no way I would do it anywhere else in my kitchen. I need the solid expanse of white (once I get my cabinets painted) to otherwise “open” my small kitchen. As far as that open shelf below the cabinets, I think it’s a pretty silly idea for those of us who are vertically challenged. The cabinets have to be raised in order to do it which means, if we’re lucky, we can only reach the open shelf and maybe the lowest shelf in the cabinet without a stepstool or a ladder.

  31. My #1 problem with open shelving (even beyond dust/grime issues): if you live in California (which a LOT of popular designers do), then, seismically speaking, open shelving is super stupid. Emily Henderson styles all these pretty heirlooms for clients in LA on open shelves. Um, they are all one good 4.5 or higher from a lot of broken heirlooms and safety hazards.

    Glass fronted cabinets are the best compromise.Open shelving for everyone on the West Coast is dumb.

  32. We have lived with our second remodeled kitchen in 6 years for about a year now. I have put one set of open shelves, with a single upper cabinet and a recessed pantry wall in both. Even if I weren’t to do open shelving in the future, I will never go back to the cramped look/feel of full walls of upper cabinets! I have colorful Fiestaware dishes and love having them on display. Both kitchens are small (12×12) and I opened one half-wall in each, so open shelving just added to making the kitchen look bigger. Also, I’ve always wanted to bring up the fact that dust and grime doesn’t stop at your cabinet doors! I’d rather have an open shelf or 2 (that is much easier to clean than the inside of a cabinet) and dust/wipe down every couple of weeks than to pretend that the inside of my cabinets are clean and get to them once or twice a year. But that’s just me.

  33. I don’t necessarily mind how open shelves look in other peoples houses, but I don’t want them! I wouldn’t like cleaning them, but I also don’t like the visual clutter.

  34. So.. I read somewhere that if the base cabinet depth was increased from 24″ to 30″,(or was it 36″)the storage space gained in the base cab would equal the loss of the upper. That’s what I want. But – where are those deep base cabinets? I can’t find any!

  35. I must say open shelving is the most beautiful option for me, but it’s also tricky to maintain, specially if you’re from the messy nature. Love the post!

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