Kitchens are often referred to as the heart of the home. It’s where families gather to cook, eat, and spend quality time together. The kitchen design plays a big role in the functionality and aesthetic appeal of this essential space. One of the biggest kitchen design decisions is whether to go for open or closed cabinetry.
What are Open Kitchen Cabinets?
Open kitchen cabinets, also known as open shelving, have no doors, drawers, or panels covering the front. The contents of the cabinets are visually accessible rather than concealed behind closed cabinet doors.
Open shelving offers some unique benefits for kitchen storage and design:
- Visually opening up smaller kitchens
- Easy access to frequently used items
- Display for cherished dishware and decorative items
- A more casual, rustic, or industrial style
The term “open shelving” can refer to a few different variations:
- Fully open with no cabinet doors at all
- Mix of open and closed cabinetry
- Open cabinets on top, closed cabinets on bottom
- Glass cabinet doors for a semi-open look
Choosing open kitchen cabinets is ultimately an aesthetic preference, but also has functional implications.
Pros of Open Kitchen Cabinets
More Visually Appealing
The main appeal of open shelving is the aesthetics. Removing bulky cabinet doors instantly gives your kitchen a lighter, airier look and feel. You can freely see everything displayed in the cabinets. The contents become part of the visual design.
Open shelving introduces textures, colors, shapes and materials based on the items you display. This creates more visual interest than closed cabinets. For small kitchens, open shelving makes the space appear larger.
Another benefit of open shelving is the immediate access. You don’t have to open multiple doors to find what you need. Everything is right in front of you.
For frequently used cookware, utensils, dishes and food staples, open cabinets are far more convenient than rummaging behind closed doors. You can quickly grab spices or cooking tools when preparing meals. It promotes a more efficient cooking process.
With open cabinets, you have the freedom to artfully display items for decor. Rather than hiding things behind doors, you can create attractive vignettes showcasing beautiful dishware, mugs or glassware.
Adding accent lighting or LED strips increase the dramatic appeal. Cooking staples like oils, spices and packaged foods become part of the display. The contents can be rotated seasonally for a refreshed look.
Casual Rustic Aesthetic
Open shelving lends itself to certain design aesthetics, like rustic, farmhouse, industrial and casual spaces. The lack of bulky cabinetry creates a lighter look. Exposed materials like woods and metals complement the industrial trend.
In formal or contemporary kitchens, closed cabinets usually look more cohesive. But open shelving suits laid-back cooking spaces.
Cons of Open Kitchen Cabinets
While beautiful, open kitchen cabinets do come with downsides to consider:
Open cabinets show everything inside them, including clutter and food crumbs. Without doors to conceal them, messes are exposed. Achieving a clean, streamlined look requires diligent organizing.
Items on shelves collect dust more quickly. Grease splatter and food drips are visible. You’ll be motivated to keep the interiors cleaner. But this does mean more frequent wiping and tidying.
Lack of Storage Space
Closed cabinets simply offer more storage space. Doors allow shelves to extend back to the wall, rather than losing that depth. Upper cabinets with doors can go right to the ceiling, rather than leaving space open above.
For large kitchens with plenty of square footage, losing some storage space might not be an issue. But smaller kitchens could feel the impact. Strategic closed storage might still be needed for overflow items or appliances.
While displaying pretty dishware has appeal, open shelving also exposes unsightly necessities. Boxes of cereal, jars of sauces, plastic containers and everyday clutter are visibly out in the open.
Occasional deep cleaning is needed to keep higher shelves presentable. Items you may not want on display will need a home in closed cabinets. This limits flexibility somewhat.
Sound bounces and travels more freely in open space. So open cabinets allow more kitchen noise to propagate throughout your home. The rattle of dishes, clinking of glasses and shuffle of packages can be bothersome.
Adding sound dampening materials can help reduce noise. But some degree of amplified sound is unavoidable with completely open shelving.
Less Energy Efficient
Closed kitchen cabinets are inherently more energy efficient. Doors form an insulating barrier that better regulates temperature and humidity. Open cabinets allow more airflow exchange with the room.
This slightly increases energy usage for heating and cooling. The temperature fluctuation could also be tougher on perishable foods. The visual appeal comes with a minor energy tradeoff.
Best Practices for Open Kitchen Cabinets
Here are some tips for successfully implementing open shelving:
- Strategic mix of open and closed – Use open cabinets for most frequently accessed items, and closed for overflow and unsightly necessities. Aim for 50/50 mix.
- Limited upper open shelves – Maximize storage space by only doing open shelves on upper half of lower cabinets. Keep upper cabinets closed.
- Sliding glass doors – Use glass cabinet doors for a semi-open look with the option to fully enclose.
- Wire storage – Incorporate wire storage bins or baskets to corral loose items. Hide clutter but maintain openness.
- White dishes and linens – Display white or neutral dishware to prevent visual clutter. Avoid showing plastic containers.
- Led lighting – Install under-cabinet lighting to beautifully illuminate interiors and contents. Dimmable strip LEDs work perfectly.
- Keep organized – Group like items together in neat arrangements. Clean interiors frequently to control dust and grease.
- Seasonal rotation – Rotate summer and winter dishware to keep contents fresh. Move workhorse appliances to closed cabinets when not in use.
- Sound dampening – Line backs of shelves with acoustic dampening materials. Add insulation inside surrounding closed walls.
With smart placement and organization, open kitchen cabinets enhance both form and function. The visual lightness and access outweighs potential downsides. Mix open and closed storage to maximize appeal and utility in your kitchen.
Open Shelving Placement Guidelines
Where you install open shelving impacts how successfully it functions. Follow these placement tips:
- Upper wall cabinets should have bottoms about 18 inches from ceiling
- Bottom of wall cabinets should be 15 inches above countertops
- Floating shelves work well 30-36 inches above counter
- 10 to 12 inches deep is ideal for most open shelves
- Deeper 14-16 inch shelves better for appliances and cookware
- Shallower 8 inch shelves suitable for display
Items to Display
- Daily use dishes, glassware, mugs
- Attractive serving platters and bowls
- Frequently used spices, oils, condiments
- Baking sheets, casserole dishes, muffin tins
- Cookbooks, kitchen linens, utensil crocks
- Decorative items like vases, succulents, art
Items to Avoid
- Plastic food boxes and wraps
- Mismatched or chipped dishware
- Bulk food bags and boxes
- Cleaning supplies and sponges
- Large appliances like mixer, blender
- Overflow items rarely used
Prime Open Shelf Locations
- Near stove for oils, spices, utensils
- Above sink for glassware and dishes
- Near prep space for cutting boards, knives
- Breakfast nook for mugs, napkins, fruit
Place open shelves in spots that make sense for your kitchen work zones. Avoid them in far corners rarely accessed.
Mixing Open and Closed Cabinets
The best kitchen cabinetry design often incorporates a smart mix of open and closed storage. Some guidelines for blending both:
- Use open shelves above nodes of activity like stoves, sinks, and prep areas. Enclose the periphery.
- Stick to upper open shelving only to maximize space. Use lower cabinets for enclosed storage.
- Display pretty accent dishware openly but keep daily use dish stacks hidden.
- Store food staples, cooking tools and small appliances attractively but out of sight.
- Incorporate glass-front cabinet doors to allow display while hiding clutter.
- Use open shelves in transitional spaces like corner pantries, harvest tables and kitchen islands.
- Add character by mixing wood tones, colors and hardware finishes between open and closed sections.
Blending the two styles allows you to enjoy the benefits while minimizing downsides like reduced storage and exposed mess. It creates visual balance.
Here are some more open cabinet ideas:
- Fully open on kitchen island, but closed along walls
- Enclose lower cabinets, open uppers
- Open bookshelves at end of kitchen for cookbooks
- Floating open shelves flanking window over sink
Get creative with mixing and matching to find your perfect kitchen cabinet formula. Keep your space, storage needs and aesthetic tastes in mind.
Open Shelf Styles and Materials
Open shelving can be crafted from many materials to achieve different looks:
- Natural, stained or painted wood
- Rustic barnwood planks
- White shiplap or beadboard back
- Chunky live-edge maple
- Sleek stainless steel wire
- Matte black iron pipes
- Galvanized sheet metal
- Hammered copper
- Honed marble slab shelves
- Travertine stone
- White quartz ledges
- Smoked glass box shelves
- Clear tempered glass
- Mirrored bottom shelves
- Cement planks or tiles
- Reclaimed scaffolding boards
- Salvaged crates or fruit boxes
Mixing up the materials adds eclectic flair. Natural wood and black metal make an industrial statement. Clean lined white shelves provide an airy feel. Consider the existing elements like countertops, backsplash and floors when selecting shelf finishes.
Decorating Open Shelves
Styling open shelves poses a fun decorating challenge. Follow these tips to create an appealing vignette:
- Edit ruthlessly – Only display your very best dishware, cookbooks and accents. Avoid clutter.
- Group by color – Create neat color stories with whites, blues, greens or neutrals.
- Vary heights – Stack books, stagger trays and use risers for height variation.
- Angled dividers – Separate zones diagonally rather than straight vertical rows.
- Overhead lighting – Illuminate shelves with pendant lights or mini track lights.
- Maintain balance – Anchor heavier items on lower shelves and go lighter as you go up.
- Conceal clutter – Use decorative bins, baskets or boxes to corral ugly necessities.
- Limit patterns – Stick to solid dishes with simple patterns to avoid busy appearance.
- Green plants – Add fresh greenery for pops of color and life.
- Change with seasons – Rotate summery pastels for darker fall tones. Display seasonal accent pieces.
Approach shelf styling like creating a gallery wall. Play with creating vignettes that are cohesive, balanced and visually calming.
FAQs About Open Kitchen Cabinets
Is it hard to keep open shelves organized?
It does require more frequent tidying to keep contents looking orderly and the shelves dusted. But incorporating some lazy susans, trays, baskets and risers makes it easier. Try to group like items, display only what you love, and frequently purge unused items.
How often should you clean open shelves?
Plan to do a deep clean of the shelves themselves every 2-3 weeks. Use a microfiber cloth and all-purpose cleaner. For the contents, do a quick tidy and wipe down every few days. More frequent mini-cleanings prevent major buildup.
Should open or closed cabinets be higher?
Most designers recommend having open cabinets on the upper half of the wall, not exceeding your reach. Then use lower closed cabinets for concealed storage. Upper open shelves give that light, airy aesthetic while lower closed cabinets offer access and space.
What kind of lighting works best for open shelves?
LED strip lighting installed under the shelves or above the upper cabinets beautifully illuminates contents. Dimmable strips allow you to control the brightness. Small track lights also focus light right where you want it.
How deep should floating open shelves be?
For floating shelves brackets, a depth of 10-12 inches gives you versatility to display a variety of items. Too shallow and items will stick out. Over 12 inches deep risks things getting lost back on the shelf.
Are glass cabinet doors a good alternative to fully open?
Glass-front cabinets are fantastic for a semi-open look. Frosted or smoked glass still provides an airy feel while concealing clutter. For upper cabinets, glass doors also prevent dust buildup.
What are good open shelf items for a breakfast nook?
Vintage milk glass canisters filled with utensils, coffee station, neatly folded napkins, a fruit bowl, cookbooks stood up vertically, and a couple of decorative ceramic pieces make an inviting breakfast nook shelf display.
Achieving a Cohesive Look with Open Cabinets
If designed thoughtfully, open shelving can look polished rather than haphazard. Here are some compositions to try:
The Colorblock Collection
Group items by color—all white dishes, blue glassware, green canisters, yellow linens—for an artful palette.
The Baker’s Display
Neatly lined antique tins, rolling pins, and wire baskets give a rustic bakery feel.
The Curated China Cabinet
Show off your best bone china, cake stands, crystal and barware.
The Stylized Coffee Bar
Line up the mugs together in a appealing shape like a pyramid and display coffee accoutrements.
The Organized Toolbox
House cooking tools in matching crocks, leaves upright in cans, utensils in drawers.
The Homogeneous Mix
Coordinate pots and lids in one shelf, all white serving dishes on another. Repeat materials.
Play around with vignette ideas that make sense for your kitchen. The options are endless!
Making a Small Kitchen Feel Bigger with Open Shelving
Removing bulky cabinet doors instantly makes small kitchens feel more spacious. Here are more tips to enlarge a petite kitchen with open shelves:
- Extend shelves fully corner to corner to broaden and maximize.
- Use floating ledges rather than floor-to-ceiling columns for lighter look.
- Paint walls, shelves and back wall same crisp white for seamless expansion.
- Use glass shelves to maintain the open look but let light pass through.
- Illuminate shelves with under cabinet lighting to prevent dark heaviness.
- Style shelves sparsely with just essentials to avoid cluttered appearance.
- Opt for wire storage bins to hold items but keep visible space.
- Run ledges horizontally along the wall rather than stacked vertically.
Keep the materials light: whitewashed wood, galvanized metal, glass. Use shelf brackets rather than solid sides. Extend as far as possible across each wall to broaden reach.
Incorporating Open Shelving in Different Kitchen Layouts
Open shelving can work in virtually any kitchen footprint if thoughtfully placed.
Great spot for open shelves is at the end of the galley near breakfast table. Or do open upper cabinets along one wall, closed lowers along the other.
Use open shelves on the leg of the L that gets lighter use like dining. Enclose storage-heavy prep leg.
Often the sink section of the U lacks cabinets above. Open shelves flanking the window make perfect use of the space.
Open shelving on an island makes items easily accessible from all sides while still offering some concealed storage in base.
Rustic wood planks on the wall complement the farmhouse aesthetic. Or use multi-size shelves shiplapped for texture.
Get creative with mixing open and closed storage based on your particular layout and style. Moving the open shelving around the kitchen zones adds flexibility.
Building Your Own Open Kitchen Shelves
Part of the charm of open shelving is having the ability to customize to your space. Building your own allows you to create exact sizes and finishes. While challenging, with the right plans and materials it can absolutely be a DIY project. Here’s how to build your own open kitchen shelves:
Step 1: DetermineShelf Dimensions
Measure the space and design the ideal shelving size and configuration for your stuff and room dimensions. Standard depths are 10-12”.
Step 2: Select Materials
Choose materials that suit your design style like wood boards, PVC panels, metal pipes, scaffolding. Check required hardware like brackets.
Step 3: Cut Pieces to Size
Cut shelves, sides and other components to the proper length and width according to your plan using a miter or circular saw.
Step 4: Sand and Finish the Wood
For wooden shelves, sand any rough edges. Apply primer-sealer then your choice of paint, stain or sealer finish to protect the wood.
Step 5: Attach Brackets
Screw side wall anchors into studs, then attach shelf brackets or cleats using a drill. For floating shelves, attach brackets to shelf undersides.
Step 6: Add Shelf Supports
Using finishing nails and wood glue, fasten sides, partitions and back panels. Check shelves are level. Let