Open Shelves vs. Upper Cabinets

Open shelves vs. Upper cabinets

stove-shelves600It seems that every magazine and home design blog is featuring kitchens with few (if any) upper cabinets these days, and yards of open shelves. Sometimes the look is quite modern, with stacks of white plates and simple glassware. And in some kitchens open shelves can look like they belong in Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen; copper pots and creamware pitchers, teapots and bread pans.

So when designing a kitchen, how do you decide which approach is best for your space? There are a few factors to consider here. Open shelves certainly make a small space seem larger, because it is the back wall, not the front of a cabinet that reads as the size of the room. (Our sense of space comes primarily from how we perceive the space at eye level). Closed door cabinets keep things dust free and out of sight. But a room full of either can be impractical and well, just boring. I’m an advocate of using a bit of both.

Upper cabinets, boxes with doors hung on the wall with countertop below, are an invention of the 1930s, and became standard issue in kitchens built in the mid century. This was also the period of time when “time saving” processed food in boxes became the norm. Upper cabinets were the perfect storage for rows of boxes: cake mixes, breakfast cereals, Rice-a-Roni. Closed cabinets also conceal dishes and glasses, a plus when there is a mix of styles and colors. Glass door cabinets are a great way to store tableware. Don’t worry that it will look messy. Arrange it well once, and it will take care of itself. You don’t rearrange every time you unload the dishwasher, right?

Open shelves are great for things used every day, or every week. Cookware, serving bowls, morning coffee mugs and bowls. Things used often enough to not worry about dust. There are so many beautiful things on the market now! It’s not our mother’s kitchen where we have to hide the piles of pastel Tupperware… But walls of nothing but shelves, even with a well edited collection of kitchenware, can look like we are in Pottery Barn instead of a home cook’s space.

If your room allows, a walk-in pantry is the best way to store dry goods, and even small appliances- keeping them convenient while cutting down on counter-clutter. 2’ x 3’ is enough for most kitchens, and much more cost effective than the equivalent amount of storage in cabinets!


A mix of shelves and cabinets, with the addition of a pantry (even the smallest closet will do), is I think the most interesting, practical, and most important, personal use of your space. We have all 3 at our studio on Fairfield street, if you’d like a test drive

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