Using Open Shelving in the Kitchen

authors Mary Jo Peterson | October 8, 2019

When I mention the concept of open shelves in the kitchen to designer friends, I get extreme reactions, both positive and negative. Yet, everyone agrees that, regardless of the style of a kitchen, open shelving is finding its way into the design of the space more often than not. We have seen them done badly and we have seen them done well, contributing to both the design impact and the function of the space.

There are pros and cons based on the needs and lifestyle of the client and the available space, and on whether they are incorporated as an accent, or as essential wall storage. As one designer friend said, successful incorporation of open shelves in a kitchen design is more complicated than current trends would suggest. With that in mind, it is certainly worthy of discussion around the pros and cons, as well as ideas on how to use them to integrate with and enhance a design, both aesthetically and functionally.


Tight on budget, generous on design, this closet-sized NYC kitchen benefits from its open shelves.
Photo: Giulia Luci

On the plus side, open shelves have both visual and functional advantages for clients and spaces with the right personality. They are a great way to personalize a kitchen by displaying personal collections of functional or decorative objects. They are an opportunity to add color or texture to a space by showcasing tile or other contrasting wall surface, and with the broad range of materials available, the shelves themselves and their hardware can become the contrast or accent detail. They can be successfully incorporated into any style kitchen by the selection of material for the shelves and the hardware – from glass to metal, fine-grained to live edge or reclaimed wood, and invisible to industrial hardware. Open shelving can create an illusion of more and open space while still providing functional storage, and in small, tight spaces, the elimination of doors can increase the easily accessed storage (see photo, right). For a serious cook, the convenience of having frequently used items close at hand and visually and quickly accessible is a positive, and in this case, regular cleaning of the items stored on the shelves would be likely.

On the other hand, the obvious challenge with open shelves is that everything stored on them will be visible to all who enter the room, and they will also be exposed to the grime that is created in most kitchens. Open shelves require that the items stored on them be “styled” just as a set might be handled according to the “less is more” guidance. They must be maintained through frequent washing, which works for the serious cook or entertainer who goes through the items on the shelves regularly. While some would say that open shelves increase storage by eliminating the obstruction of doors, others would say that this need for orderly shelves decreases the functional storage for those who wish to avoid a cluttered appearance.


Effective incorporation of open shelves depends on careful consideration of the habits, possessions and lifestyle of your clients, and of the total composition of the wall or space to be used. In the planning phase, determine whether the main purpose of the open shelves will be visual display or functional storage.

Review with your client the items that would likely be on view. Once the favored space plan has been identified, this can be established by using a plan overlay on which the client indicates where each item of the kitchen might be stored. If the things to be stored and displayed are used frequently, they should be planned within comfortable reach, whereas if they are mainly display items, this is less critical.

Some designers would say that open shelving should only be considered as display, and whether display or storage, it must take into account the elements of design as any aspect of the kitchen plan must. Although open shelves can be planned anywhere, there are several locations that are regularly successful. One spot is on a range wall, particularly where a tile covers the wall around the hood, and in this case the dimensions of the shelving must balance with the hood. Another spot is on a sink wall, where often there is a window or a wall with color or textural contrast, and in this case the shelf is often glass or otherwise subtle as compared to the focal point of the wall. From Europe, we get the concept of this shelf including a dish drain built in directly over the sink.

A third use for open shelving is when creating an auxiliary center such as a beverage station, and this might be an opportunity for contrasting materials to emphasize or define the area. In a small kitchen, such as the one illustrated, the open shelves are very much needed for storage and lighting, and support must be carefully planned.

Because open shelving is so popular right now, there are no limits to the materials available and for the required hardware. While a common depth for wall shelves is 10″ to 12″, shallow recessed shelves can add contrast and texture, and dimensions should be determined by the elemental composition of the wall where they will be placed.

While there is a huge difference of opinion on the appropriate use of open shelves, we certainly must realize that they are a design component that is growing more prevalent. We have seen them done well, and we have seen them done badly. As designers, we must develop an appreciation for the role they play in the function and aesthetics of a space, and work to be sure that, when used, they strengthen the design we are creating. Hopefully this brief discussion can contribute to your success at incorporating open shelving in your designs. ▪

KBDN October 2019 Mary Jo Peterson Planning & Design

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