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A Case for Open Shelves In the Kitchen

After close to 2 years of living with open shelving in our kitchen, I’m officially shouting it from the rooftops: I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it! I’m here to state my case for the kitchen trend that’s sure to outlive us all.

apples on the counter of an L-shaped kitchen  // Is open shelving in a kitchen the right choice for you? I'm sharing my tips for design + practicality, plus the one thing I'd do differently. | via Yellow Brick Home
 fruit bowl | cream toaster | chopping block | bear bottle opener

Our Tree House kitchen is small, but it’s packed with function. Despite our decision to remove all but one upper cabinet, we’ve never once felt that we didn’t have enough room for our ‘stuff.’ Instead, we designed the space to accommodate the one thing we knew for sure we wanted to add – open shelving!*

*Psst: Here’s the full video tutorial for DIY-ing our thick, floating open shelves, if you’d like to see!

By eliminating upper cabinets, we purposely opted for extra deep base cabinet drawers. Our everyday dinnerware and glasses are stacked neatly inside, with room to spare. A lazy susan corner cabinet swallows linens, a tea kettle and our coffee necessities. (We couldn’t do it without these organizers!) You can see what we store behind every drawer and door in this walkthrough, but today, I want to talk about what’s out in the open! More than anything, we’re asked if our shelves are a dusty nightmare, and are they actually practical? (Like, really?) Over and over, we hear you question:

Why Have Open Shelving At All?

Simply put, they make our small kitchen feel larger.

When we first walked into our Tree House, we were hit with a wall of cabinetry. And while floor to ceiling cabinetry is making a big comeback right now (and it can surely be done very beautifully), we felt that this L-shaped kitchen needed breathing room. The shiny backsplash and shelving give the illusion of a larger kitchen, which we welcomed with open arms!

L-shaped kitchen with open shelving // Is open shelving in a kitchen the right choice for you? I'm sharing my tips for design + practicality, plus the one thing I'd do differently. | via Yellow Brick Home
counter stools | fruit bowl | S+P grinders | pendant light

There’s a fine line between practical and pretty.

This is the first time we’ve had open shelving in a kitchen, and merging functionality with design was, naturally, a fear of ours from the beginning. Was it possible? (Yes, yes it is.) Can they still be useful without looking cluttered? (Yes, yes they can!) If we were going to make these shelves, they needed to serve a purpose – especially in our 850 sq. ft. home, where every nook, cranny and corner matters. Here’s what we’ve learned on balancing practical + pretty:

  • Store the toddler plates and sippy cups behind cabinet doors, and use the shelves for items that you find both useful and beautiful. Think: Your French press, the ceramic mixing bowls you love and the cookie jar you spent too much on but have no regrets. If your style is minimal and neutral, carry this into your shelving display, but keep things interesting with, say, matte ceramics + glossy coffee mugs. If your style is bold, proudly display the Fiestaware!
L-shaped kitchen with open shelving // Is open shelving in a kitchen the right choice for you? I'm sharing my tips for design + practicality, plus the one thing I'd do differently. | via Yellow Brick Home
  • Keep the high use items on lower shelves, such as mugs and the coveted dog treat jar. Stash special use and hard-to-store items up top, like big fruit bowls and the special occasion water pitcher.
A corner of the kitchen with dog treats on the counter // Is open shelving in a kitchen the right choice for you? I'm sharing my tips for design + practicality, plus the one thing I'd do differently. | via Yellow Brick Home
cast iron pan | knife block | oil + vinegar bottles | enamelware
  • Consider keeping small appliances on the shelves, such as your toaster, to keep countertops free for everyday use and food prep. A clean countertop makes my heart sing, ha!
Homeowner slicing apples for an afternoon snack // Is open shelving in a kitchen the right choice for you? I'm sharing my tips for design + practicality, plus the one thing I'd do differently. | via Yellow Brick Home
  • Play with different heights, textures and finishes to keep visual balance, and allow them to breathe. A little gap of dead space here and there does wonders for the soul.
  • Little things – like all the mug handles facing the same way – make a huge impact on the overall look of open shelving!
coffee mugs styled on an open shelf in the kitchen // Is open shelving in a kitchen the right choice for you? I'm sharing my tips for design + practicality, plus the one thing I'd do differently. | via Yellow Brick Home

What would we change?

There is one thing we’d change, and that’s the spacing between the shelves! Before DIY-ing our shelves, we scoured the web for height between shelving, and most sources we found said that 9-10″ was a good middle ground. In hindsight, I wish we would have given this more consideration; we would have been happier in the 12-13″ range, which would have allowed us to store taller items on the lower shelf.

brass penguin on kitchen shelf // Is open shelving in a kitchen the right choice for you? I'm sharing my tips for design + practicality, plus the one thing I'd do differently. | via Yellow Brick Home
cast iron pan | enamelware

Would We Do It Again?

Yes, but only in cases where it enhances both design and functionality. Here’s what I mean: Our Chicago kitchen is heavy on the cabinetry, but the all white Shaker style panels still feel fresh and classic. We don’t need open shelving. However, we already have plans to incorporate open shelving in The Two Flat, where the pitched ceiling in Unit 2 will make it near impossible to do cabinetry! Had we never utilized open shelving before, we may be nervous about the practicality of this, but now we couldn’t be more excited.

L-shaped kitchen with open shelving // Is open shelving in a kitchen the right choice for you? I'm sharing my tips for design + practicality, plus the one thing I'd do differently. | via Yellow Brick Home
silicone + bamboo cooking utensils | knife block

Do you have open shelving in your kitchen? What other tips would you give someone else who is considering the same?

PS: See this kitchen makeover (plus a bunch of satisfying before and afters!) in this post, the tutorial for our DIY floating shelves, and here’s a tour through our kitchen cabinets.

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  • Michelle10.31.19 - 6:15 AM

    We do, but it’s more decorative to fill what I consider the “dead corner”. I love this look, the openness and feel it’s definitely something that works so so well for the type of house the tree house is (weekend/vacation). It’s also perfect for tough spots like you mention above with the sloped ceiling. For my every day home the cabinets work for me though, and I’m happy to have closed storage keeping things neat. ReplyCancel

  • Susan11.8.19 - 7:42 AM

    We have a set of 3 shelves in the left side of our sink. We based the spacing on what we knew we wanted to store there. My SO bought me a shiny retro coffee pot to store there and she gave me a vintage glass jar that originally held coffee and has the word “coffee” embossed in the glass. So it makes me happy to look at it and serves a very important function. The next shelf has jars of dried goods like beans and peas and dried fruit, and all the colors look pretty but not busy. The top shelf holds sentimental vintage items her grandmother used in the kitchen (a tin recipe box and a metal flower sifter with a cute vintage design). The rest of our storage is closed, but this one small section makes my heart sing and also makes the back door area right next to it feel less cramped. Form AND function. :)ReplyCancel

  • Kathy11.8.19 - 7:53 AM

    I’m plotting my kitchen renovation and I decided on no upper cabinets whatsoever. Except the one above the fridge, but that’s more to box in the fridge than it is to have an upper cabinet. I kind of hate them! I’m pretty short so getting stuff past the first shelf is An Ordeal that usually involves climbing on the counter, trying not to fall off while I open the door because I forgot to open it beforehand and then realizing that I have to somehow lower this super heavy bowl or whatever without falling off the counter or dropping the bowl. Ugh. That, coupled with my “I am an independent lady that don’t need no man to get the high things down from the cabinets for me!!!” attitude… means that upper cabinets and I are not friends.

    But yeah, I mapped out my new stove wall, an island, and then ripped out this awkward closet next to the kitchen in favor of an additional 9′ of recessed base cabinets (pantry? whiskey bar? coffee bar? ALL?) so I do not think that I will be hurting for storage space if I put open shelves on the stove wall and in the pantry. If I do end up needing more storage space, it’s time for a “this garbage does not bring me joy” purge–not a trip to get upper cabinets, haaaa.ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.8.19 - 8:50 AM

      Hahaha, love it! Yes, nice, deep base cabinets (especially if they can be drawers!) is my new favorite thing. And as a fellow shortie who wants to do everything on my own, I FEEL YOU.ReplyCancel

  • Amanda11.8.19 - 7:54 AM

    We are about to tackle these in our kitchen, using your tutorial! Thank you for being honest about the spacing, that was one item we were struggling with. 9″ felt “thin” and it sounds like we should go with 12″. Our kitchen too was weighed down with heavy overwhelming cabinetry.ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.8.19 - 8:34 AM

      12″ would be much better. We’d love to see pics when you’re done!ReplyCancel

  • Sarah C.11.8.19 - 9:51 AM

    We renovated our kitchen this summer and added a whole wall of open shelving. Currently it’s mostly decorative – The top shelf has plants and my collection of old pitchers while the lower shelf has pretty white servingware. We have plenty of cabinet space for all our dishes. The one thing that I didn’t factor in when planning the shelving was the height of my 7 year old. It’s his job to empty the dishwasher every day after school, so the days after we use the serving ware I find it in the drawer with the plates because he can’t reach the shelf without a stool. It’s not a big deal at all, but it shows me that the function of our shelves will certainly change as our family changes. ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.8.19 - 10:09 AM

      Oooh, that’s a great tip to consider!ReplyCancel

  • Brittany11.8.19 - 11:16 AM

    Where is your cute dog treat jar from?ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.8.19 - 12:43 PM

      It’s from Crate, but I don’t see it on their site anymore!ReplyCancel

  • Sara11.8.19 - 9:08 PM

    Hi Kim! So this is a very random question but our kitchen also has one of those built into the ceiling circle fan vent things and it’s an old chrome color. I see you guys have the same thing in yours but a nice shade of blending in white!!! So my q is, did you paint it or replace it? My thought has been spray painting it but thought I’d see what you guys did! Thanks! ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.8.19 - 9:32 PM

      Ours is white to begin with, but heck yes you can paint yours!!ReplyCancel

  • Adrienne11.9.19 - 5:54 AM

    This post is very timely for us! We’re finally nearing the point of install for a kitchen in our multi-unit that was damaged by water/leaky roof and we’ve got both a tiny space to work with AND a sloped roof! We’d already been inspired to go open shelving, because of the lovely results in your Treehouse kitchen, but especially appreciate the food-for-thought on spacing. We’ll be DIY-ing it, so thank you for sharing your experiences!ReplyCancel

  • Melissa11.10.19 - 4:03 PM

    I love your shelves and the styling.  Could you raise the top shelf by 3 or 4” or does that make it too high for shorty’s to reach (says 5’2” me).ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.11.19 - 8:13 AM

      It makes it a little too high for shorties like me and you! Ideally, we’d move the lower shelf down by a couple of inches, but we’d have to patch the tile.ReplyCancel

  • April11.11.19 - 3:20 PM

    We removed our uppers and did open shelving for the same reason as you; it made the kitchen feel more open (and got those honey oak monstrosities out of my face!). The difference is our kitchen is quite spacious.  We had more than enough traditional cabinets, which made the decision easier.  I keep my kitchen Sonos, mesh network puck, plants, and liquor on ours.  Unfortunately, I’m a victim of the dust conundrum.  It adds another 5-10 minutes to my cleaning routine (I know… boo-hoo, but I’m lazy).  One thing I do like is that it allowed us to add wall art above the shelves.  It makes the space so much more cozy and colorful!
    Also, we got that bear bottle opener on your suggestion.  It’s freaking awesome and looks boss on the wall.ReplyCancel

    • Kim11.11.19 - 5:19 PM

      Haha, YAY!! Lucy LOOOOVES that bear bottle opener. We pretend it’s biting us, and she thinks it’s hilarious.ReplyCancel

  • Ofelia11.13.19 - 10:20 PM

    Your kitchen is beautiful and I wanna pin it, but can’t find the pin button… ReplyCancel

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