Which is Better? Open Kitchen Shelves or Upper Kitchen Cabinets?

Open shelves and no wall cabinets

Which is Better? Open Kitchen Shelves or Upper Kitchen Cabinets?

If you are in the planning stages of a kitchen renovation project, you must decide if you want upper kitchen cabinets or open kitchen shelves. Or possibly a combination of both.

Upper Kitchen Cabinets or Open Kitchen Shelves – Is One Better?

There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to open kitchen shelves. People either love it or can’t imagine having their cabinet contents visible to anyone who comes into their kitchen.

When planning your new kitchen, one of the many decisions you’ll have to make is whether or not to install upper cabinets. (Another way to say upper cabinets is “wall cabinets”.) The choice isn’t based solely on storage considerations. No, the real difficulty of your decision lies in deciding how the cabinets or the absence of them will influence the look of your new kitchen.

If you’ve been looking at kitchen photos on Houzz or Pinterest or any other sites that feature fabulous kitchen photos, you couldn’t help but notice that many of the kitchens don’t have upper cabinets.

The Look of No Upper Kitchen Cabinets Can Be Stunning

No upper cabinets frees up space for bold tile backsplash

On one hand, having no wall cabinets is dramatic since we are used to seeing kitchen walls filled with cabinets. The empty space created where wall cabinets usually go has been filled by some homeowners and designers with bold, colorful backsplash tile designs. Some extend from countertop to ceiling. You can’t do that when there’s lots of cabinets on the walls.

If You Go With Open Kitchen Shelves, Where Do You Put Your Things?

However, on the other hand, when there’s no wall cabinets, where exactly are you supposed to put your things? Not all of your kitchen “stuff” can be displayed on open kitchen shelves.

Of course, there are drawers and lower cabinets, but can that possibly be enough storage space when most kitchens must have store cookware, appliances, gadgets and serving pieces?

Use drawer storage in your remodeled kitchen
Drawer storage is an option to replace upper cabinets

Undecided on Open Kitchen Shelves or Upper Kitchen Cabinets?

If you are undecided, let’s take a look at the pros and cons to having upper kitchen cabinets and not having them. And where exactly do open kitchen shelves fit in?

Benefits of Including Upper Kitchen Cabinets in a Remodeled Kitchen

1. Lots of Storage

Probably the biggest benefit to including upper kitchen cabinets in your new design is the storage space they provide. In addition to holding the plates and glasses you use every day, you can store the special occasion dishes you only use at parties or on holidays in your cabinets too, without having to worry about them collecting dust.

Upper kitchen cabinets with glass doors lets you display some of your attractive or decorative dishware that doesn’t get used often, without giving up the storage completely.

Wall cabinets with glass fronts display dishware

2. Having Upper Kitchen Cabinets Creates a Put-Together Look

Another benefit to having upper kitchen cabinets is that they give the kitchen a cohesive look. If you don’t like the look of a full run of wall cabinets with solid doors, many options exist to break it up, including:

This space has an upper kitchen cabinet with doors removed
  • kitchen cabinets with clear glass doors instead of wood doors
  • a cabinet or two without doors
  • staggered cabinet heights
  • upper kitchen cabinets that extend down to the counter
  • wall cabinets that extend all the way to the ceiling
  • cabinets with doors that are two-thirds solid and one-third glass mullion panes
  • stacked cabinets with molding detail on top
Upper kitchen cabinets with glass doors

Your Kitchen designer can help you determine the options available.

3. Wall Cabinets Work Well with any Style

Wall cabinets can be configured to work with a wide array of styles, including transitional, traditional, contemporary, Shaker, Scandinavian and farmhouse. If you want your newly remodeled kitchen to fit into a certain style, wall cabinets will contribute to the overall look and style.

4. Upper Kitchen Cabinets Hide the Clutter

Another benefit to having upper kitchen cabinets is that they conceal clutter. Think of all the water bottles, souvenir glasses from vacations, coffee cups, etc. you have that really can’t be organized. Where would you put them if not behind closed doors?

Benefits of Not Including Upper Kitchen Cabinets in a Remodeled Kitchen

1. More Space

The main argument against having upper cabinets is that they take up space, which can make a kitchen feel smaller and more cramped. Thus, the size of your kitchen becomes an important consideration in your decision-making process.

A small kitchen with no wall cabinets can seem larger

When your kitchen has a tiny footprint, filling it with lots of cabinets is only going to make the space feel tighter. If you can get by with just lower or base cabinets, you’re making your room seem more spacious than it is.

In addition, when wall cabinets are omitted from your kitchen, you’ll have more space for displaying tile, lighting, artwork or a great view out the windows.

2. Feeling of Openness

Open floor plans are popular because people want that feeling of openness. In other words, where one space flows into another. Having no wall cabinets in the kitchen contributes to this feeling.

No wall cabinets in this beautiful contemporary kitchen

3. Put the Focus on Something Else

When you have no upper kitchen cabinets, another feature in the kitchen can be the focus, like a fabulous range hood or colorful backsplash. If your walls are mostly blank, people’s eyes are going to be drawn to other things in your new kitchen.

4. No Inaccessible Storage

For those homeowners who are “height challenged”, storing things on the top shelves in wall cabinets makes those items inaccessible. That is, unless you drag out a step stool or ladder. Why pay for and install cabinets that you can’t use?

Open shelves make room seem larger

5. Less Expensive

Cabinets are expensive. It’s true that cabinetry — especially custom and sometimes even semi-custom — is the most expensive item in a kitchen. The only exception might be some professional-grade, high-end appliances. However, it’s going to be the cabinets in 99.9% of kitchen remodels.

If you want to save some money in your renovation, not including upper kitchen cabinets can help you save.

Is that reason enough to give away your larger kitchen items that don’t get used often? That’s a question only you can answer.

What’s the Downside of No Upper Kitchen Cabinets?

1. It’s a Trend

Fans of the look don’t think having open shelves in the kitchen is a passing trend. They see it as timeless and will be around for many years to come.

However, not having wall cabinets can be seen as a trend, and trends come and go. You may change your mind in a year or two.

Wall cabinets and open shelves together in remodeled kitchen

2. Love Them or Hate Them

Some people love the look of no wall cabinets, and some don’t.  Why does this matter?

There’s a chance that not having upper kitchen cabinets could become a negative factor when it comes to the resale value of your home, if you choose to sell in the future. Homeowners who plan to move within the next few years may want to play it safe and include wall cabinets.

However, if you are planning your “forever kitchen” and aren’t planning to move or sell your home anytime soon, don’t hesitate to do what you want. After all, it’s your kitchen. Wall cabinets? Open shelves? Bank of windows? Go for what makes you happy.  

Sherwin-Williams color of the year Naval in kitchen with open shelves

Open Kitchen Shelves Look Great When They’re Neat

Open shelves in remodeled kitchen need to be kept neat

Yes, the open shelves look great when everything is clean and neat and arranged perfectly. The question is: do you use the dishes on those shelves? Or leave them out as display pieces only? And if they are display only, where are your “real” dishes? 

Placing frequently used items like plates, glasses and basic cookware on shelves keeps them in easy reach and creates a display that tells a personal story. But if you have a family and cook in your kitchen a couple times a day, you are not going to want to have to keep your open shelves looking photo-worthy all the time.

How to Style Open Shelves

Before you start arranging things on your open shelves, start with a clean slate. What that means is place all items on a countertop and evaluate what should go where. Then you can group and place items you use every day on lower shelves where they are easiest to reach and use higher shelves to display items you don’t need to access as often.

Don’t be afraid to include something unexpected. How about an oil painting or a piece of sculpture picked up on your travels to Italy. Cookbooks are a favorite item to display on open shelves.

Styled Open Kitchen Shelves
Include unexpected items on your open kitchen shelves

Open Kitchen Shelves Can Look “Busy

The look of open kitchen shelves can be very busy, especially for those who place lots of things on their shelves or who don’t know how to style them. Not everything you need to store is pretty. Unattractive products may have nowhere else to go, and you don’t want your newly remodeled kitchen to feel like a grocery store. Remember Jerry Seinfeld’s kitchen with his cereal boxes on display?

Mix-and-Match

As you plan for your kitchen remodel, there are no rules that say you must choose between “all upper kitchen cabinets” or “no wall cabinets”. In today’s design world, pretty much anything goes. Feel free to mix and match cabinets and shelves and open space. 

A kitchen that combines wall cabinets and one or two open shelves will balance storage, decoration and a feeling of spaciousness.

Mix wall cabinets and open shelves to create a look you’ll love

Shelf Material Adds Visual Interest

The material that the shelves are made of can add interest to the space and the items they hold. While wood is a the most popular option, shelves can be made of metal, glass, marble or a number of other materials that can add visual and textural interest to your kitchen.

If you’re not doing floating shelves that have no visible means of support, shelf supports can also be decorative.  

What Do Celebrities Think of Open Shelves?

If you’re interested in finding out what celebrities think of open shelves, Architectural Digest has a series of videos on YouTube called their Open Door series. In this series, a celebrity gives a tour of their home, and they talk about what they like and point out features that a special to them. To watch one or more of these videos, go to YouTube and search for Architectural Digest Open Door. There are quite a few to choose from, including Kacey Musgraves and Gwyneth Paltrow, who are fans of the look. And Travis Barker, who is not.  

Final Thought

It’s funny when you think about the cyclical nature of kitchen design. Our foremothers had nothing but open shelves in their kitchens. The introduction of wall cabinets in a kitchen broke with that tradition, and enclosed cabinets were considered a luxury reserved for the wealthy.

And now – what goes around comes around – we’re back to no upper cabinets and lots of open shelves.

Conclusion

Having upper kitchen cabinets or not having them is nothing more than a personal choice. How you decide depends on how big your space is, how big your budget is and how you want your newly remodeled kitchen to look and feel.

There are no hard and fast rules anymore when it comes to kitchen design, so make yourself and your family happy, and let your new kitchen be a reflection of your personal style and taste.


KDP exists to offer insight and advice about all things related to kitchen remodeling. Our goal is to connect homeowners with talented, experienced kitchen designers who live and work in their communities. We are a serious resource for anyone preparing to remodel their kitchen so they can make the best possible choices about designers, contractors and products.