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The Cabinetless Kitchen: 8 Tips to Make the Most of Open Shelving

It seems that every home design book, magazine, or blog has photos of a cabinetless kitchen lately. These spacious, beautiful kitchens often have no upper cabinets and often feature open shelving.

I personally like the look of a clean, uncluttered kitchen. Give me an open, spacious room without heavy cabinetry lurking overhead. That said, I realize a cabinetless kitchen doesn’t always seem practical. Where do you store those small appliances? What do you do with your everyday dishes that don’t look shelf-worthy? What about food?

Here, we explore the idea of the cabinetless kitchen, whether you prefer open shelving, a backsplash without upper cabinets at all, or my personal preference, marble ledges and shelves.

Photography: Jennifer Lavelle

Why People Love Going Cabinetless

Cabinets can be foreboding. In the late 90s and early aughts, many people sought out these big, dark, heavy upper cabinets. Often they made the kitchen appear cozy but also dark. Over the last several years, kitchen design has trended towards the lighter side. People love light, bright, clean designs, including kitchens without upper cabinets.

Some people prefer an eclectic, yet collected look that open shelving and a cabinetless kitchen can evoke. The look plays well with industrial styles. It can go with a traditional or modern look too. It all depends on the finish selections and how you choose to style the kitchen sans cabinets. One thing’s for sure, cabinetless kitchens look and feel bigger. Opting for no upper cabinets opens up overhead space.

Cabinetless kitchens also allow easy access to the items you use most frequently. When there are no doors to hide kitchen accessories, you can quickly see what you need—it’s right at your fingertips. Many people choose open shelving because it fits with the way they use their kitchen. Others prefer to go cabinetless because they simply like living and cooking with less.

I should add that not everyone LOVES the look of open shelving. I, myself, am not a big fan of super chunky, contrasting shelving. While sometimes it may be necessary, especially if you’re displaying larger, heavier items, I think that ledges and smaller shelves can be quite charming too.

There are also those who really prefer closed cabinets in the kitchen. If you want to find a balance, you may consider a few glass-front cabinets with lighting. These cabinets feel more like open shelving but can help you avoid some of the hazards and drawbacks of open shelving in the kitchen.

But if you’re ready to move toward a cabinetless kitchen, here are some pointers to help your kitchen design stay cohesive, clean, and open.

1. Declutter and Pare Down

If you love cooking with all the pots, pans, and tools you can get your hands on (not me), then an open-shelving kitchen design might not be for you. When you have a cabinetless kitchen, there usually aren’t as many places to hide those oddly shaped, unsightly items, and everything is out in the open.

If you’re transitioning to a kitchen without upper cabinets or one with open shelving, I suggest going through your dishes, kitchen accessories, pots, and pans, and purging anything that’s not used regularly, loved, or past its prime. Most kitchens have lower cabinets or a pantry where you can stash those not-so-aesthetically pleasing items that you only use occasionally.

2. Choose Minimal Appliances

Appliances can be a necessary part of cooking, but they can also be bulky, take up room, and stand out in a cabinetless kitchen. When choosing appliances, look for items that multitask, like a convection oven that also acts as an air fryer and a microwave. Choose pieces that can be built into your lower cabinetry and hidden. Appliance countertop “garages” are also a trendy solution for concealing these unsightly gadgets.

As for the appliances that you use all the time, look for minimalist designs that complement the kitchen's look. Try to limit or eliminate countertop appliances whenever possible. It's essential to maximize space in a small kitchen. Without upper cabinets and with a nice, open countertop, your kitchen will feel much more spacious.

3. Look for Pieces that Match or Complement

As for dishes and display pieces on your open shelves—it's usually best to stay within the same color family. For example, all-white porcelain or vintage glassware of the same hue will automatically feel cohesive, even if they aren't from the same collection or style. Similarly, if you have matching dishes, plates, or glassware that you use frequently, arrange them in an eye-pleasing manner as part of the display.

You aren't relegated to dishes that are all the same color, though. Depending on the rest of your kitchen décor, you could find patterned pieces that fit with your scheme, or you could elect to mix dishes in two or three colors together. Again, the key concept is to select pieces that appear deliberate and curated.

4. Store Food in the Pantry or Repackage

What do you do about food storage in a kitchen with minimal cabinetry? Most food packaging is bright, loud, and haphazard. It’s designed to catch the eye of consumers on store shelves, not to look great in a kitchen. Ideally, store food in drawers or lower cabinets, or tuck it in your pantry.

If you must include packaged food in your cabinetless kitchen, you may want to repackage it in more aesthetically pleasing containers. For example, white canisters, large storage jars, or woven baskets can look appropriate depending on the room's overall design scheme. Choose containers that complement your kitchen and take up minimal space.

A Rendering of the Modern European's Kitchen by Duke Renders

5. Dust Often

If you frequently cook in your kitchen, you'll likely notice a greasy, dusty film buildup that accumulates on items near the stove. It's almost impossible to avoid some residue with steam and oil naturally being part of the kitchen. With open shelving, especially, you may find that this residue tends to build up on the items on the shelves.

Unfortunately, this means that you’ll need to dust more often. It can be one of the biggest drawbacks of open shelving and a cabinetless kitchen. It's another reason why it can be helpful to keep clutter to a minimum. If you're working with a designer on your kitchen, consider keeping the open shelving as far from the stove as possible.

6. Remember that Less is More

When it comes to styling open shelving or a cabinetless kitchen, remember that less is more. Of course, there may be cases when storage is at a premium in your kitchen, and you need to keep some items on your shelving or countertop, but open shelving really is a situation that works best with a minimalist approach.

Design: Marie Flanigan Interiors | Photography: Julie Soefer

Consider items that do double duty. Do you need ramekins, pasta bowls, cereal bowls, dinner plates, and salad plates? Could you pare down to fewer items, at least for aesthetic purposes? Store those lesser-used items in the pantry or lower cupboards so you can have more room up top.

7. Display Visually Interesting Pieces

One way to make a cabinetless kitchen especially beautiful is to carefully curate striking, artful pieces to arrange in your kitchen design. A table lamp can be interesting on a countertop. An Alessi citrus juicer or a beautiful fruit bowl can be eye-catching and unique. Antique wooden dough bowls, teak serving bowls, a classic or designer teapot, or a beautiful vase can be a nice touch. Found objects (antique mortar and pestles being my personal favorite), brass salt and pepper mills, and artwork are beautiful additions to open shelving. You can also never go wrong with the vintage charm of this ever-popular appliance brand, and Metal pot racks can provide an aesthetically pleasing storage solution in a kitchen sans upper cabinetry.

Seek out pieces that fit your style and kitchen design but look for unique items that you genuinely love and feel excited about. Consider making the kitchen itself part of the design, too—an artfully tiled or stone backsplash without upper cabinets or beautiful raw wood shelving can create a stunning kitchen look.

Design: Amber Interiors | Photography: Shade Degges

8. Keep the Kitchen Safe

Another consideration when deciding on a cabinetless kitchen is the safety of your household. For example, if you have kids or pets, making an open shelving situation work in the kitchen can be challenging. It's not impossible, of course, but consider which items are accessible and what could get pulled down or knocked over with a reach.

Similarly, consider the weight of items you frequently use from your upper shelving. Even beautiful-but-heavy cast iron or stainless-steel pots can be hard to access. If you're planning on using certain items often, plan accordingly, and consider storing them in a lower cabinet or drawer rather than on shelves where they're a challenge to reach.

A cabinetless kitchen can be really beautiful. It’s a great way to showcase other design features of your kitchen like gorgeous tile, marble countertops, stone, or exposed brick. If there’s something unique in your kitchen (like a giant window), cabinets aren't always practical and detract from the overall aesthetic.

The most important part of kitchen design is creating a space that you love and find both functional and attractive. With the right approach, a kitchen sans upper cabinetry may be just the look you’re going for.

How do you feel about open shelving in the kitchen? I’d love to know!

X Lauren

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