What It’s REALLY Like Living With Open Kitchen Shelving

published Sep 5, 2017
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(Image credit: Julia Steele)

The debate between open shelving and closed cabinets in the kitchen divides many people. Some find the look charming, but hate the practicality of it. Others think it looks messy, but wonder if they’d use their stuff more if they could see. And many other opinions in between abound. So I asked some folks who live with open shelving in their kitchen every day to share the real truth.

The open shelving insiders

(Image credit: Jessica Isaac)

Kristina Browngardt is the co-founder of Wilder Design Co.; we toured her design partner’s home last year. She didn’t install the shelves in her kitchen herself, but she believes the kitchen is from IKEA.

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Betsy and Manny Dominguez’s kitchen has DIY open shelving, which was part of a budget compromise. “We had planned to install a fancy hood vent above our stove, but our reno ran over-budget. We may replace the open shelves down the road, but installing them actually saved us over a thousand dollars for the time being.”

(Image credit: Julia Steele)

Kaitie Moyer and her husband put their open kitchen shelving up themselves, using gas pipes from Home Depot. She reports they very affordable and easy to install.

(Image credit: Federico Paul)

Carina Michelli’s kitchen is famous on Instagram, and it’s easy tosee why. The open shelving in her home were custom made by a carpenter to her specifications; she’s always wanted open shelving. The shelves are white melamine.

(Image credit: Federico Paul)

Are open shelves are more functional? Do you use your things more?

Kristina Browngardt: I think they are really functional; we use them for everyday dishes, cups and pantry staples, which we keep in clear jars. I like being able to see my collection of mugs and it’s nice to have everything so easy to access. Also my husband has a problem with shutting cabinet doors so going without is actually ideal.

Betsy Dominguez: We received nice “everyday plates” for our wedding (Teema by Iittala of Finland); we use them daily and enjoy having them on display — though whether the open shelves are really more “functional” than closed is unclear.

Kaitie Moyer: I like to redecorate and restyle things often so this gives me a good opportunity to keep things feeling fresh in our home. We didn’t do it for functionality, but more for opening up our tiny kitchen, and it did help a lot.

Carina Michelli: For me they are super functional as I get to look at what I use every day and see the pretty things that I like to collect, such as teapots.

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Is pet hair, food grease, dust or earthquakes an issue with open shelving? If so, how much and how do you deal?

Kristina Browngardt: Pet hair? We don’t have pets. Food grease? Not really an issue since we go through cups and dishes pretty quickly and keep on top of washing them. The display items higher up (French press and vases etc) do get a little sticky though. I just make a point of dusting up there often. Dust? Yes, but only on the items up top that were for display. Earthquakes? This is something we haven’t experienced but is definitely a reality of living in California.

Betsy Dominguez: I wouldn’t recommend open shelves if you have a cat. We have a dog, though, and haven’t had any problems. We also live in a place with a mild climate and so the windows are open a lot, which might make open shelving more practical for us as they don’t seem to get dirty.

Kaitie Moyer: Pet hair? Yes Food grease? Yes Dust? Yes Earthquakes? No quakes in Tennessee thankfully. If I pull something down from a shelf and it’s dusty/greasy/whatever I just give it a wipe down or a quick rinse depending how sticky it is. Having items on your shelf that you love and use all the time prevents things from sitting and collecting dust and grease, though.

Carina Michelli: I do not have pets. And I clean the shelves and objects once a week or every 10 days or so, so grease isn’t a problem. In terms of dust, when I’m cleaning I do have a lot to dust, and clearly objects being in the open have more dust than in closed cabinets.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy Studio)

Do your shelves really stay tidy/uncluttered/attractive all the time?

Kristina Browngardt: Yes because we don’t have much room for dishes, etc. so open shelving made us pare down to just the essentials. Plus when you’re a design geek like me its fun to always tidy/re-style your shelves.

Betsy Dominguez: Yes. We’re pretty set on what we keep on the shelves.

Kaitie Moyer: Yep! My closed cabinets on the other side of the kitchen are another story though.

Carina Michelli: Yesss! I like order and therefore it’s not difficult for me to keep them tidy. The secret? Keep only the things we use every day and beautiful things that make us happy, and nothing else! Not accumulating things and objects; the less we have the easier it is to keep tidy.

(Image credit: Federico Paul)

Are there any other cons to having open shelving?

Kristina Browngardt: It makes you have to consider the color/aesthetic of your dishes a bit more since they are always visible and part of the kitchen decor. We already had matching plates but got matching jars for our pantry staples (so we wouldn’t see packaging) but allowed our colorful mugs to stand out and be mis-matched.

Carina Michelli: The only drawbacks for me are that it takes longer to clean, and yes, as a golden rule, the shelves should always be orderly and neat to see. Because if they are not orderly, they’ll create a chaotic space without harmony.

(Image credit: Julia Steele)

What are your favorite pros to having open kitchen shelving?

Kristina Browngardt: I find it more functional and I liked having our dishes, etc. visible. Somehow it makes me feel more organized, and I think it makes the kitchen feel more like a workspace.

Betsy Dominguez: Hands down, installing open shelving was about affordability for us. Installing DIY open shelving cost us around $60. You can’t buy cabinets for that price. Down the road, we may remove them and upgrade to a nice vent or some closed shelves, but for now the shelves work well.

Kaitie Moyer: Being able to switch up decor and function. For example I have a lot more mugs and bowls out in winter for hot drinks and soups. More glassware and plates in the summer for cold drinks and BBQ’d meals. Open shelves also opened up our small kitchen quite a bit.

Carina Michelli: We can put on the shelves anything from cups, or pitchers to use them as storage, or decorate them with frames, cookbooks or other accessories. The possibilities are endless.

(Image credit: Federico Paul)

Do you have any open shelving advice?

Kristina Browngardt: Think about what you’d like to display and your storage needs. Realistically we all have water bottles and Tupperware that’s best kept out of sight (in my opinion) so make sure to select your shelving based on what you’d like to display. Coordinating your plates and storage containers helps keep everything looking organized and helps combat the visual clutter open shelving can sometimes create. I think using it in combination with closed shelving works best, even just for spices, pantry staples, your everyday dishes or even your cookbooks. It helps break up the mass of cabinets and creates a lighter feeling in a kitchen. I say go for it!

Betsy Dominguez: I don’t know if they’re a good solution for everyone. You have to think about how you live, how you cook, how often you’re willing to clean…

Kaitie Moyer: If you’re not handy, hire some help or do a lot of research before diving in. Luckily my husband is a carpenter so it was no problem for us, but for something that seems simple, a lot actually needs to go into it. The last thing you want is to hear a big crash from the kitchen.

Carina Michelli: For those who dare to go for open shelving, they really are very beautiful. I believe open shelves add warmth to a kitchen and are more vibrant than closed cabinets. And remember you can choose a design that includes a mix of open shelves and closed cabinets.

Ready to try open shelving? Start here:

(Image credit: Melanie Rieders)

Want more info from real folks? Check out what our Murphy bed insiders had to say → The Real Low-Down on Murphy Beds from People Who Use Them Every Night

*Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length.