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The Surprising History of a “New” Trend that isn’t New at All

published Nov 8, 2017
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This image from the Library of Congress shows a 1940s kitchen with open shelving. (Image credit: Library of Congress)

Few kitchen trends are so polarizing — and simultaneously so ubiquitous — as the recent move from closed cabinets to open shelving. But while we may think of open shelving as a new trend, it’s actually been around for a long, long time — and even predates the appearance of cabinets as we know them now. Let’s take a look at the surprisingly long history of open shelving.

The design has its advantages, beyond being trendy: it can make a space feel much more roomy and open, and it’s a great way to display dishes and add a little interest to your kitchen, provided you hide your unsightly kitchenwares elsewhere. Those opposed mostly make the argument that it looks cluttered, or that it results in dusty, grimy dishes.

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The kitchen at the Maymont Mansion, spotted on Old House Online, represents the period between 1910 and 1925. It has both a gas and a coal-burning stove, and also, a little bit of open shelving. (Image credit: Old House Online)

The standard kitchen that we think of, with its built-in, continuous runs of upper and lower cabinets, didn’t appear until the 1920s (and didn’t become common in the average American home until much later). Before then, people built their kitchens piece by piece, adding worktables and cabinets as required. A lot of those early kitchens had closed upper cabinets, but a lot of them also had open shelves.

This photo, from the 1916 yearbook of the Illinois Farmer’s Institute Department of Household Science, shows what Frederick considered to be an ideal dish-washing setup: a sink, flanked by a stacking surface (right) and drainboard (left) and placed conveniently close to some open shelving. (Image credit: Google Books)

Christine Frederick wrote two highly influential books about kitchen design and efficiency, one in 1913 and the other in 1919. She advocated for open shelving, not for its looks but for its ease of use, since you could access items without opening and closing doors. And she anticipated a criticism of open shelving that’s still current today, namely, that objects kept on open shelves are dirty. In the yearbook of the Illinois Farmer’s Institute Department of Household Science, she says:

Think of the energy it takes to open doors every time you want a pot or dish. She [the average housewife] says they are not clean because there is no door. But let me tell you, I have gone into one pot closet after another in one home after another, just like a detective, and I have found conditions in those closed closets a great deal worse than they are on my open shelves. Why? Because I can see the dirt that is on the open shelves, but if it is all closed in I don’t see it! Also it is much easier for me to handle dishes that are out on the open shelves than if they are closed in by doors.

The Bauhaus prototype kitchen at the Haus am Horn, spotted on Arch Daily. You’ll notice there is no open shelving in sight. (Image credit: Arch Daily)

A decade later, in 1923, Benita Otte created her highly influential kitchen prototype for the the Bauhaus’ Haus am Horn. The designers there were interested in efficiency, but also in minimalism. The idea of a cluttered run of open shelving, even stocked with the most beautiful, minimal cookware in the most serene white, was not very Bauhaus. So the pattern was set for the modern kitchen, and that pattern, for the most part, did not include open shelving.

(Image credit: Mid Century Home Style)

A few examples did sneak in, though. This 1946 kitchen (from Mid Century Home Style, via their flickr), conspicuously has no upper cabinets. The shelves that it does have appear to be very shallow, almost like plate rails — but they are still quite useful for storing (and displaying) dishes, and hanging mugs.

Jumping ahead to the ’70s, we find this kitchen, from Making Nice in the Midwest, whose exposed runs of shelving are very similar to ones we see now. In fact, almost everything about this kitchen — the open shelving, the stainless appliances, the mix of wood and steel countertops — would be perfectly at home in a modern space.

Here’s another example of open shelving in a ’70s kitchen, also from Making Nice in the Midwest. The patterned tile that covers the backsplash is another element of this kitchen that’s making a resurgence (although here it also covers the countertop, which is still verboten these days).

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

This ’80s example of open shelving is from The New York Times Book of Home Design and Decoration. Here it takes on a certain industrial glam, with stainless shelves paired with a very dramatic mirrored backsplash. (I happen to like the way it looks in this shot, but someone commenting on another article where I used this picture pointed out that open shelving + mirrored backsplash = twice the visual clutter.)

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

In modern times, open shelving has really taken the kitchen by storm. In some instances it’s combined with runs of closed cabinets, but there are also plenty of kitchens that have only open shelving (like the one in this Louisiana home).

Now we know that, no matter your opinion on them, open shelving has been around for a long time — which means that, although its popularity may wax and wane, it’s probably here to stay.