Here’s the Truth About Open Shelving (From People Who Have Them)

published Apr 25, 2018
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(Image credit: Federico Paul)

Ahhh, open shelving. There are some very strong opinions about this kitchen trend. I’m 99% ready to take the leap myself, ditching the looming floor-to-ceiling boxy pantries a previous owner added to our Victorian home. They close in the already small-ish space, make getting around the kitchen island an annoying shuffle anytime my husband and I are both in there (every meal time, ever), and in general take up way more footprint than is necessary.

But it’s a big commitment to move to an everything-on-display kitchen. Sure, they look beautiful on Pinterest, but what’s it really like to live with open shelves? I’ve dipped my toe in the water with open shelving in our home’s butler’s pantry but before I call in the demo crew for the kitchen, I wanted to hear from people who can speak truth to shelving. Fortunately I found several people who have (or used to have) open shelving, and are ready to tell all.

Meet our intrepid open-shelf panel:

Carina Michelli is a blogger in Buenos Aires

Charlie Westaway owns a vintage memorabilia company and lives in Essex, UK.

Danielle Hawkins of DaniJo Hawkins Pottery, lives in Michigan.

Nick Waldman is an architectural designer living and working on Martha’s Vineyard.

Reena Simon, who runs the instagram hygge_for_home, lives in the UK.

And here’s the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when it comes to open shelving.

(Image credit: Emily Billings)

Why do it?

Maybe it just fits with your lifestyle. “Open shelving helps reinforce the way that my wife and I like to live,” says Nick, whose sunny kitchen is above. “Simple and clean.” He continues, “I also like designing with economy in mind and am not a huge fan of extravagance. Since I was building the kitchen too I tried to keep everything as simple as possible. The boxes for the shelving were made from baltic birch plywood, which is made entirely out of hardwood (unlike most plywoods where just the top and bottom layers are) so you don’t need to finish the edges.”

Or you want to open up the space. “Our kitchen is painfully small and the overhead cupboards we had in the kitchen before made the space feel oppressive and gloomy,” says Charlie. “The shelves have helped make the kitchen…more functional and welcoming. It has completely transformed the space into a kitchen we enjoy cooking in.”

Perhaps you just want something a little different. “We were trying to create a unique space and for it not to look like a standard kitchen picked straight out of a catalogue or off the high street,” says Reena, whose kitchen renovation is up on her blog.

It lets you admire things you love. “I like to collect crockery and that way I can see it every day,” says Carina (her Instagram-famous Buenos Aires home is here).

And it’s practical. “I can see and find everything easily,” says Melissa. “I especially love the open shelf I have to the left of my stove where the dinner plates are located in arm’s reach to where I serve food, almost like in a restaurant.”

Or maybe you wanted to be like Monica Geller. After Danielle’s old cabinets literally fell off the walls in 2002, “Friends was still on TV and Monica had the BEST open cabinets!!” she says. “So with a $0 budget (literally) my ex-husband and I decided we would put some shelves on the walls. The wood came from the boxes that were being shipped to his factory and a couple friends came over to help.”

(Image credit: Federico Paul)

Ok, let’s get straight the downsides.

You can’t just close the cabinet door and forget it. “You have to keep the shelves tidy and not too cluttered as they are always on show,” says Reena.

“Just like putting a large vase or bowl on a table it will inevitably become a ‘catch all,” Danielle says. “These shelves were the same way.”

And you still need some storage that’s not on display, according to almost everyone we heard from. “Bigger items are best kept away so the kitchen doesn’t look too busy,” says Nick. “There will always be a few items that are needed in the kitchen but don’t quite fit in with the display on your open shelving,” adds Melissa.

(Image credit: Hygge For Home)

The dust! What about the dust!?

NBD, according to these folks. Carina mentioned in passing that “we need more cleaning work but it’s worth the effort.” As for Melissa, “Once every few months I might run a dishwasher load with some of the crockery from the shelves that I haven’t used for a while to get rid of the dust, and once a month I dust the shelves.”

(Image credit: Emily Billings)

What do they love?

Call it curating, call it editing, call it whatever you like, open shelves force you to keep a handle on your stuff, our panel reported. It also lets you show off whatever you may collect, whether that’s pottery, memorabilia, or vintage treasures. “I love being able to style my shelves and move things around and add plants or herbs mixed in with plates and pretty glassware,” says Reena. “It has forced us not to hoard things or have wall cupboards full of rubbish and out of date food.”

And they let you be a little different. “I also love the way that no shelf is the same because everyone displays items unique to them,” Reena goes on, “whereas a hundred people could have exactly the same kitchen as you with the same wall cupboards.”

The true test. Would they do it again?

From definitely to absolutely, the answer was a resounding and unanimous yes.

Does that mean it’s for everybody?

Definitely not. “You have to have the right mindset to make it work,” says Nick. “You have to want to keep things neat looking, but also in an un-fussed way. Meaning, don’t display an object or have props just for display’s sake. Make sure that what’s on the shelves are what are actually used or else it will look contrived and staged—which is the worst!”

(Image credit: Emily Billings)

Who is it good for?

“Open shelves are great for awkward-shaped or small kitchens especially because you can have any size you like. I also like corner shelving which adds interest to a space that would otherwise go unnoticed,” Reena says.

Just know thyself. “Open shelves definitely mean you love organization and that you love to share memories,” says Danielle.

So yeah, they’re not for everyone. But the more I hear about open shelves from people who live with them, the more I like the idea. How about you? Anybody change their mind one way or the other?