In recent years, homeowners have been opting for fewer upper cabinets to give their kitchens a more open, airy feeling. Some people want completely empty walls (maybe with a window) where traditional upper cabinets would have gone. But many homeowners are requesting open shelves, sometimes called floating shelves, in place of some, or all, of their upper cabinets.
People are typically either adamantly for, or adamantly against open shelving in the kitchen. You’d be surprised how much emotion is stirred up by the subject of open shelves. Some people claim they are one of the most beautiful and most functional features you can put in a kitchen, and others say that open shelves are not only unsightly, but unsanitary.
Personally, I love the look of open shelves because they can make a kitchen feel larger and they can break up the monotony of upper cabinets. But I also have some reservations about using floating shelves in my kitchen because many people speak so strongly against them. So let’s get a bit more insight about when open shelves are a practical solution for a kitchen, and when they should be avoided.
Here’s what you should consider before adding open shelves to your kitchen:
1. Open shelves allow you to keep regularly used items within easy reach. This is especially helpful for homes that have several people in the kitchen at one time so you won’t get in the way of each other when opening cabinet doors and drawers.
2. If you have an extra special backsplash that you want to showcase, open shelves allow you to see more of that beautiful backsplash as compared to full cabinets.
3. Open shelves are usually more economical than full cabinets, but not always. If you use fairly standard materials for your shelves, open shelving can save you quite a bit of money. But if you’ve fallen in love with special, custom-designed shelves, made of exotic wood or stone, with a special edge detail or shelves wrapped in leather, for example, your shelves may even cost more than standard full cabinets.
4. If you have a cat that likes to climb, or a dog whose fur sheds and floats around the house, the dishes on your open shelves may serve as a resting place for your pets' fur. That wouldn’t be good.
5. To keep your open shelves looking “pretty,” you can keep unmatched cups, bowls and other dishes hidden behind cabinet doors elsewhere in the kitchen. You can save your open shelves for attractive, coordinating glasses, plates and bowls. For those of you who want your shelves to look collected and eclectic, rather than neat and matchy-matchy, you won’t have to hide anything behind cabinet doors. For you, having a kitchen with open shelves exclusively, and no traditional cabinets, will give you the lived-in look and functionality that you might be looking for.
6. Because dishes on open shelves can collect dust, grease and grime, it probably best to locate open shelves away from your stove. This is especially important if you do a lot of frying. You might also consider investing in an exhaust fan/hood in your kitchen that is larger and more powerful than code requires. That way, much of the grease and grime that would otherwise settle on dishes will instead be sucked up and out of your house.
On the same note, if you’re building a tight house (and you should), you’ll need mechanical ventilation. A good ventilation system will significantly decrease that amount of dust that you’ll have in your house, so dust settling on your dishes will be much less of a problem.
7. Over longer amounts of time, even with proper ventilation, some dust and grime can settle on dishes that aren’t used regularly. If dishes sit on open shelves for long periods on open shelves, they will likely require rinsing or washing before you use them. It's best to keep items that are used often on open shelves so dust never gets a chance to settle on dishes. Add things like cereal bowls, coffee mugs and everyday dinner plates and glasses to open shelves.
Alternatively, you can do the opposite. Put things that you only use only a couple of times per year on open shelves. Things like cake plates and large platters-- things that you seldom use so washing or rinsing those items won't need to happen often.
8. If you haven’t decided for sure, but are even considering open shelves in some part of your kitchen (or anywhere in your home), make sure you inform your builder or framing carpenter. You’ll need extra framing material (blocking) in those areas where open shelves might go.
9. If you are a bit OCD and can’t stand the look of a bowl or glass occasionally being out of place, and you are not the only one living in your house, you might not want open shelves. Family members and guests will probably not “style” your open shelves exactly the way you want them, so if you’re not prepared to make a few adjustments every day or two, open shelves might bring you more pain than pleasure.
10. If you live in an earthquake prone area, earthquakes don’t care whether you have dishes on open shelves or in closed cabinets. If the earthquake is strong enough, no matter where you put your dishes, they’re gonna to take a beating.
11. If you have a lot of family gatherings or informal dinner parties, open shelves will allow family and friends to more easily serve themselves, making your job as host easier. And when it’s time to clean up, friends can not only help you wash the dishes, but also more easily help you put dishes away if you have open shelves.
12. If you plan on selling your house within 5-7 years and resale value is a priority for you, you might want to minimize the number of open shelves you have, or forgo them all together. Open shelves are for sure on trend, but standard upper cabinets are a conventional, safe choice that most buyers are expecting.
13. If you want open shelves, but can’t stand the thought of even one speck of dust or grease getting on your dishes, you can simply use the shelves for decorative items or cookbooks.
While this debate about whether open shelves are a good idea will likely never end, what you choose is a matter of personal preference. Consider what’s best for you, and then do what you want in your home, no matter what others say.
So here’s the bottom line, open shelves can work well for you if: you have a good vent hood and HVAC system, you don’t use much grease when cooking, or you typically cover your pans when frying, the dishes you want displayed are used regularly or only once or twice per year, if you don’t have climbing or excessively shedding pets, you can place open shelves away from the stove, you won’t mind taking a few minutes per week to wipe down or straighten shelves, you like people to help themselves in your kitchen, and if you are willing to sacrifice some of your time and effort in exchange for a more open airy kitchen.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete and it’s subject to change, so it may not apply to your project. In addition, building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.