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Open Shelves and Upper Cabinets: Which is Better?

Open Shelves and Upper Cabinets: Which is Better?


exposed shelves with spices and dry goods in jars

Open shelves and upper cabinets have been a major kitchen trend for quite awhile now, and for good reason. Open shelves are a great way to add extra storage to a small kitchen or for displaying your favorite things. Should you choose open shelves and upper cabinets, or just one for your kitchen? 

Here are a few things to consider.

white kitchen with open shelves
The home of Ana Ochoa uses both open shelves and upper cabinets to make the most of both function and farmhouse style. Photo by Chad Mellon.

Think About Function

Function is the first thing to consider if you’re trying to decide between open shelves and upper cabinets. If you nix the upper cabinets, decide where you will store your everyday dishes. If you like the convenience or the look of having your dishes out, open shelves are great. I like open shelves because it’s so easy to empty the dishwasher and stack everything on the shelves. 

However, if you have young kids who use plastic bowls and sippy cups, upper cabinets may be easier. Actually, there’s nothing easier than tossing all the plastic tot-ware into a drawer. Either way, if your dishes aren’t much to look at or you aren’t confident in your stacking abilities (or someone less orderly is in charge of the dishes), choose upper cabinets so you can keep everything out of sight. 

exposed shelves with vintage kitchenware
Try adding cup hooks or a glassware holder for extra storage underneath your open shelf, like I did here in my previous home. Photo by Ashel Parsons.

What Kind of Open Shelves?

After function, consider the overall look of your kitchen. There are two main styles of open shelves: floating shelves and shelves with brackets. While open shelves have been used in kitchens for centuries, chunky floating shelves have only come onto the kitchen scene in the past decade. They have also been installed like there’s no tomorrow ever since. This leaves many of us wondering if we should leave this trend behind or if it still has a few good years left in it.

kitchen with exposed shelves
These chunky open shelves have been the most popular type of kitchen shelving in recent years. This kitchen uses both open shelves and upper cabinets to make the most of the wall space. Via Sita Montgomery Interiors.

If You Lean Toward Trendy

Good news! Just because floating shelves can be trendy doesn’t mean you can’t use them. Ultimately, your kitchen is for you, so choose what you like and don’t worry about the trends. Also, if you do choose to go with a trendy look, swapping open shelves and upper cabinets is a pretty easy fix down the road.
Also, trendy is great if you’re doing an inexpensive DIY update because you can try out the trend without investing a lot in it. Also, if you’re about to sell your house, trendy often gets the most mass appeal.

kitchen with exposed shelves
Shelves with brackets offer lots of style and function options, like homeowner Alyson Dorr chose in her Montana home. Photo by Jeremiah and Rachel Photography.

For a Timeless Look

If you’re going for timeless, try both open shelves and upper cabinets with visible brackets. These are what you’d expect to see in vintage kitchens, but bracketed shelves work with any style. There are a variety of brackets available as well, so you can choose something that either blends in or makes more of a design statement.

 I tend to lean toward the bracket option because the shelves hold more physical weight. You can use them for stacks of plates or pots and pans, which adds more storage to your kitchen. They also make corners more usable than with upper cabinets.

exposed shelves in kitchen
You can personalize your open shelves by installing them over different backgrounds, like the subway tile in Jaclyn James’ California home. Photo by Chad Mellon.

How to Personalize Open Shelves

Whichever style of open shelves you choose, you can personalize them so your kitchen looks unique. Consider installing the shelves over paneling so they have an interesting background. I’ve installed them over faux brick paneling (which I painted), over beadboard, wallpaper and over tile. 

If you choose to stick with at least some upper cabinets, you can upgrade them as well to help give your kitchen a facelift. If you don’t want to replace them entirely, you can also repaint or stain them to get a new look.

You can also change the entire look of your kitchen by changing what’s on the your open shelves and upper cabinets. Try a new color scheme by putting out colorful dishes or display pieces. This is a great way to try out trendy colors or styles without the commitment.

See Also
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kitchen with glass front cabinets and bistro style pot storage
With the perfect symmetry in this kitchen, due in part to the upper cabinets, they were the right choice for the design style. Photograph by Bret Gum.

When to Choose Cabinets

If the thought of having to style your shelves keeps you up at night, choose upper cabinets. This way, they can be as messy as you want and your kitchen will still look beautiful. Upper cabinets may be a better option if removing them will leave you with weird balance or symmetry issues. Also, you can always use a combination of open shelves and upper cabinets to get the best of both worlds.

Open shelves are a great way to try out a new kitchen feature without having to spend much. If you’re removing upper cabinets, use them for storage in a different room or in the garage. This way you can go back to upper cabinets if you decide you want to. 

Ultimately, trends are about changing up the experience in your everyday life, so be adventurous and try something new! 


Holly Thompson portrait
Photo by Angela Talley

Holly Thompson is the lead interior designer at Holly Thompson Homes in Franklin, TN. She loves making houses the best version of themselves. She is married to Dave, who is a contractor, realtor, and often works as her project manager. They own a fixer upper in the country, plus three kids and three cats. Holly has a master’s degree in Interior Design and writes articles for American Farmhouse Style. In her free time, you’ll find her antiquing at estate sales, flea markets, and shops. All of this involves lots of coffee, to which Holly attributes her success in staying awake.


For more of Holly Thompson’s designer savvy and advice, don’t miss Are Granite Countertops Outdated? and How to DIY on a Budget Without Cheap Results. Of course, don’t forget to follow us on InstagramFacebook and Pinterest for your daily dose of farmhouse inspiration!

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