Are open shelves in a kitchen a good idea?

Open shelving in a kitchen can be a very liberating kitchen experience. I know this sounds like a very big statement, but it’s true.
There is something very freeing and casual about being able to just spot, reach and get what you need without the extra motions of opening and closing cabinet doors.

Are open shelves in a kitchen practical? Absolutely and a big yes, best when they are installed in addition to and not instead of closed upper cabinets thus eliminating clutter-looking kitchen with extra dust to clean. That being said, open shelves in the kitchen are not only a beautiful addition and an opportunity to add some style to your space but they are also a very practical, time-saving way of storage. Open shelves can also be placed where cabinets can not be installed and they can help resolve a visual imbalance or a-symmetry – a challenge that often presents itself in kitchen design, and create a visual balance in your kitchen.

All and all open shelves add efficiency to your cooking experience, smart and beautiful, two for one. Of course, you also need to know what is suitable to store on an open shelf and what is not. I will touch on that later. For now, there are some do’s and don’t when it comes to open shelves that I would like to share with you all, so let’s explore.

Open shelves save time

Take a cue from professional kitchens.
Next time you get a chance to go to an open kitchen restaurant look around to see how items are displayed.
Professional kitchens are all about efficiency and that includes open shelving. Pretty much anything that can be is out on a shelf ready to be grabbed as quickly as possible is placed on an open shelf.
If it works for top kitchens then why not yours. I don’t mean that you should now tear off all your cabinet doors and display all of your kitchen contents- that will most likely be a mess, but what I am suggesting is one or a few shelves with a purpose that would make your “service” go faster.

They add a design detail

An open shelf can also serve as an architectural detail even if they are empty. For example, let’s say you decided to have your backsplash part-way up the wall and it is a slab (like marble or granite) and you want a way to cap or finish the top edge. To do that you can create a shelf from the same material. This shelf may not be at your reach and therefore not be at use but it will add to the look of the kitchen (get a duster on a long stick because that shelf is going to be a dust collector- sorry, can’t help myself).

Open shelves can be installed in a place where cabinets can not be installed

One scenario is in front of a window. You might want to install a shelf there because you need the storage. A floating open shelf in front of the window can be beautiful and help you solve your storage without losing your window.

Another scenario where a full depth cabinet can not be installed is when the cabinet wall return is not deep enough. Maybe there are only 10” between the corner and a window or a doorway. Open shelving can help you balance and utilize that space.

They can be used to create a visual balance

Sometimes there is an empty space that creates a visual imbalance or a-symmetry that doesn’t look good. Adding open shelving can be a great solution.

Take my kitchen for example:
When I first walked my husband through my vision of our new kitchen and told him where a couple of open shelves will be, proceeding to explain that the reason I first thought of them is to balance the extra open space on either side of the window that we will have, he was mortified. His initial reaction was to say “Are you kidding me? Keeping items there is going to make the kitchen look messy.” To which I immediately replied “umm, have we met ?”(There is not a chance of that happening). Two things you need to know :
1. We now have two open shelves in our kitchen
2. My husband never, ever, ever, admits he is wrong. Never. Fast forward a few months later to a mind-blowing moment one evening when I was sitting on the sofa minding my own business. My husband was with his back to me getting a bowl from an open shelf when I heard a mumble “These shelves are genius!”. Well, needless to say, I almost fell off the sofa from the aftershock of those words. When I came to myself I asked “what did you just say?” He replied in his own “unique” style of going around the subject “I am allowed to change my mind once every 20 years.” I guess that is as close as I will get to an “I was wrong”.

Now that you realize open shelves can be a great idea for your kitchen, it’s important you do it the right way.

Where to place open shelves?

You can place open shelves pretty much anywhere in the kitchen. Near the sink for glasses, or near your range (cooking zone) for pans, or near your table for anything that you want to keep there, maybe artwork. As I said, you can pretty much have an open shelf anywhere in the kitchen. Just decide what purpose they need to serve, practical or visual.

If your shelf is going to be above your sink or your range, make sure it isn’t too deep or low so that you bang into it when leaning in.

What height should the open shelving be?

This is an important decision. If you chose a shelf for a practical purpose then measure your reach. The last thing you want is to not be able to easily get to whatever is on the shelf when you need it. So take out your tape measure, stand next to your counter, reach up and measure your reach. Mark that spot and step back to see how it looks (draw a line on the wall or use painter tape to “create” a shelf for a better visual). See if you need to move the shelf up or down for a more proportional look (but only if you can reach it). If you are going to have more than one shelf then make sure that you can reach them all.

How deep should the open shelves be?

In general, these shelves are not very deep as they typically hold small items like mugs and cups so 6” can do just fine. However, if you want to keep plates, pans, or cookie jars on them, then again, grab your tape measure and measure your items. Knowing the depth and height of what you are putting on the shelf will put you ahead of the game and make organizing your kitchen easy.

What material should I use for the shelves?

There are many materials that are suitable for shelving. Pretty much any durable material is suitable.
Marble, wood, glass, and metal are all great options. You can also choose your cabinet’s material or your counter or backsplash stone. This can be an opportunity to add another material to the mix. Consider what is on the shelf and where you are placing it in order to help you with the material choice. For example- if you use items that have a rough base (some ceramic pots or mugs have them ) you may not want to use a glass shelf because it will scratch. In this case, an opaque material such as natural stone will be more forgiving and suitable. Using the same material for your shelves as your counter and backsplash is pretty much foolproof (as long as your choice of material was not ugly) and is an easy way to layer the kitchen without making it look too busy.

Lighting open shelves?

Lighting in general is an important feature in kitchen design.
There are two main ways to light your shelves. Under lighting and lighting from above.
1. Under Lighting:
Adding a lighting strip under the shelves is an added cost but it serves both a practical purpose as well as an aesthetic. The under light illuminates the work area as well as highlighting this design feature. Two for one.
2. Above lighting:
You can also choose to highlight a shelf by either adding a series of wall sconces above it and direct the light onto it or by adding a track light with heads directed at the shelf. This is not necessarily an inexpensive feature but it is beautiful and adds great architectural detail to your kitchen.

Now for the big question: what should you keep on open shelves? well, it’s important to understand that not everything is a good fit as to what to store on it. Here is my take on it…

What should you keep on open shelves?

If you got to know me a little bit by now you would know that I believe good design has to be both aesthetic and practical. I know that many people like to have open shelves just to display decorative items and there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes you just need a focal point or something decorative such as a picture or a sculpture to complete the look and feel of the kitchen. But if you can combine both function and aesthetic then why not?
You can achieve that by displaying kitchenware that you actually use that is also beautiful. So pretty much anything that can stand up or be stacked can go on the shelves such as glasses, mugs, bowls, and plates.

Practical me:
What you do need to know about open shelving is that whatever you keep on them will get dusty and often. That’s why I suggest that whatever you choose to keep out in the open is something you use on a daily basis. I do have open shelving in our kitchen where we keep our water glasses and bowls (that we use for pretty much everything). All the dishware on these shelves gets used daily which means that I don’t need to worry about dust collecting on them.

Tips for keeping your open shelves looking great
Color block-

this is probably the easiest way to create a harmonious look. It is especially helpful if you are storing a variety of items on your shelves. Grouping the items in the same color lets you achieve a visually pleasing display
Put the same item in multiples on the shelf- drinking glasses for example. Keeping the same item will give you a clean look. You can choose to mix the colors of the dish or glass that you are using, but if you do so I suggest that you color block them.


Open shelves in a kitchen are a great feature. They are a practical way to add storage and beauty to your kitchen. They make access to items easy. Adding open shelves to your kitchen can be an opportunity to create balance and purpose in an otherwise unused space. Planning ahead by deciding what they will be used for, knowing the size of the items, and measuring your reach will get you well on your way to best utilize your open shelves.


My name is Adi and I have been an interior designer for 17 years and loving it. Over the years I have designed many kitchens. Finding smart and easy to take care of materials, sourcing appliances, lighting, flooring and customizing the kitchen gives me joy. DOKITCH.COM is my way of passing my knowledge on. Feel free to explore..

Recent Posts