Should You Install Open Shelving or Upper Kitchen Cabinets?

Update: This post was so popular that we had a tremendous amount of feedback when we posted it online–which is great! We know we’ve struck upon an important subject when it stirs conversation. We learned that there is yet another MAJOR reason that upper wall cabinets beat out open shelves: your loving pets! If you’ve already read our other reasons and want to skip right to the new section, check it out by clicking here. Otherwise, read on!

Have you recently been contemplating the decision between installing a full set of upper cabinets or opting for open shelving in the kitchen? The popularity of open shelving has been on the rise recently, and you have likely seen more than one photo of beautiful kitchens with dinnerware on full display. From a comfortable distance the aesthetic of open shelving can be very attractive–but there are significant problems with this approach.

Let’s start our review with some questions to ask yourself before we proceed:

  • Are you comfortable with having to clean surfaces far more frequently?
  • Are you confident in the security of fragile items left in the open?
  • Do you want to dust your dinnerware on a weekly basis?
  • Are you confident that grease, water, or other liquids from your sink or food prep surfaces won’t reach items left out?

With these questions in mind, let’s have a look at the clear advantages of kitchen cabinets over open shelving.

Essential Storage for Unsightly Necessities

One of the basic truths of home living is that not every component of our day-to-day is aesthetically pleasing. We keep our cleaning chemicals under counter cabinets, we put a lot of our toiletries away in cubbies. It isn’t uncommon to have mismatched dinnerware such as hand-me-downs that simply doesn’t look great alongside your standard plates and bowls.

Base Cabinets with Organizers
Many items simply don’t contribute to the kitchen aesthetic while “on display”.

While many design blogs and aficionados promote keeping your non-perishables in glass jars for neat displays, we don’t live in a world where every kitchen item looks so great out in the open. Nor does everyone have the robust pantry volume required to keep everything stored AND well organized out of sight.

Stackable Can Organizer in Kitchen Cabinet
Stacks of cans don’t look great out in the open. Cabinets solve the problem

Clutter-Free Appearance

Contrary to the opinions of some designers who heavily favor a rustic look, there is such a thing as too eclectic in the kitchen. The appearance of ordered disorder can quickly get away from you if everything is out in the open. If you receive a gift from a friend that looks unseemly alongside everything else but resorted to open shelving, you’re in a bind. Beautiful upper kitchen cabinets provide a sensible solution to this problem from day one.

Opting for an open shelving plan demands that you have an active plan for arranging the utility of our items–do you really want to have to check off a mental list every single time you grab something about where it needs to return? Or being forced to pile things up in a pleasing geometric pattern again every time you’re returning a clean plate to its resting place?

Open Shelving Storage Problems
This looks fun to have to rearrange after EVERY MEAL

Easier Kitchen Cleaning

Keeping your kitchen tidy is one side of the equation, and clean another entirely. Managing all of the dust accumulation on lower shelves, plus grime that develops on upper open shelves is nothing to scoff at. Then consider that all of those dishes that you’ve left open to the elements are under the same dust fall.

Do you keep your windows open a good deal in hot summer months? Remember, that window screen is there primarily to prevent insects from crowding your kitchen–it isn’t going to keep out a great deal of dust. Writer Ayn-Monique Klahre at thekitchn did her own investigative report on the dustiness of open shelving. Two weeks of open windows is enough to cover a room in a significant layer of blown in dust. Even a countertop or shelf that may look clean to the naked eye can yield a dusty fingertip on a wipe.

Dust On Finger from Open Shelving
Our own test: the accumulation of dust on open shelving is rapid

Beyond simply dust, your cooking process or dishwashing can spray undesirable juices, grease, or food particles at times. With open shelving, this leaves your dinner- and cookware open to dangerous bacteria before it gets used. That’s a dicey proposition for items involved in the eating process. This article on refrigeration and food safety from the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends tempered glass shelves for exactly that reason. We don’t know about you, but we trust that governmental body with safety recommendations!

Cohesive Kitchen Design

Your kitchen forms the core aesthetic for your home. There are plenty of ways to get the design wrong, including poor storage space and violating the kitchen work zone.

Going with open shelves reduces your available storage sufficiently that you likely will need to make numerous trips around the kitchen to access items for a single meal prep. The work triangle goes out the window and the utility of your kitchen starts to give way to appearance. But the kitchen isn’t a museum, it’s a busy spot.

Kitchen Layout Becomes Real
Simple, functional, and beautiful

Great looking upper cabinets solve functional problems perfectly while also beautifying the space. You’re winning in both areas at once.

Safer Storage Option

Open shelves may seem like an adventurous way to show off your collection of cool ceramics, since the bottom-heavy arrangements can be perilous every time you go to access shelved items from your pile. An errant move of the hand while grabbing something can bring whole stacks crashing down. If you are tempted to install some cheap open shelves yourself, also bear in mind that they are not magical bearers of every weight; they still necessitate wall anchors which may require you to consider your installation costs with a professional.

Do you live in an earthquake-prone region of the States? Your glassware, even the stuff you don’t plan on touching and is merely ornamental, can turn into a disaster on floating shelves. While the perils of a minor tremor can be remediated by a lip on the shelving, this answer now competes with the whole aesthetic point of the shelves in the first place.

Broken Glass in Kitchen with Open Shelves
This could be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to earthquake damage

Safe Display Options

Displaying your fine plates and stemware is a lot of fun and adds a great new visual dimension to the kitchen. But it doesn’t have to compromise with safety or cleaning work. Installing a set of upper cabinets that includes glass doors provides you the same opportunity display small vignettes safely.

Glass Upper Kitchen Cabinets Cool Display
A safe and sensible kitchen display with glass upper cabinets

Whether with open glass, frosted (the more modern approach), or textured glass for a retro feel, the remodel can still provide you with even the rustic feel open shelving may have provided.

Retro Textured Glass Upper Kitchen Cabinets
Rustic textured glass look in upper cabinets

Interested in more inspiration about how to employ glass cabinet doors to really brighten your kitchen and open up the space with an inviting appearance? Check out our article A Touch of Glass.

NEW: Pet Friendly Kitchens & Homes

For dog or cat owners, making sure that your kitchen is animal friendly may be second nature. You have your feeding station sorted out so that it isn’t in the way of your cooking, you may have gates set up to prevent your little family members from getting under foot while you’re working with hot utensils. But open shelving deserves its own loud voice in this discussion: the trendy kitchen feature of open shelves could be a nightmare waiting to happen in a home with pets.

Witness this natural climber surveying their domain

If you have pets, especially cats, forget shelves. Put them far from your mind, lock the thought tight, and throw away the key. Cats love heights, so they would find a way to get up those shelves, and have no problem knocking off any obstacles. 3 am plate breakage! And those of us with pets know that pet hair gets everywhere. Cats also aren’t the only potential culprits in destruction. Wagging tails on a lovable dog have minds all their own.

Better Investment

The cost of kitchen remodels is not just a fun expense, it’s an investment in your home. That investment value relies on the desirability of the house, and foremost the kitchen. It is the space where typically the most time is spent for socializing and activity, and draws the most attention from realtors and potential home buyers.

All of the other points that you have read notwithstanding, open shelving is not everyone’s cup of tea. Potential buyers may take one look at a kitchen with open shelving and mentally tick a box that reads “well, there’s the cost of the home plus the remodel to put in cabinets”.

If you have a look at our case study on the installation of high gloss white cabinets in a San Diego home, the ROI on your kitchen remodel is nothing to shrug at. Open shelves may be a neat aesthetic (that makes your kitchen a LOT more work), but they aren’t going to increase the selling point of the space. Meanwhile, after installing cabinets you can still recoup tens of thousands of dollars years down the line.

high gloss white cabinets in a San Diego home
Kitchen cabinet return on investment

Ultimately, your kitchen should be a reflection of your tastes, your sensibility, and your lifestyle. You spend a great deal of time in it and should love how it looks and works for you without reservation. A beautiful set of upper kitchen cabinets can provide all of that and more without giving you the headache of extra cleaning, storage problems, or risks of falling debris. Are we a little biased? Sure. But we love our products and value our customers.

author avatar
Damian Giannuzio
Damian is an accomplished interior designer and content creator specializing in kitchen renovations. With a background in architecture and a passion for design, Damian brings a unique perspective to his writing. His insightful articles offer readers valuable advice on optimizing their kitchen spaces. When he's not writing, Damian loves experimenting with new recipes and testing them in his beautifully designed kitchen.

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