5 Rules for Open Shelving in Your Kitchen

Open shelving in the kitchen has become an increasingly popular design choice in recent years. The open and airy look can make a kitchen feel more spacious and modern. However, open shelving also comes with some special considerations when it comes to placement, styling, organization, cleaning, and maintenance. Follow these five key rules to help you successfully incorporate open shelving into your kitchen design.

Choose the Right Location for Open Shelving

Choosing the right spot for open shelving is the first critical rule. You want to place open shelving in a location that makes sense for your kitchen’s workflow and allows the shelves to be readily accessible. Here are some of the best locations to consider:

Over the Sink

Installing open shelves over the sink is a smart choice. The shelves can provide a space for displaying pretty dishware while also keeping plates, glasses, and mugs within easy reach for washing. Be sure to install the shelves high enough to avoid having items knocked into the sink. Around 18-24 inches of clearance is ideal.

Near the Stove

Open shelves conveniently located near the stove provide a spot for stacking spices, oils, condiments, and other cooking essentials. This keeps these frequently used items right where you need them when cooking or prepping meals. Mount the shelves 15-18 inches above the counter or stove.

Adjacent to Islands and Peninsulas

Islands or peninsulas are great spots for open shelving because you can access the shelves easily from all sides. The shelving brings visually appealing storage for items like cookbooks, barware, or unique decorative objects to these high-traffic areas.

Along Backsplashes

Running open shelving the length of the backsplashes beside countertops is an excellent option. These shelves allow you to neatly display and access items while working at the countertops. Limit the depth of shelves on backsplashes to around 8-10 inches.

Around Microwaves or Fridges

Small sets of open shelves flanking appliances like microwaves, fridges, or ovens enable you to corral and access essential items near where you use them. Just be sure to allow proper ventilation room around the appliances.

Style Shelves with Cohesive, Everyday Items

The second rule of open shelving is to style the shelves in a coordinated fashion with items you actually use on a regular basis. Avoid cluttering the shelves with too many random decorative objects. Here are some tips for styling perfectly:

Use Coordinating Colors and Textures

Style open shelves with items like white and neutral colored dishware or matching sets of glossy ceramic canisters. This creates a streamlined, cohesive look. Incorporate metal, stone, or wood accent pieces for added texture.

Display Decor Items Sparingly

Limit decorative objects like vases, frames, or candlesticks to just one or two anchor pieces per shelf. Too many knick-knacks can make open shelves appear cluttered.

Rotate Kitchen Tools and Appliances

Keep shelves looking organized and curated by only displaying your most used kitchen tools and small appliances. Rotate items as you use them. Stash less frequently used items in cabinets.

Organize Items by Use or Category

Group items on shelves by usage or category (e.g. barware, cooking utensils, mugs) to create a visual system. Utilize vertical dividers if possible. This looks cleaner than random grouping.

Minimize Visual Clutter

Avoid crowding shelves with an excessive amount of items. Leave a bit of open space between items to keep the look and feel open and airy.

Organize Open Shelves for Everyday Functionality

Open shelving looks best and functions optimally when everything has a proper place. Follow these organizational techniques:

Categorize by Item Type

As mentioned above, grouping objects that share a common use or fall under a general category makes items easy to return to their designated spaces. For example, keep dinnerware together rather than splitting up plates, bowls, and mugs.

Use Shelf Dividers

Installing slim vertical dividers is useful for delineating spaces for specific types of items or uses. For example, a divider can separate mugs from glasses, spices from oils, etc.

Designate Spaces Clearly

Use labels, signs, or organizational baskets to clearly define where certain objects belong on shelves. This helps avoid a haphazard piled look.

Edit and Limit Belongings

Be selective about which items deserve spots on prime display shelves. Edit down to daily essentials you actually use and love. Store other items elsewhere.

Maintain Clutter-Free Zones

Always leave some breathing room on shelves. Avoid crowding and piling objects right up to the edges. Clutter-free zones keep the look refined.

Clean Open Shelves Properly

The open nature of open shelves means any dust, grease splatter, or debris is immediately visible. Follow these cleaning tips to keep shelves looking pristine:

Use Microfiber Cloths

Microfiber cloths are the best choice for wiping shelves, as they grab and remove dust effectively without chemicals or liquids.

Dust Frequently

Make a habit out of quick dusting sessions between deep cleans. Frequent dust removal prevents accumulation.

Clean Entire Shelf Surface

Don’t just spot clean visible areas. Take all items off to clean the entire shelf surface and undersides thoroughly.

Use All-Purpose Spray

For a deeper clean, use an all-purpose cleaner and microfiber cloth to remove grease and residue build up. Avoid overly wet cleaning.

Re-Organize After Cleaning

Put items back neatly in their designated spots after cleaning. This maintains organization and limits dust-catchers.

Polish with Glass Cleaner

For glass shelves, use a glass specific cleaner or mixture of vinegar and water for extra shine and fingerprint removal.

Protect and Maintain Open Shelves

Since open shelves are exposed, be sure to take measures to protect and maintain the shelves properly:

Use Sealant

Apply a sealant like polyurethane to wood shelves to protect the surface from moisture, oils, and grease absorption. Re-apply annually.

Avoid Overloading

Don’t overload shelves with heavier items than they are designed to hold. This can lead to sagging, cracks, or collapse.

Tighten Hardware

Periodically check and tighten any screws, bolts, or hardware on shelves to keep them securely mounted and prevent accidents.

Adjust Warped Shelves

Shelves, especially wood ones, can gradually warp over time. Make adjustments as needed to keep shelves flat and level.

Repaint as Needed

If open shelves start looking dingy, prep and repaint them to keep them looking fresh and new. Use kitchen-specific paint.

5 Key Considerations When Using Open Shelving

To recap, if you incorporate open shelving in your kitchen, keep these five rules in mind:

  1. Choose the right location based on kitchen workflow and usage.
  2. Style shelves minimally with everyday items in a coordinated fashion.
  3. Organize items functionally using labels, dividers, and clearly defined spaces.
  4. Clean regularly using proper methods and materials.
  5. Protect and properly maintain shelves to prevent damage over time.

Following these rules will help ensure your open kitchen shelving not only looks gorgeous but also functions optimally as a practical storage solution. With open shelves, a little extra effort is required, but the visually striking results are well worth it.

Frequently Asked Questions About Open Shelving in Kitchens

What are the benefits of open shelving in kitchens?

Open shelving provides several benefits for kitchen storage and design:

  • Creates an open, airy aesthetic
  • Makes items easily accessible and viewable
  • Allows you to display beautiful dishware and decor
  • Feels modern and clean compared to closed cabinets
  • Makes small kitchens appear more spacious

What should you not store on open shelves?

Avoid storing the following on open shelves:

  • Items you rarely use – these create clutter
  • Bulky small appliances better suited for countertops
  • Overflow items that should be stored elsewhere
  • Anything requiring climate controlled storage
  • Cleaning chemicals, oils, or supplies that can spill
  • Items you don’t want visible (hide away in cabinets)

What materials work best for open shelves?

These shelf materials are popular choices:

  • Wood (stain or paint to protect)
  • Stainless steel (durable and sleek)
  • Glass (great for small shelves)
  • Metal wire, matte black, or brass (industrial edge)
  • Stone slabs or marble (natural material)

Should you use open shelves or upper cabinets?

This depends on your kitchen’s size and style. Small kitchens benefit from open shelves to create a feeling of space. Contemporary kitchens suit the minimalist look of open shelves. Traditional kitchens often lean towards upper cabinets for ample hidden storage.

How deep should kitchen open shelves be?

Limit shelf depth to 8-12 inches. Deeper shelves become dysfunctional and items get lost in the back. Shallower shelves (8-10 inches) are best for avoiding a cluttered look.


The rising popularity of open shelving proves it’s more than just a passing trend. When thoughtfully incorporated, open shelves add beautiful form and function to kitchens. Just be sure to follow essential rules regarding placement, styling, organization, cleaning, and maintenance. Armed with these guidelines, you can implement durable, practical open shelving that enhances your culinary space for years to come.