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When you’re renovating your kitchen, you’ll have to make a seemingly endless number of decisions, some harder than others. One such decision that may stump you is choosing between upper cabinets and floating shelves.

Of course, no kitchen has to stick to just cabinets or just shelves—in fact, a combination of the two can often look pretty spectacular. But it’s important to really consider the pros and cons of each when mapping out how you want your space to look and how you want it to function. Your storage and organization needs are a big consideration, as are your design preferences.

Whichever combination of shelves and cabinets you pick will greatly impact the overall feel of your kitchen—so it’s a good idea to go into the decision-making process with as much knowledge as possible. Here are the need-to-know pros and cons of choosing upper cabinets versus floating shelves, according to people who have made the decision themselves.

 

Storage Capacity

Tall black kitchen cabinets with a dining table in the center of the room

Design by Anne Sage; Photography by Elizabeth Messina

Choosing floating shelves over open cabinets is nothing short of a lifestyle change, says Southern California-based interior designer Anita Yokota. “They can be life-changing in that they inspire you to live a more minimalist lifestyle,” she says. But ultimately, they may not be right for everyone for that same exact reason. “You can fit a lot more inside of a cabinet,” Chicago-based designer Tracy Cimba adds

After all, if you do want to go for shelves instead of cabinets, you don’t want to completely fill them the way you would the contents of your cabinets, California interior designer Anne Sage points out: “We really treat open shelves as more of a ledge.” That means—especially in a kitchen where you might have both upper cabinets and shelves—the shelves are intended for more decorative use

Especially because, as she points out, shelves can get dusty, fast, if you don’t clean them every day. “This is a place to display things—not a working storage shelf,” Sage adds. “Kudos to the people who do have all of their in use dishes out on the open shelves—but that is not me, and that is not what I recommend as a realistic expectation. That sets up a situation where you do need to have someplace else for your actual day-to-day dishes.”

 

Pricing

Phography by Jason Varney; Styled by Kristi Hunter

Shelves are cheaper than cabinets because they use less material, right? Not necessarily! “The cost for real wood these days is astronomical,” Yokota says. “So when you compare that to the cost of Semihandmade fronts and BOXI cabinets, the cabinets are a better budget option.” This factor, she says, has led some of her clients to opt for more cabinets over shelves. 

Sage echoes the sentiment, and adds that shelf installation is not something to skimp on. “Open shelves still need to be mounted very carefully and very securely. I speak from experience having mounted open shelves myself and having seen them done poorly—the unfortunate result was that they sagged and did not stay perfectly 90 degrees to the wall.” So, ultimately, the cost difference between the two can be pretty negligible, she says. 

 

Kitchen Layout

Photography by Molly Rose Photo

The layout and size of your kitchen will have a big impact on whether open shelves, cabinets, or a combination of the two will be best for your space, Yokota says. In a smaller galley kitchen, cabinets may be better to create ample storage space with no visual clutter, but in a larger, more open kitchen, shelves can create visual interest. Especially when placed by a range or a window, open shelves can serve as a design element that helps to balance the overall space. “We wanted the space to feel airy,” says Sunoh Choe, who opted for both cabinets and shelving in his BOXI kitchen. “We also realized the space didn’t have to be all practical and utilitarian, since it was going to be a gathering space. The shelves helped us to bring in a little extra decoration.”

Design Differences

White and pink kitchen

Design by Anita Yokota; Photography by Molly Rose Photo

Decoration, after all, is a big consideration for whether you go for uppers cabinets or open shelves. The choice, Cimba says, may depend on your personal style. “If you’re doing predominately floating shelves, that’s more eclectic than traditional,” she says. “But we are starting to see more shelves incorporated into some traditional-leaning kitchens.” Brackets can help shelves pair well in more traditional spaces, while floating shelves can match a more Scandi-inspired aesthetic.

One trend Sage has taken note of is upper cabinets with glass panelling (which is often fogged or ribbed to partially conceal the items inside), which strikes a balance between the appeal of shelves and upper cabinets. “You get the same lightness and openness that you would have with a shelf, but you can conceal more of a mess,” she says. 

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