Design & Style

Small spaces: Ten examples of open shelving in little kitchens

Your kitchen tends to be a natural hangout. Regardless of the size, nearly all of your guests will make their way toward your counter and cupboards to congregate.  To make the kitchen feel more like a living space and less like a locker room, I always try to break up the expanse of upper cabinets and allow for open shelving. 

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Open shelving is a great way to display dishes, sculpture, or framed artwork and infuses your space with personality and warmth.  Yes, you will have to dust another surface, yes you will have to either curate your display items or embrace the clutter, and yes, you will have to find another place to hide your shameful cans of processed ravioli.  Is it worth it? Yes!

Below I have compiled a list of charming, modest kitchens with very different approaches to open shelving:

UntitledUse shelves for display of beautiful things.  It may be hard to sacrifice wall space in a small kitchen for display areas.  The effect, however, is quite remarkable in comparison to a bank of upper cabinets.


Untitled2Work the restaurant aesthetic.  Real chefs work in commercial kitchens with exclusively open shelving.   This Parisian apartment keeps it inviting with wood floors, a fireplace, and exemplifies french priorities: food and art.  Despite its diminutive size, you can tell that some serious cooking (and entertaining) happens here.


Untitled3Balance texture vs. clutter.  These reclaimed wood shelves and marble mosaic add a lot of texture, while the dishes on display are minimal and matching. This curated approach allows the texture of the wood and natural stone to stand out even more.


Untitled4Go for naked cabinets.  Take the doors off existing upper cabinets for as much or little open storage as you like.  Paint the inside an accent colour, line the back with beadboard, wallpaper, or even bold patterned wrapping paper for a temporary hit of personality.  (But beware of the marks left by the hinges if you have face-frame cabinets)


Untitled5If you’re going to go super-cluttered, you better go minimal.  Regardless of what you think of this unconventional kitchen, it successfully juxtaposes the modern graphic minimalism in the simple cabinetry and the austere concrete wall against the clutter of the mismatched cookware.  Hipster meets hippie.


Untitled6Make a feature wall.  WIth the upper cabinets gone, this blogger and decorator from Toronto clad the wall in plywood before adding open shelving. The restrained white-on-white colour palette allows the wood to stand out.  The feature-wall approach can also work with a number of other materials – tile, wallpaper, glass, paint.  Click here for more photos.


Untitled7Get some good looking stuff that you use every day.  Maybe it’s time to find a perfect vintage canister set (I found mine at the Old House Revival), or a bright red colander you don’t mind looking at.  While antique kitchenware is always a win, contemporary industrial designers have also been creating unique functional pieces that don’t want to be hidden away in a drawer.  Bonus: when you display items that are used and washed often, they don’t have the chance to gather dust.


Untitled8Make it work.  One of my favourite inexpensive kitchen renovations by an american textile designer involved removing all the upper cabinets, installing beadboard and shelving on the back wall, and painting the bottom cabinets and even appliances.  Consider converting a nearby closet into a pantry to accommodate cereal boxes and baking powder.

Click here to see more photos – seriously you need to see the before photo of this one.


Untitled9Go monochrome. With all black and white art and display dishes, the kitchen can go from yellow to, say, hot pink as you so choose.


Untitled10Keep things at hand. Don’t relegate your open display area to the top of the existing wall cabinets. This is a huge pet peeve.  Most people who cringe at the idea of open shelving (“eew the cleaning!”) are reacting to their mother’s kitchen with seldom-used servingware and fake plants haphazardly placed atop their upper cabinets, poised to gather kitchen-grime and look just plain messy.  If you don’t have to get up on top of the counters to wipe it down, dusting becomes a simple task like wiping your countertops.


Jaclyn Wiebe is the co-founder of FIRESIDE DESIGN BUILD INC., a Winnipeg based full-service design build company with a focus on custom residential renovation: