Kitchens With No Upper Cabinets – Insanely Gorgeous or Just Plain Insane?
There’s something happening in kitchen design lately that’s both perplexing and exciting. More and more, we’re seeing kitchens with no upper cabinets (so just lower cabinets with either a full wall of tile/stone or just a short backsplash). In our 2018 kitchen design trends post from earlier this year, we dove into this subject a little (heck, we went as far as to proclaim 2018 “the year of no upper cabinets”)…and we haven’t been able to stop thinking/talking about it since.
What is it about this look that we can’t seem to quit? Well, for one, it’s just so sleek and easy on the eyes. It reminds us of uncomplicated, effortless Parisian kitchens – you know, the kind that you just sit in sipping a cafe au lait and noshing on a big honkin’ pain au chocolat while you breeze through the Sunday paper, no cares in the world besides all the crumbs from your pastry. To put it in more food terms, a “no uppers” kitchen is like the perfect plate of cacio e pepe – it’s just pasta, pasta water and a whole heap of cracked black pepper and parmesan cheese…so simple yet kind of mindblowing.
Of course, the BIG GIGANTIC TOPLESS ELEPHANT in the room is the matter of practicality and functionality. Sure, this looks beautiful and minimal and in an age when we’re getting blasted with information and graphics and videos and GIFs and emojis all day and all night on social (and the internet as a whole), it’s SO SO nice to have a moment of pause and quiet at home, at least aesthetically. But…WHERE DO YOU STORE EVERYTHING?? Look, this style of kitchen isn’t for everyone, we get that. We’re not even saying it’s necessarily for us, but it’s nice to dream about and discuss, so discuss it we shall.
You might be thinking, “but where on earth would I keep my collection of mismatched novelty mugs with sayings like ‘This Might Be Wine’ and ‘Allergic To Mornings’?” We have the same questions (possible answers later on in this post), but for now, let’s take a look at how we even got to this level of minimalism in the home’s most utilitarian space.
Did your eye start twitching at the phrase “kitchen with no upper cabinets”? Perhaps this is more comfortable for you:
Yes, this kitchen – everything from the sagey green color and the floor-to-ceiling tilework to the brass detailing – is pretty swoony, and we get WHY both upper and lower cabinetry is the standard…it works for most people and helps you tuck away all your cooking/dining/entertaining sundries.
When you have this amount of cabinetry to hide away your cacophony of assorted kid-friendly plastic dinnerware and hodgepodge of assorted glassware, it’s hard to imagine wanting to somehow give that up for…more visual wall space? Wait…why??
So then, of course, there’s the next iteration of the kitchen. Glass-front cabinets are NOT new. In fact, we’re pretty sure they’re really old, but at some point in the early- to mid-aughts, these babies were everywhere. Where previous decades preferred 34″ cabinets in solid front honey oak or clad in Formica, the 2000s rebelled with heavy cherry wood. It was the look du jour – you were nothing if you didn’t have the combo of cherry cabinets + black granite + stainless-front appliances. If you were in the business of remodeling your kitchen around this time, there basically was no other option..this was the one and only trend to buy into. But that onslaught of dark, sultry cherry left room for something a little lighter to break up the denseness of that look…ladies and gentleman, here comes the glass-front cabinet to save the day.
I opted for a handful of glass-front cabinets in my own kitchen. While a white kitchen is already pretty airy on its own, the grated glass feels open and welcoming.
Without the heft of solid front cabinets, all of a sudden a space breathes. Your plates and whatnot are kept away from dust and grease and all the other stuff that flies around a kitchen somehow, but you have the ability to display your prettiest china. Lower units are for storing all that not-great-looking stuff…after all, who doesn’t need a junk drawer/cabinet that’s in plain sight but also hidden from the judging eyes of the world.
But, just when we were getting comfortable showing off SOME of our stuff…
…open floating shelving made its appearance.
Open shelving can be a bit controversial. THE DUST! THE GRIME! Where do you keep all your ugly (but necessary for cooking) things?? Sure, it looks pretty great, but…is it practical?
It is if you do an audit of anything you kept overhead, brutally offing anything that wouldn’t look great out in the open (this is not a bad thing folks – we all hang on to things we definitely don’t need in our lives). Take a second and think about what you’re storing high up in the eaves of your upper cabinets…can you even remember without going to look? I dare you to name five things you know FOR SURE are there…and then ask yourself when was the last time you used that stuff. If it takes a step ladder to get to, likely, this is not everyday stuff.
A few rows of wood shelves gave the appearance of a “chef’s” kitchen. A dash of industrial with a peppering of homey. Nothing too elaborate…just enough storage for what you use on a very regular basis…
AND THEN CAME JUST THE ONE SHELF. I mean, look at this:
Don’t you envy the minimalism? To think that anything you need/want can fit in a few deep drawers, cabinets and ONE SHELF. This feels like the breakfast bar at a super chic European hotel (and it actually is a hotel, but in Philadelphia, not Copenhagen). Granted, in a shade of blue like that, you could staple brown paper Trader Joe’s bags to the wall and it’d still be a looker.
The “just one shelf” kitchen quietly sneaked onto the scene a few years back and likely unsuspectingly took over your Pinterest and Instagram feeds. It’s like all those crazy brows people were trying and then posting photos of – remember barbed wire brows?? the internet never ceases to amaze. It was great for digital content, gave us something to talk about/snark at/dream about (well, it’s still up for debate whether anyone was out there dreaming of walking around with crazy braided brows), but it wasn’t REAL LIFE…or was it?
And as everything in design (and life) does, the “one shelf kitchen” evolved even further into a kitchen with literally no storage above the waist. Not a shelf. Not a rail. Nothing but unencumbered wall.
It would appear that the only real-life way to make this style of kitchen work is: #1 if you don’t own a plethora of garlic presses/avocado slicers/serving bowls and really don’t cook that much and/or #2, you build in storage elsewhere in your kitchen (like the storage appliance surround in the photo above). It’s not necessarily less storage in this case, it’s just reconfigured storage for a more streamlined look. We dig it and could definitely get on board.
If you’ve been thinking this must be a regional design thing, well, you’re probably not wrong. This kitchen, as well as a handful of others like it in this photo roundup, are either in Europe or in cities like New York where space comes at a huge premium. With more access to takeout dining options (i.e. less cooking), the form vs. function debate doesn’t carry much weight. If you don’t need a ton of kitchen space because your home cooked meals are actually just bowls of cereal, it makes sense to not plug up walls with bulky cabinets directly in your line of sight.
Having limited or zero uppers means you can have all kinds of fun with lighting placement. Sconce lovers rejoice!
It also means a few additional pros:
- It’s an excuse to PURGE. That lobster-shaped platter you bought for that one Memorial Day BBQ four years ago, come on…you know you’re never using that again. DONATE. The set of kind-of shabby plates you managed to hang on to for a decade that actually belonged to an old roommate (and you’re not sure how you even ended up with them). GET RID OF THEM. Kitchens with limited cabinetry serve our inner Marie Kondo.
- Renovating can actually cost less. Think about it – you only need a portion of the materials/labor. Now, when you streamline a design, the elements that do remain need to be quite special and spectacular, otherwise you risk looking like you just kind of gave up on construction/design halfway through. You don’t want that.
- If your home has really stunning architecture (wood-clad ceilings, beams, intricate moldings), a lowers-only kitchen will let all that gorgeousness shine, without stopping the eye halfway up the wall to look at some big hunks of cabinets.
And for anyone convinced this is only for contemporary spaces, here’s proof that this is not correct:
The addition of a vintage armoire or china cabinet solves some problems here (mainly where to store drinkware), but cabinet companies and even places like IKEA have SUCH smart options to make this look work if you’re into it. From specialty dividers and organizers to hidden interior drawers, it’s definitely much easier these days to have a super efficient kitchen with less bulk.
SO, we have to ask…what do you guys think about a kitchen without uppers? Do you LOVE IT and could see yourself downsizing to something similar or do you think it’s a completely insane proposition? Let’s hear it!