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How To Style Open Shelving

Open shelving can make a kitchen feel bigger and add a layer of personality, but it can also be daunting to have your whole life (or your kitchenware) on display all the time, Monday through Sunday. It’s not like you can exactly display your mismatched mug collection or show off your mounds of lost-lid tupperware. But, don’t let the pressure of perfection stop you from having the open shelving (and kitchen) of your dreams.

Here are some tips to create cohesive, pulled together shelves – but first watch this little video we made in our latest clients home that sums it all up.

First, start by making sure your everyday essentials get the shelf space they need. Those are your glasses, plates, and bowls (the things you actually use often and need easy access to). Buy matching sets of each if you want to make it easy on yourself, but if you want to go the more eclectic route you can (she says hesitatingly), just make sure that you stay within a color palette and that the mismatched pieces have something in common – maybe they are all old, or all stoneware, etc. Mixing old and new is typically a good thing, but mixing vintage and new plates in the same stack tends to look messy and like a thrift store. Stick to sets and lots of them – 12 plates, 8 bowls, 10 glasses, etc, and unless you can handle visual chaos, keep them on the simpler side like we have.


While I love the collected/layered look, I like shelves in the kitchen to look a bit more neat and orderly so that they don’t feel so thrown together (again, there are exceptions). So when in doubt, face things the same way – like those mugs.


Add your interest/pattern and more eclectic pieces on the top shelf as you aren’t going to grab for those as often and they aren’t as in your face.


Make sure to combine sets of things with larger, more graphic pieces like this pitcher. It helps ground the collection and takes up good real estate without being busy.

Just like any shelf styling make sure that it feels balanced in color and busy-ness. Pepper the colors and pattern around evenly and lean art/books in the back to help draw your eye there, which makes it feel bigger, adds depth, texture and certainly personality.

I have only installed open shelving in two kitchens – both of which were galley kitchens with plenty of alternative storage and the kitchens themselves needed to feel bigger and more open. We debated doing it with our new kitchen but now that we opened up the kitchen (see here) we don’t need it to feel more open and we are desperate for storage, so we are putting in uppers with glass or mesh fronts that will help it feel bigger but provide a bit more storage and ability to hide our unmentionables.

It’s certainly been a trend for a while so I’m curious about those of you who have them in your kitchen – does maintaining the styling of them become a chore or is it worth having the benefits of those shelves?  Do dish (HA!).

 *See the whole kitchen with all the sources here.

** Photography by Zeke Ruelas.


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50 thoughts on “How To Style Open Shelving

  1. I’ve had open shelving for my upper cabinets for about 5 years. I have 2 rows of shelves on both sides of my sink/window above my sink. I store a fun vintage Pyrex collection along the top shelves that we rarely use and use the lower shelves for everyday dishes. The only issue I have is that dishes we don’t use everyday get dusty and the shelves also get dusty. I have 3 dogs so I imagine my house is dustier than most, and it is a lot to keep up with. I love the look, and often think about mixing up the upper shelves with different dishes that we may use more often, but in the end I can’t imagine something I would enjoy more seeing daily than my colorful Pyrex display.

  2. I love my open kitchen shelving! We are definitely not in the overly-tidy category, yet keeping the shelves looking organized is very easy, as we keep their contents strictly defined. The bottom shelf has stacks of uniform plates and bowls that are used everyday. Nothing gets dirty as they are in constant rotation and it’s easy to dust the shelves when I put things away. The middle shelf has cookbooks and the top shelf has large (and nesting) mixing bowls, plus a few decorative elements on the shelves for interest. For a household like mine, putting glassware that is rarely used on the top shelf (as in the example) would be a big mistake, as it would get dusty and delicate glassware can be a pain to wash. The mixing bowls are used often, and it is simple to rinse one before using, though that isn’t required often. Situating open shelving away from the cooking area means that grease won’t be an issue.

  3. Dust and dog hair and bugs are my fear with it. If you store the cups right-side up, I would feel the need to rinse each before use, because stuff can fall in. If you store them upside down, I would feel the need to empty the entire shelf and dust it weekly, or put down a little mesh mat or something to keep the rims off the shelf itself. I’m more into ‘less work’ than ‘more cute’, sadly.

    Though this kitchen is possibly my favorite room ever, anywhere.

  4. We recently installed open shelves in our new kitchen that we renovated, and so far I LOVE them! It’s easy to keep them looking tidy – like someone said above, there are very specific things that go on those shelves, and they have a specific place! I love the style it adds to my kitchen, and how accessible everything is!

  5. When we moved into our house, it had open shelves in the galley kitchen. I declared that they would be one of the first things to go! But, eight years later, they are my favorite thing about the kitchen. We have every day dishes and glassware on the lower shelves, while the higher shelves are styled with less frequently used items and seasonal pieces. Dusting them regularly is a must but they aren’t nearly as fussy as I would’ve guessed. I love them. Sure, I wish I had more storage but they add character and openness to our 100-year old kitchen.

  6. We did open shelving on a wall of brick in our little u shaped kitchen. Best choice ever! Our daily dishes and glassware are easily accessible on the bottom shelf and the pretty platters, pitchers, cake stands, and ramekins are on display on the two upper shelves (that are a bit out of easy reach for our short family). The styling changes daily depending upon who unloads the dishwasher 🙂 Dust is an issue, but a quick rinse of the less frequently used items is no big deal.

  7. I have one row of open shelving in my kitchen where I store colorful cups and mint green plates as well as tea tins with my tea collection and a few decorative elements like a small artwork and an Eiffel Tower. I use the cups and plates regularly so I don’t find it to be a problem with dusting.
    Also it ads some color to my otherwise mostly white kitchen. I have kept the colors to some pastels with lots of mint green and pops of red which surprisingly works very well.

  8. I had them in my old kitchen and miss them so much–There isn’t really a place for them in my new kitchen. I have two cabinets with glass panels so I can sort of see my pretty stuff, but I wish I had open shelving. In Denver, dusting is a chore (and everyday thing!) but it never bothered me. I tried to keep only things I used often on the shelves so there was lots of rotation and nothing was up there too long. Awe, now I really miss them…. tears.

  9. Umm… those shelves are great and all, but I want the details on those roller window shades! Please share!

  10. I’ve had my open shelves for over three years and still love them. My husband was not in favor when we were designing the kitchen but since the glasses & cereal bowls he uses every day are at his
    fingertips I haven’t heard any complaints. I like a consistent look so I keep the bowls and cake stands I display white & the glasses are all in a greenish hue. My kitchen does have plenty of closed storage too so the shelves help balance it out.

  11. I just installed open shelving in my very small New York kitchen, and I LOVE them. Most of my dishes match, so it makes the space look much more open, and I find it much easier to access the things I use often. I did measure our stuff to make sure we had enough closed cabinetry for less attractive items.

    We have three levels of shelves, so I put cookbooks on the top level. I mostly “read” cookbooks, so having them up high isn’t too inconvenient and they are easy to dust.

  12. We are installing two open shelves in our new kitchen reno (hope to be finished soon!) and I can’t wait! We have beautiful simple white crate and barrel dishes that I’m dying to display and use daily! My problem will be adding in more color and decorative stuff to make it pretty and not just functional! Ha!

  13. Bloody love open shelves. Don’t have any uppers in our kitchen at all. We also lit them with LED tape at the back, which is especially pretty with bottles of oils and vinegars in front. (Have enjoyed following Emily’s new kitchen progress, as we also just did our new kitchen with dark green cabinets and unlacquered brass, with oak herringbone and frigidaire professional fridge…)

    1. O MY GOD. Your house is beautiful!!! I would move in here in a second! Do you have a blog or anything like that? I would love know sources!

      1. Oh gosh you’re all very kind! Thanks for the lovely words. No blog or anything, but more than happy of course to share resources if anyone has specific questions!

        1. Hi Georgia, Id love to know what color grout you used in the kitchen? Your whole house is amazing. Thanks

          1. Hi Kristal! We used Oyster Gray grout, and are really pleased with it — it’s not overpoweringly strong, but it still highlights the shape of the tiles. Thanks! Georgia

  14. I’m glad others mentioned the cleanliness issue. Aside from the dust, if you cook much at all, dishes on open shelving tend to get greasy. I have had open shelving in the past and I hated it. Now I can display visually appealing dishes in two glass-fronted cabinets (the rest of the cabinets hide the more practical, less decorative items) without needing to wash them constantly or worry about them falling and breaking.

  15. I have open shelves on both sides of my vent hood and love them! I do feel that I need “seat fillers” though whenever I take a large item off the shelf and a space is left…lol!

  16. The quality is better than the product we bought at the big box store a few years back, i wrote this note to tell you how happy my wife is with our new kitchen. You made our remodeling experience in our kitchen so easy. Thanks again for your help.”

  17. I have a large collection of fiestaware dishes in all different colors. I would love to display them on open shelving but do you think that would be too much color? I’ve got 14 place settings and literally every one is a different color. I love color but i would want it to look cohesive too.

    1. I’m sure it depends on how colorful the rest of your kitchen is. If your kitchen is all white, a colorful open shelf display of Fiestaware sounds perfect. But if the cabinets, counters, and walls (and floors) are pretty different from each other, it would probably look a bit chaotic.

  18. I’ve had open shelves for years, in our former house and currently in a house we remodeled about 3 yrs ago. I like them, but due to dust and visual clutter, I don’t put my every day dishes on them. I put platters, wooden handled cutting boards and stuff I have lying around- blue and white pottery my husband brought back from Asia, a stack of small wooden plates, a funky jonathan adler piece etc and keep everything either white, dark blue or natural wood. I also put up some holiday decor or fill dishes with color coordinated candy. My life is pretty crazy with kids, dogs etc like all of yours and I don’t want to worry about how messy the kitchen looks all the time, so the shelves are pretty much curated to just add pops of color and visual interest to my kitchen, and my “real life” stuff is hidden behind closed cabinet doors.

  19. While I like the look in some cases, for the most part I find the open shelves overwhelming. In our kitchen, I would also worry about our adventurous cats climbing all over our dishes and getting cat hair and unhygienic paws all over our dishes. They already find their way on top of our ENCLOSED cabinets. I saw some dog people weigh in about the hair, any cat people with experience in the open shelving realm?

  20. You guys are LEGENDS! Thank you – I needed exactly this post today. My photographer friend is shooting my ‘after’ kitchen for my blog this Sunday and I always get stuck on how to style it. I don’t have that natural eye. This helps a lot – thank you. It’s funny because I’m not really a video watching person, I generally always prefer to read an article rather than watch a video, but I have been absolutely loving all the videos you guys have put up. Keep it up.

  21. I love having open shelving for styling my different collections. There were no upper cabinets in my kitchen when we moved in and the kitchen looked too stark. The wood shelves with chrome brackets really warmed up the space. It’s fun to build styling skills and decorate for the seasons.

  22. I love the way you styled these shelves but I think open shelving is going to be such a passing fad.

  23. I just got to put together my first kitchen and open shelves weren’t even a question. Of course! My things are pretty, why wouldn’t I want to look at them all the time? I have one, six foot long, six inch deep shelf and it holds (ready…) ALL of my daily dishes. A crock of wooden spoons and such, a stack of plates, nesting vintage pyrex mixing bowls/wet measures, four mugs (all neutral and blue funky handmade pottery), a stack of soup bowls, a few cutting boards, my butter bell, and an enamelware pot. I keep rarely used/ugly things (stainless steel pots, casseroles, rice cooker, wine glasses…) It is INFINITELY more practical for me than cabinet uppers ever have been–everything I need is just lined up right in front of my face. But granted, I don’t have a lot of stuff so I’m not looking to maximize storage.
    Never had a problem with things falling in my cups or dust or anything, honestly I never even really thought about that. I could see it being an issue on shelves that are decorative, like in a living room or something, but over the course of a week every item comes off my kitchen shelf at least once, is washed, and returned. And in my little germ-logic, having something open to the light and air makes it cleaner, right? Anyways, I’m a fan. I’d rather look at my pretty things than a cabinet door 🙂

  24. Seriously though, is this house in LA? Do you consider earthquake preparedness in a design? Because that’s a thing. This is a real question.

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