Open Shelves vs Wall Cabinets - expert explain which is best for your kitchen

Planning a new kitchen or looking to update your existing one? There are so many design decisions to make, starting with what storage to put on your walls

Pink kitchen with wooden cabinets
(Image credit: Future PLC / Fiona Walker-Arnott)

So, you’re at the planning stage for your ‘kitchen of dreams’ and your Pinterest boards are full of beautiful kitchens without wall cabinets showing curated storage jars, piles of tableware and sparkling glassware. 

But, before you approve the design and commit to your kitchen without wall cabinet ideas, there are a few nagging doubts at the back of your mind: would you be able to reach things? Won’t things get dirty? Are you sacrificing storage for style? All valid points in the great open-shelves-v-wall-cabinets debate. Ultimately, when it comes to open shelves versus wall cabinets it’s a choice that only you can make, but to help you on your way, we asked some kitchen experts for their advice.

‘Open shelving has fast become one of the biggest kitchen interior trends in recent years both due to the chic, decorative feel it provides, as well as its practicality, affordability, and ease of installation in comparison to traditional wall cabinets,’ says Dawn Filkins, Head of Creative, Smile Kitchens

‘By reducing the amount of heavy cabinetry at the top of the kitchen, you in turn create a calming, open aesthetic to the space that naturally enlarges the feel by making more of the wall visible.’

blue kitchen with white tops and open shelves

(Image credit: Future PLC)

‘Open shelving and storage can look incredibly premium when there is symmetry and uniformity with the placement of items on display. If you have an eye for detail and like to keep your items in perfect position, then open shelving can be a fantastic addition to the kitchen design,’ says Cassie Jones, brand manager at Masterclass Kitchens.

Open shelves vs wall cabinet

Whether you choose traditional kitchen cabinet ideas, long floating shelves – or indeed a mixture of both – can dictate the look and feel of your kitchen. If you are prone to clutter, then think if more concealed – or door-fronted – storage might work better, while if you like things on display, kitchen shelving ideas will give you a great styling opportunity.

Open Shelving – Pros

By open shelving, we mean lengths of shelf running above worktop height. These can be floating shelves (with concealed supports) or bracketed (and there are some great industrial-style shelf brackets around). Likewise, the shelves can be bought off-the-peg, or made from materials used elsewhere in your kitchen, such as the worktop or the same wood as your table for instance. They are a great addition to a modern kitchen. 

Rebecca Nokes, Head of Design and Brand Creative at John Lewis of Hungerford, says, ‘Open shelving keeps a kitchen feeling light and bright and can literally make your space feel more open. They can also give your kitchen design a more ‘freestanding’ or ‘curated’ look as opposed to just having a wall full of cabinets which can feel oppressive. They also provide the perfect place to display treasured possessions and collections.’

‘Shelving works great in smaller kitchens,’ adds Al Bruce, Founder of Olive & Barr. ‘It provides both form and function while opening up the space. Not only will the addition of open shelving make your space feel lighter and brighter, but you’ll also have more opportunities to bring your personality to the forefront.’

Kitchen with orange walls, white metro tiles and grey cabinets

(Image credit: Future PLC/James French)

While there are plenty of wall cabinet sizes available, wall shelves will allow more flexibility as they can be cut to fit on-site if needed, meaning every inch of a small kitchen can be used up if desired.

But keeping your open shelving looking great can be hard work, ‘Those who have an abundance of crockery, glassware and smaller appliances might prefer to keep their belongings out of sight, without the worry of things needing to feel perfectly styled,’ says Al.

Open Shelving – Cons

‘Open shelving naturally collects more dust as it’s not an enclosed storage space unlike wall cabinets,’ explains Dawn, who also mentioned the weight issue. ‘Open shelving can easily begin to look cluttered as well as becoming heavy if you add to many items, making it vital to install safely and securely.’

‘You need to be super organised and super tidy when it comes to open shelving and I wouldn’t use them to display anything other than attractive items,’ says Rebecca. ‘For example, if you need the storage space to house foodstuffs then you’re going to need to invest in aesthetically pleasing storage jars or canisters, which can end up being costly. You can get round this by making your drawers super useful, and installing a pantry or larder to hide away what you don’t want on show.’

‘Despite these ‘cons’, open shelving is most definitely not going out of style anytime soon,’ says Dawn.

Open shelving in small kitchen

(Image credit: Future PLC)

Wall cabinets – Pros

‘Once upon a time, a kitchen designed without wall cabinets was almost unthinkable,’ says Cassie. ‘However, with the adaptation of innovative storage solutions and the rise of kitchen islands and tall cabinets, kitchens without wall cabinets are more prominent in kitchen design than ever before. But, ensuring your storage needs are fully catered for is a key priority when beginning the kitchen design process.’

‘They are great at keeping the kitchen feeling clutter-free, keeping kitchenware and small appliances organised and out of sight,’ says Dawn.

‘You can hide everything away with wall cabinets,’ says Rebecca, ‘and be as unorganised as you like and of course they provide more storage space compared to shelving.’

kitchen with glass cabinet doors

(Image credit: Future)

Wall cabinets also provide a different kitchen aesthetic, which doesn’t mean traditional. ‘They can also give your kitchen a streamlined look as they will be out of the way and take up less visual space than floor cabinets,’ says Al.

‘Wall cabinets provide the added benefit of being able to store items on top of the cabinetry depending on its height,’ says Dawn.

Wall cabinets – Cons

The flip side to lots of wall cabinets in a kitchen is how they can make your space feel. ‘Lots of wall cabinets can make a kitchen feel smaller and if you don’t have lots of natural light, dark and slightly oppressive,’ says Rebecca. 

Of course, there are designer tricks you can try, such as using white or light cabinetry doors, avoiding taking cabinetry up to ceiling height or mixing closed cabinetry with a few open shelves. Don’t forget to plan in plenty of kitchen lighting.

‘With more demand for open shelving and full height larder units, the need for wall cabinets is dwindling,’ says Al.

grey cabinets and drawers with wooden worktops and flooring

(Image credit: Future PLC/AMELIA THORPE)

Is open shelving in kitchen going out of style?

In short, no. Open shelving in the kitchen is not going out of style, infact the trend is only growing stronger. ‘Lendable to a variety of trends from industrial, rustic and Scandi kitchen ideas, open shelving’s varied looks and affordability are fuelling real longevity within the trend,’ says Dawn Filkins, Head of Creative, Smile Kitchens.

‘Homeowners are seeing the huge benefits of open shelving, not only does it reduce the cost of the overall kitchen, but it makes the room feel much more open and larger,’ says Al Bruce, Founder of Olive & Barr.

‘We’re seeing more clients opt for open shelving and deciding to install pantries and larders to provide that extra storage,’ says Rebecca Nokes, Head of Design & Brand Creative at John Lewis of Hungerford.

Does open shelving make a kitchen look bigger?

If you're torn between open shelving versus wall cabinets in a small kitchen idea, while you may loose a little storage with open shelving, you will gain alot of visual space.

‘In a small, tight space open shelving can keep clutter off worktops, but be sure to consider the placement of shelving. Near to cooking and extractor fan, the items on the open shelving can become greasy meaning they will need to be cleaned more frequently,’ says Cassie Jones, brand manager at Masterclass Kitchens. 

‘Opting for lighter wall cabinets than base cabinets create the illusion of space if you cannot afford to remove them from your design.’

Open shelving in white kitchen

(Image credit: Future PLC / Lizzie Orme)

Is open shelving in kitchen cheaper than cabinets?

‘Typically, open shelving is a much more affordable option to built-in cupboards. However, the price can vary depending on the material used, for example, wood is much cheaper than natural stone. Some homeowners are choosing to extend their worktop into the splashback which then leads to a built-in shelf. A very stylish and impactful way to use the worktop, but it can also be a more costly route,’ says Al.

‘Open shelving in its simplest form will be cheaper than cabinetry, but it is not the best option for storage capacity,’ says Cassie. ‘Open shelving should be looked at as adding personality to a kitchen space, not a cost-saving exercise. If it fits your overall aesthetic and design theme, then add it in! But if it will leave you short on storage space, then choose to include wall cabinets in your design for optimum use of space.’


(Image credit: Future PLC)

Final verdict

Open shelving is a more affordable, flexible solution for the wall space above your kitchen base units – and it suits any style of kitchen. It provides a great chance to display favourite pieces, which can instantly add personality to your kitchen. While you might be limiting your storage space, you will be creating a lighter, more open look.

Wall cabinets are still a great solution if you have lots to store that isn’t that pretty. They allow you to make as much use of the wall space height and you can choose a different door finish to your base units, to create a more unique look. They are more costly than shelves, but great if you can’t bear to see clutter.

‘If you haven’t settled on a decision for which style you would like, why not try a combination of the two, to create a balanced kitchen that allows for convenient tucked-away storage while opening the kitchen up that little bit more?’ suggests Dawn. ‘Alternatively, glass-fronted cabinetry has also become hugely popular in 2023.’

What will you go for?

Jennifer Morgan

Jennifer Morgan is an award-winning editor, writer and stylist, with over 25 years’ experience writing, styling and editing home interest magazines. Jennifer was the deputy editor of Ideal Home from 2008-2010, before launching Ideal Home’s sister title, Style at Home in 2010. Jennifer went on to launch several craft magazines and websites, before going freelance in 2016, with a client list that includes John Lewis, Dunlem and Nordic House. Today, she writes for Ideal Home, Real Homes, Waitrose, Woman & Home, Sainsbury’s Magazine and Homes & Gardens. But it was during lockdown that Jennifer realised her dream of publishing her own magazine – Simply Scandi.