How to Style Open Shelving in a Kitchen

15 February 2019
Life and the City

Open shelving can make a kitchen feel bigger and add a ton of personality, but it can also be daunting to have your whole life (or your kitchenware) on display all the time, Monday through Sunday! You wouldn't exactly want to 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!

Obviously there are pros and cons to this look, but when it’s done right, it can look amazing with any kitchen decor. Open shelves are a great solution for small and large kitchens alike, and they can create an open, airy energy in your space. Bonus: it’s also a great way to take stock of your items and keep clutter to a minimum!

If you’re considering giving open shelves a shot or are just feeling the itch to redecorate your shelves, read on for genius tips on how to have the most stylish kitchen in town.

Five Simple Ways You Can Style Open Shelves

1. Use Colour Wisely


  • Your items probably aren’t all the same colour. Divide & conquer to keep your colour palette simple for a more streamlined look!
  • If you’re rocking bold cabinets, keep the shelving simple and the display items in a monochromatic scheme so your kitchen doesn’t start feeling cluttered and overwhelming. White kitchens, on the other hand, look very crisp and clean, so adding a pop of color into the mix brings in personality & character and makes the space look more visually appealing.
  • Looking to achieve color and calm at the same time? Go for the dual tone look. This works especially well with pastels. When your shelving is full of white and pale blue, it eases the eye more than collected dishes will but your shelves won’t look stark and modern in your farmhouse kitchen.
  • Devote an open shelf to neatly organized cookbooks so you’re never lacking for dinner inspiration. The bindings will provide colour and the books will be within easy reach. 
  • Also, if you decided to create open shelves by taking the doors off your existing cabinets, try painting the back of the shelves a dark contrasting color to make your dishes really stand out. 
  • Shelf arrangements are at their best when grounded in neutrals so they don’t look cluttered. If possible, use warm grays, browns and ivories with woods and metals, then, if desired, scatter an accent color throughout.

2. Vary Heights


  • Keep things interesting by making sure the tops of your kitchen stacks aren’t all the same height.
  • Stack glasses into pyramids to add dimension where needed. 
  • Variation of heights draw the eye across the entire collection, adding more interest.

3. Aim for Repetition & Symmetry

  • Symmetry is important in achieving visual cohesion, so repeat similar items a few times. 
  • Two by two, three by three, ten by ten, whatever works for your multiples.
  • We rarely get it right the first time. Keep playing with the composition, shifting things around until you’re satisfied. 


4. Edit Down to the Bare Minimum


  • Take stock of what’s left on the shelf when you run the dishwasher, and stash it all away somewhere else. You want the shelves to look styled even when most of your dishes are in use, so make sure you include things you don’t use a lot and big statement pieces.
  • If you have metal shelves, try laying a cutting board or tray to allow storing of smaller items like flatware, food or salt and pepper shakers. Save drawer space for less attractive items like aluminum foil and plastic wrap, and keep pretty things at eye level.

5. Incorporate Art & Other Pretties


  • Don’t miss the opportunity to showcase artwork you love – a few pretty objects will make for a better shelf vista! This is also a good way to vertically expand the shelves, especially when the dishes (like cups and mugs) are low. Borrow artwork from the other rooms in your home, and add in greenery using houseplants with differing textures.
  • Show off your great dishes or cutting boards by leaning them on their rims or edges rather than stacking them all. Just be sure they’re secure enough so they don’t roll or slide down and knock off your other items. 
  • Introducing wood, or some other warm and friendly natural material, into the kitchen provides texture and warmth. If your shelves are white, consider some wooden bowls or baskets. 


More Great Tips to Create Cohesive, Pulled-Together Open Shelves


Organize Beautifully:  Start by making sure your everyday essentials get the shelf space they need. Consider the things you use most often (your glasses, plates, and bowls) and keep them on the lower, easier-to-reach shelves.

Sometimes open shelving really is purely for storage, due to the size of the kitchen. In that case, don’t fret. Embrace it. Line up all your drinkware on your open shelves for easy access while cocktail making or hot chocolate sipping. Clear glassware will keep things from seeming too cluttered even if you’ve filled all the space on your shelves.


Create A Theme:  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 just make sure that you stay within a colour palette and that the mismatched pieces have something in common – maybe they are all old, or all stoneware, etc. Since the items on these shelves will be on display for all to see, it’s important they look good together, and sticking with a theme is the best way to do that!


Stick To Sets:  Mixing old and new is typically a good thing, but mixing vintage and new plates in the same stack tends to look eclectic, and like a thrift store (unless that's the look you're going for - in which case, skip to the next tip!). 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.


Or Don't!:  Love the eclectic look? Go for it! One of the best things about eclectic decorating is the permission to skip the rules and do what feels good to you. Fill your shelves with your favorite dishes, DIY storage, or that candlestick you bought in Iceland, and display the orange bowl from your grandmother! Make your open shelves a place of joy in your kitchen.



Make It Family-Friendly:  One super simple way to take your open shelves from modern masterpiece to family friendly is to add pattern. Coloured glasses with designs will be a fun addition to your shelves. Maybe some patterned bowls for ice cream. Opt for something that will make you and the kids smile, on and off the shelves.   

Mix It Up:  A combination of open and closed cabinets is the perfect option for showing off what you want to show and hiding the things you don’t want to see all the time.   


Rethink What It Should Look Like:   Remember, open shelving isn't limited to one style. There are numerous ways you can design shelves to fit in with your specific aesthetic. For a more modern look, consider gold and brass finishes in more geometric patterns. 



Change It Up:  Don’t forget to change up your open shelving seasonally! Add some evergreen boughs for the holiday season. Display a pumpkin in the fall. Bring out your lemonade pitcher in summer. Switch out vases of flowers in spring. Make your shelving reflect the seasonal decor in the rest of your home. 


Store It:  Need a spot to store snacks and baking supplies? Line your open shelves with big glass jars. Farmhouse kitchens in particular will benefit from this kind of storage, filling empty wall space in the kitchen in a practical yet beautiful way.

But remember - open shelving isn’t just a surface for storage. Use hooks underneath to double your space! Hang your mugs or cooking utensils or small pots and pans. It’s the perfect solution for small kitchens.

Use Wall Space:  Open shelving doesn't need to span just one wall. Don’t be afraid to turn the corner! Unlike cabinetry, where things that get pushed into dark corners are never seen again, corners in open shelving just provide a spot for maybe a bigger pot or pitcher.


Carefully Curate:  Whether you have an entire library’s worth of cookbooks or just a few, store them away from messy cooking areas. Designate a high shelf to keep (and show off!) your beloved books. We’ll let you decide if you want to organize by colour...

We know it’s a challenge to cut down on clutter, but when it comes to collections of grains or spices, always upgrade your containers. You’ll be amazed by how huge an impact swapping out branded boxes to clean, clear jars can have on aesthetics.

Align Items:  If you like the shelves in your kitchen to look a bit more neat and orderly so that they don’t feel so thrown together (again, there are exceptions), face things the same way – like those mugs.


Using Vertical Space:  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. Open shelving doesn’t always have to be up high. Take advantage of islands, bar carts and bookshelves for extra storage space, but make sure it still looks stylish and clean.


Arrange Wisely:  Make sure to combine sets of things with larger, more graphic pieces. It helps ground the collection and takes up good real estate without being busy - too many small items look insignificant and add clutter. When it comes to styling shelves, bigger is better, so use objects with substance like baskets and big bowls to fill negative space and add scale.   Just make sure that it feels balanced in color and busy-ness. Pepper the colours and patterns 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.  

Watch this little video by interior designer extraordinaire Emily Henderson, that sums up the tips we listed above:

Open shelves are a great solution for any size or style of kitchen. When done right, they're a versatile way to add a layer of personality and tons of visual appeal. We're on (an open shelf) board with it! Are you?!

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