Open Shelving in the Kitchen: How to Style AND Stay Organized

Last summer when Adam and I were house hunting (we still are…), I looked at a co-op in Dupont that had the most incredible kitchen. The open space had light sage-gray cabinets, gold hardware, open shelving, a white subway tile backsplash, and a butcher block island. It was the kitchen I didn’t even realize I needed until that moment. While we decided against putting an offer in (mostly because Adam wouldn’t have been able to see it before the offer deadline that day), I couldn’t get that kitchen out of my head. So, when we went to look at our current apartment and I saw that it had a bit of open shelving, a white subway tile backsplash, and light gray cabinets, I was sold.

While it’s not the vast open shelving you often see on Pinterest, I’ve still made the most of having this easy display space within the kitchen. However, open shelving can be intimidating, so today I have the tips and tricks I’ve learned for you.

FORM AND FUNCTION

My biggest tip always is to remember that your house isn’t a museum. As you may remember from my coffee table styling post, I’m obviously all about styling your home to look pretty, but you also need to be able to use it and live in it. That means, despite the tips you may see online, I’m not putting artwork in my open kitchen shelving. I don’t use it to eat and I don’t want it covered in kitchen splatters.

You want your everyday essentials within arms reach with open shelving. This is where the dishes you use every day need to go. And that’s where you should start when first thinking about your open shelving. What do you reach for at least once a day? It’s probably plates, bowls, mugs, glasses. These need to be front and center. Of course, some more decorative pieces will be added in, but let’s get the basics down first.

WHY USE OPEN SHELVING?

There are three big reasons I think open shelving is wonderful in the kitchen. The first is that it opens up space visually. In a small kitchen, like I have, it makes the room seem airier. You don’t have cabinet walls surrounding you like big blocks. Instead, you have this open space with visual interest. Second, it makes it so easy to access the things you use every day. I love having my plates right there without a cabinet door blocking them. I can see how many almonds I have left. Everything is in plain sight. And third, it gives you a space to show off a bit of personality. If you have beautiful dishes, this is their place to shine.

WHAT TO PUT IN OPEN SHELVES

My shelves are a mix of my every day dishes, some pretty serving pieces, and decanted grains, nuts, and other items that I reach for on a regular basis. Luckily, I came into the open shelving situation with all white dishes so I had a cohesive color scheme with a pop of turquoise on a vase and then a bit of metallic in some old fashioned glasses.

Needless to say, I think white dishes look fresh and bright in open shelving, but you can dive into color as long as you maintain an intentional color palette. These royal blue plates would look absolutely stunning with a variety of shades of blue dishware and glassware. Stick to one or two colors to create a deliberate color scheme. Or, go the all white route with just a pop of one bright hue.

As I said earlier, I’m all about function in open shelving. Once you have pretty every day dishes, put those out! Make sure you have enough to fill up the shelf, then display them in an orderly fashion. A one off glass or plate is going to appear cluttered, but a set of 12 gorgeous dishes or 6 ceramic mugs lined up like soldiers looks perfectly styled.

Once you have your basics in line, add in a few fun pieces. For me, these are two pretty scalloped serving dishes, a turquoise vase, and a pineapple water pitcher. I use these regularly (well, not the vase since I can’t have flowers due to a curious cat…), but not often enough that it’s a problem that they reside on the top shelf. They add a bit of interest from their spot high up. I also added some milk glass coffee service pieces and old fashioned glasses that, again, I don’t use every day, but it’s nice to have them accessible. Plus, they’re pretty!


HOW TO STYLE YOUR OPEN SHELVES


Don’t overcrowd your shelves! It’s so much easier to stay organized when you don’t have shelves where you’re moving things to put things back in their place. Make it light, bright, and easy and you will keep it neat. When there’s less stuff to keep organized, it’s not a task to keep it organized. 

Add a bit of contrast and texture to all the dishware and glassware to give the shelves a more lived in vibe. Split up the dishware with glass in between. For more texture, I decanted nuts and grains into mason jars for a super orderly way to add some color and variation to the shelves. Plus, it makes it so easy to see what I’m low on and to remember to eat those healthy almonds!

Put those items you’ll use most often on the bottom shelf and work your way up. Remember, the whole point of open shelving is easy accessibility!

ONE LAST TIP

So, how do you keep these looking as organized as the day you styled them? It’s all about creating a system that works for you. Not overcrowding makes life a million times easier. Get rid of dishes you don’t use! Only have those dishes you need every day on display in the open shelves and each day you’ll be washing them and putting them away again so they’ll never get dusty.

But remember, open shelving doesn’t have to be for everyone! Honestly, if you’re someone who truly, truly struggles with organization and keeping things neat, don’t do it. There’s no need to have mess on display, it’ll just stress you out and make you feel guilty that you haven’t kept it in better order. As with everything in life, and as Drake once said, know yourself.

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