Smitten: The Cupboard-Less Kitchen

When my husband and I renovated our former home, we completely gutted the kitchen (not a frivolous endeavor, but a necessity—it was a grungy, wood-paneled, 1970s nightmare). But instead of installing kitchen cupboards in every nook and cranny, we left the overhead space bare. Practically, it worked for us, as we were fortunate enough to have a large pantry and minimal kitchenware. And aesthetically, we loved it—the absence of overhead cabinets gave the space an open, airy, and serene look.

At the end of next month, we’ll be moving into our fifth “home” in less than a year (and another temporary one, at that). In our parade of apartments, sublets, and extended stay accommodations, I’ve lived with a variety of kitchens. They’ve invariably had an overhead bank of cabinets, which is starting to look ponderous, oppressive, and a bit tired to me. I’m once again craving a simple kitchen, with open shelving and the barest of necessities.

To see what I’m dreaming about, check out the photos in these links (and mentally subtract 75% of the stuff!):

Kitchen: Open Shelf Roundup | Remodelista

Great Open Kitchen Shelving That Will Inspire You | Apartment Therapy New York

Kitchen Gallery: Bright White + Warm Wood | Apartment Therapy The Kitchn

Limiting kitchen storage space probably goes against every renovation, design, and real estate rule in the book. I love it nonetheless, and plan to do something similar the next time I own a home. Kitchen cupboards make it too easy to hide things (the freebie glasses, the extra plates, the tower of takeout containers you’ll never reuse). When your kitchenware is on display, it’s wonderful motivation to keep it to a minimum. :)

Here’s a few tips for making a cupboard-less kitchen work:

1. Pare down to the stuff you love. If you have open shelving, you’ll be looking at your plates, cups, and glasses all the time—better make sure they make you smile! It’s a great excuse to get rid of that ugly dinnerware you inherited from Aunt Edna.

2. Group similar items together. It’s an elegant and visually-appealing way to display collections, and works just as well with your kitchenware. A stack of white plates, or line of simple glassware, can look quite elegant.

3. Have a place for everything, and return everything to its place. This simple strategy will keep things looking neat and organized, with minimum effort.

4. Use mason jars for foodstuffs and supplies. Pasta, beans, rice, and tea bags look much lovelier in glass containers than supermarket packaging.

5. Keep only what you use. When your kitchen storage is open, seldom-used items will surely acquire a layer of dust. On the upside, this will certainly make you mindful of what you need, and what you can do without!

If you’ve edited down to a minimalist kitchen, ditching the overhead cabinets is a wonderful way to lighten and brighten your space—as well as show off your fabulous decluttering skills. It also keeps you honest, and provides a powerful disincentive to acquiring non-necessities in the future.

Anyone else smitten with a cupboard-less kitchen?

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

65 comments to Smitten: The Cupboard-Less Kitchen

  • J

    My current kitchen doesn’t have any overhead cupboards, and I hadn’t really thought about it but I suppose it is nicer. I particularly like the kind of plate and cup racks that could go over the sink to let your rinsed dishes drip dry, thus avoiding a separate draining rack.

    • I love the open shelving idea. Once I can build my own place, I love the idea of barnboard shelves with white dishware. And I love this idea of the plate and cup racks that can go over the sink, too … such a space saver and double-duty which is always great in a minimalist household!

  • Susanne

    While it can be aesthetically pleasing, open shelving has a big practical disadvantage: dust can settle in your tableware. I have some open shelving in my kitchen, and I am very unhappy with it. It just gives me extra cleaning work, which is cluttering up my time. When I grad a glass, I want to use it right away without having to check whether it is still clean inside.

    • I think here the idea is to not have a lot of dishware … only enough for the people in the house, eg 4 people living in the house then 4 glasses, 4 cups, 4 bowls, 4 plates, etc. Any extra for possible guests could be kept elsewhere to bring out only when guests are coming. Regular use like this would not allow dust to even have time to really settle. Makes it easier to just dust off the shelf itself if not many things are on it.

  • JBear

    Yes, open shelves can be a problem but a great incentive to keep the clutter and belongings generally to a minimum. Bring back old-fashioned larders, I say. Keeping food in jars Mason or, if you live in Britian, Kilner jars(not quite the same), keeps dry goods fresher, too. It’s funny how ‘fitted kitchen’ with an immovable central island and uncomfortable breakfast bar has become a house-sales talisman. Thanks as ever for the spur to domestic sanity, Miss M. and good luck with your move.

  • kris

    Susanne comments that, “When I grab a glass, I want to use it right away without having to check whether it is still clean inside.”

    We store glassware and coffee mugs on open shelves in our kitchen, but we store them upside down. That way, any dust that accumulates falls on the outside of the glass or mug, not on the inside.

    And when I purchased coffee mugs, I made sure that I liked the way the look when upside down. :-)

  • morfydd

    In Germany you usually have to build your kitchen from scratch. The previous renter left a counter and lower cabinet along one wall and I never got around to putting up shelves or upper cabinets. I did put kitchen rails above the counters, but I’ve been paring down what hangs on the rails as well.

    I keep pantry stuff in used vegetable and pasta sauce glass jars, which are as uniform as mason jars. These go in waist-high Ikea Benno CD shelving (just about deep enough for 2 rows) in an otherwise awkward kitchen corner.

    I had thought I would put up mirrors to bounce light around, or pictures, on the empty walls, but right now I’m enjoying the feeling of space.

  • Oh, definitely, I love open shelving instead of upper cabinets.. If you store dishes you use all the time on open shelving they don’t have time to become greasy-dusty. Upside-down for glasses and mugs is good too. Limiting the amount of open shelving looks nice and not too cluttered, keeps your most used and loved things on hand, and isn’t too much extra work to wipe..
    I also store dry food stuffs in glass jars to keep them fresh and look nice.

  • Bren

    It’s not just seldom used items that will get dusty; it’s the shelves themselves. Believe me, you’ll have to take –everything– off the shelves once a week to keep them looking nice. I’d really recommend against open shelving.

  • meg

    I’ve had open shelves for dishes and glasses, and it can be a hassle to keep things clean if you are, ahem, an exuberant cook who frequently creates steam, smoke, spatters, etc. But it is a look I love. If you can locate the shelves well away from the cooking area, that’s the way to go.

    In my current kitchen, I rewarded my decluttering efforts by removing the overhead cabinet next to the stove (, which created so much more air and light that the kitchen feels twice as big. I store the dishes in the remaining overhead cabinet because I keep enough on hand for entertaining and there is no way I’m turning cleaning them into a hobby–and I’m still an exuberant cook!

    I hope you get your dream kitchen soon. It really does contribute to one’s sense of contentment :)

  • A

    Open cabinets is one of the things I dearly miss from my last apartment. It was built in the 1920s, and the kitchen had tall cabinets that ran to the ceiling. My guess is that they originally had glass panes in the doors, and someone removed the doors entirely when the glass broke. And, at some point, someone painted them Granny Smith Apple Green, but…

    Having open shelves meant I had to carefully curate my glasses and plates, but it was so worth it for the beauty of it! No need to store them upside down if you don’t have more than what you use on a regular basis.

    Also, Crate and Barrel carries these beautiful and simple Luminarc working glasses, which can be both storage and drinking/eating items. They look great on open shelves, and in use with fruit or coffee in them.

  • Carrie

    I followed Meg’s example when we had our house built. Our builder overcharged us ridiculously when we had our kitchen installed and those “fabulous custom shelves” started to fall apart less than a month later. We had all the cupboards ripped down and just had the drywall repaired and painted. The builder had visions of charging us even more $ to put in “new” cupboards AGAIN – was he ticked that we pared down our kitchen belongs and just went with a blank wall instead (honestly, the look on his face when we just said “no” was almost worth all the fighting and stress he put us through, so funny!) – I LOOOOVE how open it looks and really love not having all the extra dishes, etc. that never got used!! Who knew it was going to take a construction disaster to finally get my husband converted over to a more minimalist way of thinking!!

  • Debbie M

    How about glass doors to keep the dust/grease out while still giving you an open look?

    Personally, I love lots of overhead cabinets especially if they go all the way up to the ceiling and if the doors are well designed (easy to close, easy to keep open, and I don’t bash my head on them all the time). The more room I have to put things away, the less I’ll have on my counters. And many things (such as spices and prescriptions) last longer out of the light (though these could be stored in opaque jars).

  • Jennie

    I love the idea of open shelving, and suprisingly, my husband (whom I am trying to ‘bring over’ to the minimalist side!) agrees! Unfortunately, we plan on ‘flipping’ our current home, and, as was stated above, most buyers just *love* their cupboard space, so I guess I will need to wait until we buy our next home!

  • I’m short so overhead cabinets are just a pain for me. I want them gone from my kitchen, but my husband is tall, so they are staying… for now.
    But I did fall in love with this kitchen. No overhead cabinets. Big windows!

  • Layla

    Ooh good idea. As a student living in a rented place with four other people who have tons of dishes, I don’t care yet about what the kitchen looks like. But I’ll definitely consider this when I grow up.

    My roommates think I’m crazy because I complain that my room has too much storage. It encourages me to get more stuff, which leaves me with less money and less time (the time I take to look for things I can’t find)

  • Mary Lee

    Although I love the look, dust and greasy dust at that would be an issue. After years of heating my kitchen with an antique woodburning cookstove, I understand why cupboard doors became popular.

  • Kathryn Fenner

    Apple green was a very popular color back then– I seem to recall they thought it was healthful.

    I took down all but two overhead cabinets in our recent facelift of an 80s oak kitchen. I can’t convince my husband to take the doors off the last cabinets, and since I still have some specialized glassware like champagne flutes and martini glasses that don’t get used regularly enough to withstand our inefficient stove hood,it probably makes sense. The remaining overhead cabinets are along the refrigerator wall, so they don’t detract from the open look. I did install an old plate glass mirror left over from a powder room redo, and I like it, and I have a framed giclee print on another wall. Otherwise the walls are Miss Minimalist white. The one tricky thing was to affix our stove hood (there wasn’t a big enough budget for a new one) to the wall, instead of a cabinet. It vents through the wall behind it, but not exactly centered. We were able to configure black stove pipe elbows to fit, and screwed the back of the hood into studs–we had to drill a pair of new holes on one side. So far, so good.

    This was totally inspired by you, MM!

  • Matt

    Interesting idea. I bet that would look cool. I just dont know if it is for me. I would think that having the cupboard doors on would hide the appliances and dishes etc giving a less cluttered and stress free look. I leave some large utinsels out and they get dirty but they are over the stove. I’d like to see a picture when you’re done!

  • heather

    i like this look too. but since i live in southern california, the threat of an earthquake is always gnawing at the back of my mind. i am very reluctant to place anything on the walls, let alone a large shelf of glass and ceramic! but if i didn’t live here, this would be my preferred kitchen look as well :)

    • maybe have the open shelves but with a band that hold everything on the shelves in case of jostling? I see it in my mind but not sure if I can explain it. If a modern kitchen maybe stainless steel bands low and around the shelves … if rustic then maybe wood bands low and around the shelves? just a thought that came to me when you mentioned living in earthquake country. The same could be used in front of books in open bookcases?

  • JessDR

    I’m with the others: open shelving is gorgeous, but dust and grease (and ESPECIALLY the dust that sticks to the grease) are a serieous problem. If you decide to try it, put the shelving on the other side of the room from your stove (which means more walking) and invest in a REALLY good over-the-stove vent fan.

    • Amy

      If you eat vegetarian foods, there will be little to no grease in the air. Which is great if you are worried about the *greasy dust* problem.

      • Karen T.

        Amy, sounds good except even a vegetarian stir fry uses a little oil. There’s also road grime to consider — I used to live in a tiny pre-war apartment in downtown Sacramento. No a/c, so I kept the windows open even though I lived right on the street. I dusted twice a week and it was still dusty! Open kitchen shelves would have been awful.

      • Ashley Laurent

        Hahaha. I know several french fry vegetarians. In fact, being vegetarian doesn’t necessarily equal healthy. There are tons of horrible things out there without meat. Ice cream, cookies, pizza, chips,…need I go on?

      • JessDR

        Um, olive oil? Any oil + any moisture in the food = some spattering.

      • Gerda

        In my opinion vegetarian food has nothing to do with absence of (greasy)dust. Tofu and veggies with a little bit of oil create the same grease as meat in oil.

        I used to have open shelving in my kitchen – due to lack of cupboard space. The cleaning drove me crazy. I still have the habit of checking everything that I take from my cupboards before using it, a habit still ingrained.

  • I have always been a big fan of cupboardless kitchens! I also love little hanging hooks for my mugs! And you are so right! It is so much easier to keep tidy and unstuffed cupboards if you can’t just shut the door to hide everything!

  • I’m inspired! I like the open shelving. I have changes to make tonight now! :)

  • MelD

    I think it looks great. I have decluttered enough that I would do it, no problem.

    BUT. I am only 5’2″ and wouldn’t be able to reach most of these shelves!! Having to use a step or ladder every 5 mins would drive me crazy and I would trip over it all the time. Ever looked at the statistics for home accidents LOL?!

    My married daughter just got a new Ikea kitchen and with their low ceilings her top cupboards are just single, sideways-on, glass-fronted. Nice. What seems like hundreds of cabinets, though. And she thinks there is less space for her stuff than before! I guess she really needs to declutter all that stuff ;)) I have way fewer cupboards than she does.

    So. If I ever get a new kitchen (mine is 20 years old but solid wood and still going strong!), I intend to have the short wall (maybe 3 metres) with floor-to-ceiling cupboards that will also house the oven and fridge and all storage. Then along the side with the sink (4-5 metres), I probably won’t have any top cupboards and probably not even any shelves, either, just that bottom run of cabinets. Apart from the sink, I want a stovetop with 3 hotplates next to each other instead of the standard 4. I never use more than 2 at one time but my husband likes an extra (He’s tall so he can use the top cupboards on that full wall, too!!) I also see no point in a huge dishwasher where you have to have so many dishes to fill it. My mom has a 45cm wide dishwasher (18″) that would be perfectly adequate for our needs, too. You can still get a setting for 6 into it, easy. And I don’t need a huge American lifestyle fridge, either…

    • Z

      I agree with this, MelD. I am barely 5’2″ and many of these pictures show shelving that is far beyond my reach – a nice aesthetic, but would be terrible in real life (for me).

    • Karen T.

      MelD, I like your idea of closed cupboards on one side of the kitchen with the stove/oven and fridge included, and then on the other side of the room the sink and dishwasher with closed lower cupboards but none above. How about a wall of windows over the sink and surrounding counters? No open shelves, but an open spacious feeling and lots of natural light.

      • MelD

        I would love that but live in a building that is listed, well, the facade is listed so they probably won’t let me put windows along that wall like I’d love: morning sun!!
        Ah well. The perks of living in a house from 1770 that is incredibly cute are other…!

    • Dylan

      I had a two-drawer dishwasher installed when the original dishwasher that came with my house finally died. It works well if you are 1-2 people to use only one of the drawers.

  • Lorna

    Yes, I would love to have that type of kitchen, but I haven’t seen any around these parts.
    It would make one accountable for all of his or her stuff, as it couldn’t be hidden from guests.
    On a random minimalist note unrelated to the kitchen topic, I was so excited to see the new Incubus music video which was shot using a very minimalist approach. The lead singer even said their entire album is “minimalist”. Even if you aren’t a fan of their music, you should do a search for their new “Adolescents” video. It’s all black and white and they only use lights and shadows that continue to move in the opposite direction. It just shows that less can really be more!

  • Sarah

    I’d love to tear down the ugly upper cabinets in my apartment and just have the space open with a couple of shelves. I’d put a small white vase of flowers, a photo, and my white mugs on the shelves. Everything else I’d still pack away behind doors in the lower cupboards – I really don’t have much – 8 plates, 4 bowls, 1 mixing bowl, and 4 glasses.

  • I had it in my old house and LOVED it. We wanted open shelving, but knew we would be selling our home, so we improvised. We took the cupboard doors off and gave the interior a fresh coat of paint. Not only did we loved the look, but it made the space so much more usable. Everything was used regularly, so we didn’t have extra cleaning. Plus, guests knew immediately where to find what they needed to serve themselves. You can see a picture via the link below:

  • I’ve been dreaming about a cupboard-less kitchen for some time. My husband and I are renting, too, so for now it is only a dream! I think that it is aesthetically beautiful and very motivating in terms of not letting kitchen gadgets accumulate.

  • jennifer

    My ideal kitchen would be no upper cupboards and no shelves just white walls and a decent size pantry,and cupboards under bench tops.I had open shelving in my last home,and there was a lot of cleaning with dust and grease.I like that you get us all thinking about these details Francine,it’s all about mindfull time saving living.

  • Z

    I have debated this concept in my head many a time. I used to dislike this look, as it seemed cluttered and too much was showing. I have come to accept and even admire this look, to the point of considering it in our new home… but then I remembered I have a huge hairy beast that lives with us (our 120 lb. Caucasian Ovcharka) and there is no way I could deal with the hair that would accumulate on each plate and in every bowl, no matter how much I tried to keep things clean. I guess I will have to keep the cupboards and their doors!

  • mary

    Hi! Just want to say that I am new to your website. And I have been enjoying reading all your articles. Thanks for giving me inspiration on how to declutter. It’s hard for me to let go sometimes. But I’m definitely up for the challenge now!

  • Kim

    Love that idea. We use Mason jars and even old pasta sauce jars, etc. to store coffee, nuts, and tea. It looks fantastic and reduces waste (we fill directly into the glass jars).

  • I would love to have no overhead cupboards – we’re fortunate now to have just a few at one side and a big floor-to-ceiling wall of cupboards (our ‘pantry’). My dreams for our new kitchen (maybe in 5 years!) have no overhead cupboards at all – just lots of lovely space (and maybe some windowsills for my indoor herb garden).
    We’ve found that it’s not just in the kitchen that the overhead thing takes up a lot of visual space but everywhere. We have some tall bookshelves that feel a bit like they’re looming over you – I’d love to trade them for something lower, say about chest height (can’t get rid of all my books yet). And not just becasue we live in an earthquake zone!!
    My decorating rule of thumb is chest height or lower for most things (with the odd wall of floor to ceiling shelving or cupboarding.)

  • My husband really wants to do this, and I think I would like it as well. I am just not up for a major project at this time. (we have done our share, believe me!) Maybe within a year or so, we will tackle it. But I do love the way it looks!
    What is Living the Balance Life?

  • Miakat

    I eat simple wholefoods – mostly meat, vegetables, fruit. Pretty much everything goes in the fridge, gets chopped up with the one kind of knife, and gets eaten on the one kind of plate or bowl. Simple. Nothing else needed and is optimally nutritious! I dont understand why any human would need much more than that… my cupboards have spices, nuts and potatoes and thats about it!

  • Fabulous post, this blog just gets better and better. I cna lose myself in it for hours !

  • runi

    I like the idea of NO upper shelving–open or cabineted.
    We have four “upper cabinets”–only one has anything in it. There is a barrier to ripping out our “upper cabinets”–resale value.

    I tried to do what Francine suggested–mentally subtract 75% of all the stuff pictured in the open shelving arrangements–but just looking at these pictures made me squirm. Anyway, there are barriers to us shifting to open storage–each barrier has four legs and screams “Meow”.

  • s.e.

    I’ve had both, we redesigned a kitchen in a house many years ago and had everything on open shelves. I have also had extensive (and high up) cupboards including in a place with really high ceilings where i had to stand on the counter to reach the upper cupboards and I am 5’6″. Right now we have a sideboard that has all the dishes/glasswear in it. I have storage jars on the top of a cupboard. I prefer closed storage for many of the reasons mentioned. We have quite a lot of dishes and cups in particular but then we were a 7 person family before some of the kids grew up and left home.
    We did reuse a cupboard from a wall that we took out. it is is upstairs in the house and is used to store art supplies:)

  • Delores

    Nix on the open shelving below counters if you have pets!

    • Dylan

      And above cabinets if you live in an earthquake zone! That’s a risk where I live but to me the larger downside is the cleaning aspect and reaching for things. Although having glassware and plates crashing to the floor during a good seismic jolt wouldn’t be fun.

  • I think I’m the odd one out, but I don’t like the look of open shelving, and would rather have everything hidden away in gloss white handle-less cupboards.

  • I love the looks of this kitchen! I consider myself a minimialist already but just got your book and can’t wait to pare down even more. Years ago, when my family moved back to the United States from an expat assignment, the movers lost 1/5 of our possessions. Today, I couldn’t even tell you what went missing.

  • tordis

    i prefer few plain cupboards that are easy to be cleaned and all the clutter stays behind the doors.

    big jars and mugs are full of greasy dust after a while (or just dust if you have a fume hood, i don’t) and to me all the plates and mugs are visual clutter.
    although one or two open shelves with colourful spices and jars with noodles and beans really look nice :)

  • Mrs Brady Old Lady

    I’ve just put the legs I really liked underneath the table top I really liked so now have only one kitchen table I really like. And the other table top and legs can go to the jumble sale. Good riddance.

    I’m also slowly getting rid of almost everything I don’t need, aim is getting down to four plates, four glasses etc (I live alone but have lots of friends).
    The joy of being able to say “don’t have a microwave”. “Don’t have an oven”. Appliances which I don’t have to clean or repair!!!! I just steam my food or eat it raw.

  • I love the look… but not yet streamlined enough to do that! LOL I also have to agree that dust is an issue for me. I would likely go for glass doors on cupboards.

    Thanks, your post motivates me to keep decluttering. ;)

  • Cathy

    If you don’t have a dishwasher, you might consider a rack, rather than a shelf, over the sink or over a waterproof area within easy reach of the sink. Then you can put your dishes away wet, and they just dry in place. I saw this in Spain and suspect it’s in use elsewhere in Europe. You could also retrofit a cabinet by replacing the bottom with a rack.

    I have one tall pantry-style cabinet and no upper cabinets. My plates and bowls go into a drawer. Within reach of the sink but out of the main traffic area, I have a wall rack for glasses and jars, which drip happily and harmlessly onto the concrete floor.

  • Michelle

    I would love to ditch the upper cabinets but for someone with lots of critters, I probably won’t. I worry that the fur, feathers, and dander would end-up in my dishes so at least they’re a bit more protected behind the doors of the cabinets.

  • Sea

    Our kitchens for the past twenty years have had no upper cabinets or shelves, and taking them down is always one of the first things we do when we buy a new house. We’ve never had a problem selling a house without them, and it usually takes people a little while to realize what it is about our kitchen that makes it seem so open. We also, however, make liberal use of deep, wide drawers, and peg systems to keep dishes from sliding in the drawers and dividers for glasses and mugs.

  • Anne

    We’re owning something like that:

    It’s not above the counters, but on a side wall (we don’t have so many counters either), so it’s not getting too dirty when cooking. We didn’t put it up too high on the wall, so I can reach it comfortably. I love it. :D

  • Ivy

    I had open shelves in my kitchen for 8 years and I HATED it. At first it was really cool – my dishes and glasses were colorful and the rest of the kitchen all white, so it looked great. However, my husband and I cook a LOT – we almost never eat out. Smoke and oil and dust always stuck on our dishes and it was annoying to say the least. I understand the idea of only having a few everyday use items – that’s all we had space for anyway. However, in a set of 4 glasses, two get used, but two stay on the shelf to absorb all the dust and grime from the cooking. I did store glasses upside down, but the outside of the glass got dirty too. Pretty much every weekend I had to clean the shelves and remove all the contents (the shelves themselves collected dust and oily residues from the cooking). It’s just not practical.

  • Tina

    I like upper cabinets. I lived with too few cabinets for a long time and now I am happy with lots of cabinets.

  • Dylan

    I prefer closed cabinets. I don’t even cook with or eat oils, animals, or fats, but it still seems like the cleaning issue with opens would be huge. For those who eat the SAD diet and have grease in their kitchens, it must be problematic.

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