How to Design a Kitchen: Upper Cabinets

There is a big debate online about upper cabinets. I kind of pondered wading into the fray but ultimately decided not to. I'm actually kind of agnostic on upper cabinets versus open shelves versus nothing at all. All three can work well in the right place. The key is to not convince yourself you need one solution when there are other options out there.

Here's the thing, when people come to my office looking for a new kitchen, they often have an image of what a kitchen is in their heads, and usually it has upper cabinets over the counter. I mean, who doesn't like more storage, and where are you going to keep all those things?

Some things to keep in mind:

1. Cabinets are expensive.

2. Cabinets add thickness to your walls and use up space even if they are empty.

3. Feeling good in your home is a very personal thing. You do not have to love an arrangement of space that I love.

Keep all of these things in mind as you consider your options.

So, what ARE your options?

If you have a lot of space, you may not need upper cabinets because you can store everything you have in lower cabinets.

No uppers at all

(This photo from here where you can see other views of the space.)

A few small display shelves and a rigorous attention to reducing the overall STUFF in your space can give you this very clean, modern look. The space looks a little cluttered with only three things on the countertop. This is a very hard look to maintain and may require that you get rid of a lot of stuff.

Maybe you have a stunning view, though. Or a super high ceiling. Upper cabinets look ridiculous with a very high ceiling.

No uppers big windows

(From here.)

This is the no-uppers look without the rigorous attention to modernist minimalism. There's a lot of roughness in this kitchen but there's also a big open space that is being respected as a big open space.

But OK, let's say that you don't have a couple of pantries or enough space to do without upper storage altogether. What are your options?

Our inspiration photo

(From here. This photo is the palette inspiration for our kitchen, though of course we won't be duplicating it because that's unoriginal and also that ceiling tile is weird.)

The first step is open shelves. I have a particular fondness for them although in general they have not worked well for us because of dogs and construction dust. But they work well for things you use a lot, and if you generally live a cleaner life than we do.

Editing is critical

With open shelves, editing what is on those shelves is critical. Everything is out there. You either accept a totally chaotic look (which may be your look), or you work on making things into a composition and then on keeping it composed. When it works right it works really, really well. When it doesn't it can be very stressful.

Glass uppers

For those of us who live in a cloud of dust, there are also glass uppers. You can go clear or frosted or wired or any kind of decorative glass you can think of, the only limit is really your budget.

Our kitchen cabinets

We have frosted glass uppers in the kitchen right now, and they work nicely for a balance between revealing and concealing. The insides are not meticulously maintained, but they're not a total mess, either. Do not use this photo as inspiration for anything.

Then there are upper cabinets. They work OK. They are traditional. Sometimes you just need the storage and you don't want it showing for the whole world.

Traditional uppers

The thing with upper cabinets is that there's a wide range from this super-traditional look complete with traditional hinges and plate rack to this:

Disco kitchen

(From here.)

That's a nice, clean-ish contemporary kitchen with a lot of very clean details (love the backsplash, love the ceiling) that just happens to really maximize the cabinets.

You also don't need to take sides.

Have uppers and have no uppers

(Source here or without weird plugin slideshow here.)

You don't have to do a uniform installation of deep lower cabinets with uppers above, or a uniform installation of anything. Maybe you have a great wall of windows and two other walls that have no openings in them and would be perfect for walls of cabinets.

So I'm not going to tell you where to go on the upper cabinets debate. You'll get to see the decisions we've made for our kitchen over the next year or so, but your decisions may not be the same. And that is just OK.

(I do think that it seems like a bad idea to store a Kitchenaid on a high, open shelf, at least here where the ground shakes around occasionally, but that's my only input on the open shelves debate.)

posted by ayse on 09/03/15