Are Floating Shelves Out? Why Some Homeowners Are Returning to Cabinetry

Two organizational experts share the benefits of closed cabinetry and why it's making a return to kitchen design.

Open kitchen storage

Stacy Zarin Goldberg

Remember when everyone was ripping out their closed cabinetry and opting for floating shelves? Whether you were on board or quietly sat by knowing that this trend too would pass, the moment of reckoning for us all has arrived. Those who opted to rid our kitchens of closed cabinetry in favor of uninhibited sight lines and the ease of unloading the dishwasher in record time are now realizing we might prefer a little more privacy for our kitchen wares. To share their take on the pros and cons of the once-trendy cabinetry choice, Louisa Roberts owner of Neat Method NYC and Meg Markland of Neat by Meg sound off on this polarizing topic.

Kitchen corner floating shelves

Adam Albright

Functionality Can Be Limited

While floating shelves have certainly had their moment in the sun, many homeowners now want a bit more functionality when it comes to the kitchen. We need spots for not just the pretty dishes and serving platters, but for the everyday items like water bottles, kids' dishes, and even our quirky collection of coffee cups.

“I think that floating shelves sound great in theory, but the reality is they are not as functional as closed cabinets,” says Markland. “No one wants their chipped ‘My Favorite Dad’ coffee mug on display at all times.” 

If you still prefer the style of floating shelves, though, there are ways around these storage conundrums, namely utilizing other closed storage areas within the kitchen and pantry. Drawers, lower cabinets, and nearby closets can all help you achieve your floating-shelf goals without sacrificing your quirky mug collection.  

They’re Designed with Aesthetics First

There’s one thing that can’t be denied when it comes to floating shelves: appearances matter. Pair that with their grab-and-go appeal and you have a polarizing toss-up for the ages. A stack of dishes right next to the stove makes serving dinner a snap. And unloading the dishwasher? Well, it has never been easier. But what about storage containers, water bottles, and the like that we would also like front and center, easy to grab at a moment’s notice? That’s where things get tricky.

“With closed cabinetry, we can truly place kitchen items based on a functional standpoint and not think about the aesthetic impact,” says Roberts. “For example, if the homeowner wants reusable water bottles near the refrigerator, we have the option to do that with closed cabinetry—not so much with open shelving.”

Markland points out that an aesthetically driven storage system in the kitchen is hard to overcome as it does narrow down your options for where you can place items, though those who live more minimal lifestyles or are more inclined to favor form over function can certainly find their match with floating shelves.

Kitchen with abstract art

Kim Cornelison

They Can Create Balance

While there’s much to be said when it comes to the draw of closed cabinetry, a mix of open and closed shelving options can provide a more balanced look. According to Roberts, incorporating floating shelves in your kitchen can break up bulky cabinetry and add another layer of interest. Open shelves can be used to incorporate an additional color or material in the kitchen that would otherwise be difficult to do without making the space feel too choppy. Natural wood floating shelves can complement painted cabinetry, while open shelves can showcase a backsplash and allow it to extend from the countertop to the ceiling for major style points.

They’re Not Made for Organizational Materials

Particularly when it comes to organization, closed cabinetry is hard to beat. Markland points to the storage materials many of us use to contain our miscellaneous (but frequently used) odds-and-ends as one more open-shelving conundrum. “None of the organizational items would look great on open shelving where you want to be more curated and streamlined,” says Markland.

But when it comes to closed cabinetry, you can go all out with color-coded systems, bins, baskets, and more. “We can put Yeti lids and straws in a bin, we can add a cabinet riser for additional storage, and we can use water bottle holders to store water bottles,” she explains. The organizational benefits of closed cabinetry won’t require aesthetic considerations, which means you can let your inclination for order take center stage. 

They Work in Tight Spaces

When square footage is a commodity, upper cabinets can make an already small kitchen feel even more closed in. “In smaller kitchens, sometimes there isn’t space for full-depth upper cabinets, so adding open shelves or ledges for additional storage is more helpful than closed shelving,” explains Roberts. Not only can floating shelves add storage where there wouldn’t be room for more traditional cabinetry, but they can also help embrace the charm of a smaller kitchen, whether that’s through imparting cottage-like details, putting pretty collections on display, or even giving your space room to breathe by avoiding bulky upper cabinetry.

They Require Restraint

If you’re someone who has a hard time with organizing, loathes dusting, and has a hard time keeping things tidy, open shelves might not be for you. Floating shelves naturally collect more dust, so you’ll have to add these ledges and their contents to your weekly cleaning schedule.

And, while there is certainly appeal in more organic-looking displays (for instance, collected dishes in various colors, mismatched serving pieces, etc.), there is a certain level of restraint that one must have with open shelves to give a sense of order. “My advice is to place items from only one to two sets of dishware or glassware so the display has consistent materials and colors,” says Roberts. “Also, mix in pieces that won’t change as frequently as everyday items such as mixing bowls, cookbooks, a frame or canvas, plants, vases, or canisters.”

Additional Floating Shelf Considerations

While open kitchen shelves have certainly had their moment, Roberts says homeowners are currently gravitating toward a more simplistic and functional approach, and that means a return to closed cabinetry. For those who are looking to marry both the style of open shelves and the functionality of upper cabinetry, Markland suggests incorporating a few upper cabinets with glass fronts. “This will give you the ability to display some of your favorite dishes/glassware, yet still be able to hide the items you don’t want on display in closed upper cabinets,” says Markland.

For those who worry that even closed cabinetry will soon be replaced with some other of-the-moment storage solution, Roberts says it’s all about the classics. “Open shelving was a trend, but with any trending design concept, the classics will always find their way back into homes.”

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