Shelf Life: Tips for Open Shelf Styling

Curated by Carolee

September 1, 2020 | by carolee mccall smith | photos by nathan satran

I’ve heard it all. “I’m not organized enough for that.” “It’s too much work.” Or my favorite, “Agh, dust!" I love the look of open shelving in the kitchen, but does it work in real life? I have 3 little kids; it’s already chaos. I trip over dogs and tiny humans everywhere I go. There are toys everywhere I look. And I hate clutter! Would worrying about where to hide my junk finally push me over the edge?  

Spoiler: No, it didn't. In fact, I love open shelving even more now that I'm living with them. It's perfect when your hands are already full. At dinnertime, we just grab a couple of plates off a shelf. And unloading the dishwasher is so simple, grab a stack of bowls and set them on the shelf. It's much more convenient than I'd ever imagined. 

They're beautiful, and shelves add character to your home. Everyone will set them up a little differently, making them unique to each home. They create dimension. What could be merely a sea of cabinet doors now has personality. There are so many ways to style open shelving…or restyle for that matter. They’re a great outlet for those who like to change things up and rearrange.  

I'm totally into open shelving, but I understand that styling them can seem daunting. When arranging items on your shelves, there aren't a whole lot of hard and fast rules. One person might prefer their shelves neat and tidy, while another might love the dimension created by stacking stuff haphazardly. There are a few things to keep in mind, though. 

1. Keep a uniform palette. Whether you’re using simple white dishes or bold Fiestaware, keep a unified color palette. This doesn’t mean you can’t add a little color here or there. Just don’t mix styles or colors that don’t work together. I prefer a neutral palette to keep from overloading the eye since there's already a lot going on. 

2. Use shelving for things often used. If you look at open shelving and think, "I'll set it up once and hide my actual dishes away," you're setting yourself up for more work. If what’s on the shelves is used regularly, the stuff doesn't become a dust catcher. It gets cleaned in the dishwasher. (I still turn glasses and cups upside down, just in case.) Plates and bowls are used and cleaned daily, so I don't have to worry about dust and grime.  

3. Mix textures and shapes. I go on and on about this in every area of home decor. Texture, texture, texture! With their open nature, shelves will go a long way to create dimension in your kitchen. Vary the textures and shapes of what you put on the shelves. If your shelves and cabinetry are painted, add a wooden bowl and a cutting board to the mix. If your shelves are wood, add a marble or slate cutting board for another texture. 


4. Avoid even spacing. Keep items on your shelves grouped together in clusters. If you have a cluster of glasses, make sure they're grouped together instead of being equally spaced by the bowls they're next to.  

5. Vary heights. Keep shelves from looking flat by changing up the height of items placed on them. This could be by stacking multiple things. For instance, set one layer of coffee cups for a lower section or stack a second on each cup if you need a little height. 

6. Add greenery. It certainly doesn’t have to be a greenhouse, but a little bit of green on your shelves goes a long way to pulling life (and texture) in. 

7. They don’t have to be everywhere. Just because you add floating shelves to your kitchen doesn't mean you can't also have upper cabinetry. Even a couple shelves go a long way in adding character to your kitchen. Besides, some of us have a hundred sippy cups to hide.  

I recently read an article about home trends that should go away, and one person noted that no one has time for open shelving. It's a dream, not a reality, he said. Having lived with it now, I say that guy was totally wrong. Open shelving offers convenience and style. I figure that all the time I save not opening and closing cabinet doors all day adds up to at least several seconds. And I'll take every one of them. 

Originally printed in the September 2020 issue of Simply Local Magazine

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