7 Inspiring Ways to Use Open Shelves

Spring has sprung, birds are singing and bright open kitchens are at the top of your client’s wish lists. And synonymous with open kitchens is the trend for open shelving. There are two opinions on this subject it seems, one being that “they’re amazing and beautiful” and the other being “who’s gonna clean that?” For the latter, the concern is dust collection and display etiquette, which has validity, and I’d suggest if the question is there, maybe it’s just not the right fit for the client. But for those who are interested yet uncertain, we’re going to do a little show and tell for the many ways open shelves on the wall can thrive in a design!

It’s easy to think “open shelving” and immediately picture contemporary, minimalist floating shelves, but there are so many more ways to use open shelves in your design, even in transitional and traditional styles. Take a look!

1. Corner Wall

Medallion Sips & Tips: York maple Smoke/ York maple Irish Creme Classic
Outside corner: A unique way to create a display area that doubles for serving. This design allows the wall material to run from the counter up to the ceiling!
Park Place Flat Panel maple Sea Salt Classic and Earl Grey Classic; island in Park Place Raised Panel cherry Silver Appaloosa
Inside corner: Replace a typical square corner or diagonal front corner wall. Embellish the wall between shelves with beadboard or shiplap in a contrasting finish for some extra pizzazz! More details here.

2. Below wall cabinet

One or two shelves are placed where the bottom of a wall cabinet would typically fall. Wall cabinet height is reduced 9-12” for one shelf, more for two.

Ellison Flat Panel (FP) maple White Icing Pewter Highlight; Bella quartersawn oak Shale

CupDesign Tip! Medallion allows you to include an integrated matching bottom which is perfect when wall cabinets are located more than 18″ above the counters. (Shown in examples above and below)

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A continuous run of shelving placed 54″ from the floor keeps the kitchen feeling open with frequently used items visible and handy. Stay tuned for more on the open island storage!

3. Stacked Shelves

Option A: Connected

This type of arrangement is typically placed at the end of a run but works between cabinets/walls as well. We also commonly see this arrangement adjacent a window or cooking area. Shown below, we use two stacked shelves above a demi-height configuration of a pull-out pantry and built-in oven.

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Display space above demi-heights is a natural addition, while open nooks near the cooking area keep spices and oils at hand without cluttering the counters. I like to display some of my kitchen tools as a reminder to enjoy them – like my beautiful Japanese tea set.

Using open shelving in this manner can fit a number of styles, from traditional to transitional to contemporary.

CGI: Bahamas oak Cottage White Dry Brush; Brookhill Raised Panel maple Castle Rock Sheer

Open shelving in a stacked hutch style arrangement can break up repetitiveness on long runs of cabinetry.

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Scallop-shaped side panels, beadboard back and a top panel with puck lights and crown molding make the end of this arrangement into a furniture-inspired design statement.
Open shelves influence strong linearity in a design which correlates with how our eye views nature’s horizon.
Niche areas like this cleaning zone are perfect for making design statements with tile, and open shelves complement this look perfectly.
A stacked arrangement of open shelves on a peninsula wall creates a great furniture-style transition from the living area to the kitchen.
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Continuing the crown molding over open shelving keeps the overall look more transitional.

2015_Set3_6D_FW_DET001Option B: Free floating

When most of us picture open shelving, floating shelves are what usually come to mind: free-standing box-style shelves, free of brackets or other hanging systems. This is by far the most popular appearance, but as you can see from the pictures below, this can still take a number of different forms!

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Add some personalized flair with decorative brackets.
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This kitchen has a U-shaped layout (almost a galley kitchen), and using shelves instead of a cabinet keeps it light and open.

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4. Above the sink (no window)

Add a little extra storage or display space and create a focal point at the same time!

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Form and function melge in this contemporary application.
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Reducing the depth and adding small corbels below this stacked shelf setup allows for a change in the backsplash with this Arts and Crafts example.
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Shelving can also be extended beyond the sink width and framed out to create a focal point, which in a rustic design creates a soft relief from the character of the wood.

5. Cubbies

This concept is so fun to work with for many design styles, but contemporary designs are particularly intriguing as you work to balance proportion and negative space within the composition.

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These rather large cubbies act as a hutch might in a traditional dining space, and provide an opportunity to subtly work in a different material and finish (a trend that’s continuing to grow!)
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Each of these hutch-style cubbie sections were created by combining 4 primary elements: (1) Wall cabinet with matching bottom. (2) Left and Right of wall cabinet: Decorative side panels with Arts and Crafts profile. Below wall cabinet: (3) Beadboard back panel with (4) Concave edged shelf placed over the top.


6. In front of a window

Installing shelves across a window gives you the best of both worlds: let in light and showcase scenery while still leaving plenty of space for storage and decor. This also works for openings between the kitchen and other rooms as a divider.

7. Framing a hood

Medallion Sips & Tips: Middleton cherry Smoke Ebony GLZ & HGLT/ Amesbury maple Chai Latte Classic
Keeping the cooking wall simple with floating shelves and a minimalist steel exhaust hood allows the eye to appreciate the overall composition and surrounding materials.
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Open shelves add interest to sleek linear designs and decor adds color that works great when those kitchens are in the everlasting and quite popular…white!
By using open shelves on both sides of the hood, and a counter wall cabinet to the right, we minimized the offset position of the cooktop and created a stronger balanced design.
Avalon maple Chestnut and Harbor Mist Dry Brush
In smaller areas, open shelves and continuity of wall tile make the area feel more spacious.

CupI’m a pretty big fan of this open shelving trend, and I personally think the sacrifice of a little dusting is well worth the reward of the many looks that can be created with these feature accent items. Of course, it’s always good to consider different ways to create unique design areas. And while this is not an all-inclusive list, I hope it inspires you to consider how open shelves can be used in a variety of designs and configurations. as well as with complementary materials, to make a statement that fits your client’s personal taste.

Want to see even more ways to use open shelving? Click here for 7 more ideas!


  1. Diane Badger Kelly-Fradet Lumber

    Love the open shelves across the window!!
    Your Sips & Tips keeps me inspired and fresh.
    Thanks Suzanne!!

  2. Duane

    Suzanne, I love all these ideas gathered in one place! I am wondering how you suggest that installers make the outside or inside corners? Do you suggest butt overlap joints or 45 degree joints?

    1. Suzanne DeRusha - Medallion's Design & Trends Expert

      Hi Duane – glad you enjoyed the article. We installed both of our inside and outside corner arrangements with butt joints since our floating shelves are supported on the wall.

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