Kitchen Design: Alternatives for Upper Cabinets

By Kate Riley September 8, 2020

For so long we’ve defaulted to the style of upper cabinets with closed doors in kitchens, then about ten years ago floating shelves began surging in popularity as a replacement.

I wrote a post eight years ago questioning whether open shelves were timeless or trendy in kitchen spaces, and back then people had opinions. Looking back from 2020, having watched kitchen design trends all this time, it’s fair to say open shelves are now just as popular as closed doors on upper cabinets. They are often requested by homeowners to be included somewhere in small or large format in modern kitchens.

One thing I’ve been noticing is designers are thinking beyond the proverbial wisdom of basic upper cabinets. They are making bolder, more creative choices, pushing us to embrace alternatives for upper cabinets beyond closed doors or floating shelves.

The raised (or shortened) upper cabinet combined with a display shelf below has been trending for a few years, I wrote about this design choice in this older post.


house updated

This doorless cabinet style has been a part of design for some time, it’s the happy medium between closed cabinets and open shelving. This style of upper cabinetry gives the homeowner the decorative benefit of open display with a finished interior and a cabinet frame matching the surrounding cabinetry, similar to a dining hutch.

tom howley kitchens

something blue home


In recent years, there’s been a trend toward suspended kitchen shelving, I wrote about this option two years ago. See this article for more examples.

the mayes team

gregory funk

Metal shelving is a modern alternative to wood and a black finish is a contemporary choice.

joinery & design co. 

The long single shelf above a tile backsplash is a style found in many kitchens of Europe, Scandinavia, and the UK .

tom howley kitchens

fine little goods

roundhouse design uk

Here’s another look that combines cabinets and open shelving. This style incorporates open box shelving beneath shortened closed cabinets.

caldera kitchens

lindye galloway


These two kitchens have black metal glass front cabinets resting on the countertop. What they give up in counter space they make up for with a dramatic statement!

three birds renovation

chad james

These wood frame cabinets with glass fronts add texture and interest. Note the cabinets open by lifting up, not the typical vertical swing we often see.

source unknown


These suspended shelves hang in front of the window, allowing for light to penetrate the kitchen space, but also providing storage and display.

brooke wagner design


nicole hirsh interiors

katie hackworth

In Europe and the UK, sometimes there are no upper cabinets at all, leaving room for light fixtures, rods, small shelves, or as space to hang artwork.

devol kitchens

a + b kasha design

devol kitchens

And some designers are getting rid of upper cabinets entirely and swapping them for a wall of windows.

eye for pretty


Are you a fan of any of these new looks?


  1. I really like the raised uppers with a shelf below. Seems a great way to combine open and closed storage.

  2. Thank you for this recap, and for the collection of photos. The most attractive shelving, or lack there of, in this article are the European kitchens. They are soothing, with a lot of visual space, and look easy to clean. In contrast, the American kitchens have much bling, and are really over the top. I would not want to be faced with cleaning any one of those.

  3. As far as eye candy goes, I love the look of all of them! But considering that my kitchen is functional, I wouldn’t want any of them. Trying to keep all that glass sparkling and clean would make me crazy.

  4. I can see the appeal from a visual standpoint. But I need my upper cabinets. They’re mostly full of food because I don’t have a pantry. When I bought my house, the kitchen had a few lower cabinets and a wall of open shelves. They were cheap shelves put up with standards and brackets. The owners had almost everything on them, including cereal boxes. I had to install all new cabinets to get enough storage, and I still need more.
    If you have plenty of storage elsewhere, the rooms with just a display shelf under upper cabinets are rather nice. I really wouldn’t want my dishes and glasses out getting dusty.

  5. I love that blue kitchen by Tom Howley! I like the raised upper cabinets with the shelf below. I have no wall space in my kitchen so no upper cabinets but I do love the look. Thanks for sharing.

  6. I’m with the others on this- all really pretty, but most cabinets have to store a lot of stuff. Plus,kitchens tend to attract more dirt than other rooms.

  7. These are all so inspiring. I am working on a client’s cottage kitchen at the moment, and this is just the right post today. Thanks for the constant source of inspiration you give! :)

  8. They are all quite beautiful! However, having done some of this, I can attest that you or a housekeeper will be CLEANING CONSTANTLY! I have some open boxes up top at this time, although I have had totally open uppers. They are ALWAYS covered in dust and or grease. There is no doubt that open storage is visually pleasing if the shelves are beautifully arranged, as well as making the kitchen feel much more open and expansive. I suppose the decision has to come down to what you think you can live with.

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