Kitchen Design: Ditching Upper Cabinets – Do You Dare?

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July 10, 2019
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Kitchen Design: Ditching Upper Cabinets – Do You Dare?

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Whether in a new home or a renovation, the kitchen is typically one of the priciest rooms to outfit. It is also likely one of the most frequently used. Part utilitarian space, part gathering spot, the kitchen has become the hub of everyday life. Because the space is so crucial, getting it right – ensuring that it is both efficient and welcoming – is important.

One trend in kitchen design that continues to gain traction is forgoing upper cabinets. It is also a concept that tends to generate strong opinions on both the pro and the con side of the design debate.

If your kitchen is more than five years old, chances are it has cabinetry laid out along most of its perimeter, with lower cabinets at the same depth as the countertops, and corresponding upper cabinets of a shallower depth.

When you consider that those upper cabinets likely contain the items you reach for on a daily basis, the question becomes, can you live without them?

The Pros

Removing upper cabinets from all – or most – of the perimeter of a kitchen instantly makes the room feel larger. Doing so essentially reclaims about 15 inches of space around the entire top half of the kitchen. Because that newly opened space is at eye level, the difference is visually significant. Forgoing upper cabinets can also allow added windows, with the additional natural light making the room feel larger still.

An entire wall of windows floods this kitchen with natural light. Kitchen design by Sara Iborra of The Kitchen Center of Framingham.

The Cons

Without a doubt, the biggest concern in omitting top cabinets is the potential loss of storage. In many cases, these cabinets contain the items you and your family use frequently; glasses and dishware, spices and oils, and nonperishable food.

The Solution

The key to successfully ditching the top cabinets is to compensate for the lost storage elsewhere in the kitchen.

As you begin to contemplate a new kitchen, taking the time to really notice how you use your current one will be time well spent. Take notes. Snap photos with your phone. What works for you in your kitchen? Which items do you use on daily basis? Are there things stored in upper cabinets, such as holiday serving pieces, that don’t need to occupy such precious real estate?

When you have your initial consultation with a kitchen designer, your notes and photos will help you and your designer decide if no “uppers” is a practical option.

kitchen design new england

A lean “counter-to-ceiling” cabinet tucked into a corner adds storage without overwhelming the space. Kitchen design by Martha Gargano, Karen Sciascia, Sandy Kennedy and Linda Sciascia of Motif.

One solution is to split the difference by keeping a few strategically placed top cabinets, perhaps on either side of the sink to hold glasses and coffee mugs, and near the range for spices and cooking oils. Make them taller than usual – allow them to rest on the counter, rather than suspended above it – and you’ve added more storage. Glass doors can work wonders in lighting this look, with frosted glass doors used on cabinets that tend to get cluttered. Incorporate a bit of open shelving, and you’ve solved your storage conundrum.

new england home design

A shallow lower cabinet, with a countertop that does double duty as a buffet, with two floating shelves above adds both storage and visual interest. Kitchen design by Karen Swanson of New England Design Works.

Another go-to concept for many kitchen designers is devoting one wall to a floor-to-ceiling pantry cabinet. Not only does this yield a huge amount of storage, when done in a contrasting color or wood tone, a pantry cabinet also adds an instant focal point.

boston kitchen design

A floor-to-ceiling pantry cabinet, with a pair of wall ovens, adds storage and anchors the space. Kitchen design by Claudette Andrew of Westborough Design Center.

Adding slide-out shelves to lower cabinets is an easy way to make them more accessible and better suited for things that see constant use, such as pots and pans and plastic storage containers. You can also opt for deep drawers under the counter that can be fitted with rods and separators designed to hold dishes and glassware. Those spices you keep in a cabinet next to your range’s hood can be stored in a below-the-counter pull-out cabinet equipped with shelves sized specifically to hold them.

As homeowners have embraced the look of no upper cabinets, building and design professionals have responded with think-outside-the-cabinet storage solutions. There are now a host of options available devised expressly to address storage concerns…beautifully.

Top photo: kitchen design by Valerie White of White Architects. All photos via