Home Decor

How to Make Open Shelves Look Like Art—& Stay Clutter-Free

It's much easier than you'd think.

October 22, 2019
Photo by Mark Weinberg

Last December, my partner and I purchased our first home, and since then we’ve been slowly (but surely!) chipping away at all of the early-2000s furnishings that came with the place. Cherry wood floors? Restained. Dark tan walls? Lightened up. The list goes on.

Our current project has us rehabbing the well-appointed, yet dated, kitchen. We’ve already repainted, picked out new tile and replaced the lighting fixtures, but one bit is still in the planning phase: replacing a section of our cabinetry with open shelving. The decision to replace it came easy, but the more I think about it, the harder it is to know what to do with them. How do we keep it from becoming a magnet for clutter? Is there a way to make the design trick actually functional? There’s a lot to consider.

Lucky for me—and those of you that are just as intimidated by them—three homeowners gave me a peek at their open shelving displays, and helped me break down why each of their designs works. There’s a Pennsylvania kitchen that’s proof of what happens when you keep it simple; a Texan home where symmetry reigns supreme; and a creative LA homeowner, who shows off how the open shelving around her wet bar balances form and function.

Symmetry for the win

Photo by Shane Nassiri

Don’t Forget the Backdrop

Iylana Nassiri is always on the hunt for new treasures to fill the shelves of her shop Indigo Trade. That said, it’s not surprising that her kitchen is filled with some of her favorite finds: Mexican and Middle Eastern pottery. While they come from all over the world, they feel like a cohesive unit when set against this simple, rich backdrop.

There’s Power in Symmetry

Iylana creates symmetry by facing the mismatched items on the upper shelves in the same direction (pointing towards the sink) and by placing the same number of items on each of these upper shelves.

Remember the Rest of the Room

Brass can steal the show because of its golden hue. By surrounding her open shelving with fixtures in silver, brass’ more-recessive sibling, Iylana helps the display take center stage.

(Pro Tip: Love the look of open shelving but worried about dust? Why not compromise and go for glass front cabinetry instead?)

built to work


Exciting Proportions

The wet bar of wallpaper designer and artist Samantha Santana is a great example of thinking outside the box when it comes to the shape of your shelves. Her unique open cubbies give the display a certain coziness and are a perfect fit for wine bottles and shallow objects.

Function = Form

While obviously pretty, this bar area is truly successful because it’s built to actually work, not just to display accessories. For example, the empty area between the middle shelf and the sideboard below means the space can accommodate taller decanters and bottles. Keeping function in mind every time you add something to your display will ensure it never becomes a spot that just collects and collects items over time.

Make a match

Photo by Staley Ash

Making a Case for Matching

It’s very easy for open shelving to feel messy and haphazard. By using multiples of the same item, homeowners Mel and her husband Mitch help you absorb their space as a whole instead of focusing on its individual parts.

Eyes on Accessibility

Fill lower shelves with frequently-used tools, and reserve the upper ones for decorative items. This approach to open shelving means Mel and her family can easily snag items while entertaining and cooking.

Open shelving—love it or afraid of it? Tell us in the comments below!
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Garrett Fleming

Written by: Garrett Fleming

Interiors Editor & Art Director


meg April 9, 2023
My 1927 kitchen has a ton of cabinets and they are all full of things I use regularly. Open shelving would have worked in my twenties, when I had to get plastic flatware from my local cafe,and 4 plates, but now- no way!
SK April 25, 2022
Less worried about clutter as I am about keeping those shelves and the items on them clean!
Brenda B. July 24, 2020
Afraid of it but getting some soon in my new kitchen so I appreciate the guidance.
Aaron P. October 22, 2019
Great article - loved seeing some different takes on open shelving, including what appears to be a simple implementation: removing the doors from existing cabinetry!