Which is Better? Open Shelving or Cabinets?

When John and Sherry Petersik, the dynamic DIY duo behind YoungHouseLove.com, sat down to plan their kitchen renovation (pictured here), they knew that opening things up was at the top of their priority list. “Our kitchen has almost no natural light, so anything we could do to make things lighter and brighter was a go,” Sherry Petersik explains. “We’re no strangers to taking doors off closets or opening up a floorplan, so open shelving was an obvious choice.” But while sleek open shelves stocked with perfectly styled cake stands and fruit bowls look gorgeous when you’re adding them to your Pinterest boards, how practical will they be in your real-life kitchen, when your real-life (read: messy!) family is looking for a place to stash that half-empty box of Lucky Charms? Learn here the pros and cons for open shelving and cabinetry—and then choose the best configuration for your kitchen.

Pros: Open Shelving

A light, airy and modern look. Try floating shelves over an exposed brick wall for an industrial chic aesthetic; shelves with decorative brackets over subway tile have more of a vintage, farmhouse vibe.

Easy access. No digging through messy cabinets so items are easy to spot. (Say goodbye to husband kitchen blindness!) “Open shelves force you to stay organized—this is a good thing!” notes Petersik. “They also enable you to unload the dishwasher way faster, which was a big selling point.”

More affordable. There’s no two ways about it: Shelves are simpler to build and thus a fraction of the cost of cabinets, whether you buy them ready-made or go the custom DIY route. The Petersiks spent $141 on materials to build their shelves themselves, and estimate they would have spent upwards of $300 to get enough cabinets to fill the same space.

Cons: Open Shelving

What you see is what you get. If you’re constantly fighting clutter pile-up on the various surfaces of your home, adding more surfaces in the form of open shelves may be inviting disaster.

Dust. If you use open shelves to store the fine china set that only gets used at Christmas, do expect to have to rinse off a layer of fuzz before use, or plan to stay on top of regularly dusting these spaces. A better fix is to keep open shelves reserved for your everyday plates and other items in constant rotation—they won’t have time to sit around and grow sweaters in between uses.

Spillage. If you live in earthquake zone, forget it!

Pros: Cabinets

Out of sight, out of mind. Cabinets offer instant clean up because order can be restored just by closing the doors.

Variety. Shaker, beaded, arched, beveled, traditional, modern, stained, painted, lacquered… you name it— there’s a cabinet style to match it. And forget cookie-cutter. Most cabinet makers will even let you mix and match cabinet styles and finishes for a completely custom look.

Cons: Cabinets

Can make a room look top-heavy. If your kitchen is dark, narrow or has low ceilings, lots of overhead cabinets can add to the claustrophobic feel. A shiny finish and hardware will help reflect light; choosing some glass doors will also open things up (and let you display some of your nicer serving pieces).

Cost. There are no two ways about it: Cabinetry costs more than—often double—open shelving, because of the materials involved and labor required for installation. But you can save money by choosing affordable builder-grade cabinets and then dressing them up by swapping out the hardware or adding decorative trim. Or consider painting your current cabinets; the Petersiks gave the rest of their kitchen a facelift to match their wall of shelves by going this budget-friendly route. It cost just $249 versus tens of thousands for new cabinets, but do be prepared to invest many hours of sweat equity.