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photo by Jessica Alexander | Design by Layne Kula

Look at any of our favorite kitchen transformations and you’ll find that almost all of the after photos have one important feature in common: open shelving. The bare-it-all storage solution is synonymous with modern kitchen design at this point (think: subway tile status). And while there’s plenty to love about this setup—your ceramics collection can finally get its day in the sun!—floating shelves are often preceded by a larger renovation that makes room for them. For a renter, knocking out the existing upper cabinetry and adding custom millwork usually just isn’t an option. 

So here’s an idea: Just take the doors off of your top cupboards. As designer Layne Kula of Penny Layne Creative recently reminded us, this unconventional solution is a great way to store more and spend less, all while getting the open and airy feel you want. She reflects on a recent project in which the previous owner had already removed the cabinet fronts: “It was so nice to be able to work with the preexisting structure—a sort of blank canvas that would really allow the contents to do all the talking! It’s like self-expression at its finest.” 

Got your screwdriver handy? Read on for our tips on how to make the most of your instant open shelves. 

Slap on Some Paint 

The trickiest part of pulling off doorless cabinets is making it look purposeful and considered—a fresh coat of paint will clear up any hesitations. If you’re simply looking to clean up the framework, try a taupe-y white like Behr’s Swiss Coffee (Kula’s pick for her client’s kitchen) or turn up the volume by painting the interior of the cabinets a bold color. A fiery hit of red in this all-white kitchen by designer Alexandra Angle breathes new life into the cabinetry. 

“It should be a perfect marriage of form, function, styling, and design.”—Kula

Do a Head Count

photo by Jessica Alexander | Design by Layne Kula

photo by Jessica Alexander | Design by Layne Kula

Take inventory of the items in your upper cabinets and group similar things together. Seeing what you actually have will help you make better decisions about what should go back on your new open shelves—and what shouldn’t. “It should be a perfect marriage of form, function, styling, and design,” says Kula. “I like to start with fundamental pieces—ceramics, bowls, glassware, coffee accouterments, mixing bowls.” 

Work Top to Bottom, Then Back to Front 

Now the real dilemma: What to put where? As a natural rule of thumb, Kula suggests placing large statement items at the top to “fill out the verticality of the space.” Think: occasional centerpieces, fancy glass decanters, and anything else you wouldn’t mind pulling out a step stool to grab every once in a while. 

“Since the cabinets were pretty deep, we were able to store nonattractive items in the back.”—Toufali

With that in mind, not all everyday staples are created equal. When Sara Toufali, the blogger and designer behind Black and Blooms, decided to take the doors off the cabinets in her last rental, she knew she’d have to disguise her less-than-beautiful (yet decidedly essential) dishes somehow. “Since the cabinets were pretty deep, we were able to store nonattractive items in the back and keep the pretty-looking glasses and dishes in the front,” she shares.

Pepper in Plants and Accessories 

Take a page out of Toufali’s book and fill in any gaps with greenery (trailing philodendron will love hanging from your highest shelves). And don’t forget about your cookbooks. “Display them horizontally or vertically so nothing feels too linear,” says Kula. “It also gives dishes room to breathe.” Candles, decorative ceramics, and treasured trinkets can also go in between kitchenware. 

Add the Doors Back on When You Leave

Of course, the most important takeaway of all: “It’s always temporary!” says Kula. When it’s time to pack up and leave, just screw those doors back on. Your landlord will never know, and it will take you less than 30 minutes. Even if you aren’t breaking your lease anytime soon, you can still reattach the cabinet fronts, move things around, or even opt for a new coat of paint. “If the design feels stale, change it,” says Kula. “Sometimes that refresh is all you need.”

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