For tiny kitchens short on storage, freestanding wire shelves can be a game-changer: They’re durable, affordable, and can seemingly hold everything from a few bottles of wine to a giant KitchenAid mixer. The flip side of that: They can get cluttered very quickly, acting as a catch-all rather than an intentional part of your kitchen. Extra shelves won’t do you much good if they’re constantly in a state of (highly visible) chaos.
Open shelving of any kind can be challenging, mostly because all those mismatched Tupperwares and novelty coffee mugs are usually best tucked behind closed doors. Even if you happen to be blessed with an aesthetically pleasing collection of stoneware dishes, vintage glassware, and minimalist storage containers, finding the balance between aesthetics and ergonomics can be tricky. It’s hard to maximize the space on one’s shelves without overcrowding them, and it’s tricky to aim for style without sacrificing function.
So we asked a few kitchen and design professionals how to make the most of these ubiquitous shelves in a way that actually makes sense for your kitchen and doesn’t look like garbage. One unanimous piece of advice from the pros: As annoying as it is, make a concerted effort to keep them tidy. (And, on that note, consider buying a good duster for quick sweeps.)
At the tiny Portland, Oregon restaurant Beast, wire shelves serve not only as storage for the 24-seat restaurant, but also, in some cases, as an active (albeit miniature) work space: a large Boos butcher block transforms a wire shelf into a bread and coffee station for front-of-house staff, says Katie Sombat, the restaurant’s operations manager. It might not be enough space for a full prep area, but there’s no reason a cutting board atop a wire shelf couldn’t pull double-duty as a mini martini bar or a Chemex setup for the home.
Tone down the heavy metal
Wire shelves already look industrial; stacking them with appliances and clunky cookware can quickly veer into Restaurant Depot clearance rack territory and clash with the rest of your space. “While somewhat industrial in style,” says Sombat, “their presence in a room can be neutralized by not over-stocking, using similar containers to store items, and adding style like live plants to break up the metal, industrial feel.”
Even if there are a few appliances on there, to soften the overall vibe, prop stylist Ginny Branch likes to incorporate cotton or mesh produce bags, and hangs aprons or tea towels from hooks. Stacks of wooden cutting boards add some warmth to the shelves. Consider what you place around the shelves, too: When flanked by a sizable houseplant and, say, a handsome recycling bin, the vignette feels more intentional and less like an afterthought, says Branch.
Interior designer Brigette Romanek adds that, if silver isn’t your jam, you can always spray-paint the shelving — that way, the color looks intentional, rather than purely functional, she says. “You could also line the bottoms with a nice fabric, making it a design choice instead of a utilitarian function.”
Pick a few items for “display”
When prioritizing what to store on your shelves, Branch recommends you ask: “Do you need it to be a workhouse in the space, or can it be more of a visual statement?” If you have room for a bit of both, interspersing a few well-placed items for display can add additional visual impact without sacrificing too much functional shelf space. “If you have a beautiful or unique collection of dishes, servingware, vases, or cake stands, this would be an excellent space to spotlight them,” says Branch.
Vary up the stacks of stuff
Playing around with shelf heights and, more importantly, of the items stacked on top of them can make things look more interesting (and intentional), rather than identical pile after pile of dishware. Branch likes to use cookbooks for this purpose, and says you can get creative with organizing the books by color (or going fully monochrome). “I have utilized this in my own kitchen in one area, but it’s just stacks of white hardback cookbooks, some with the book jackets removed,” says Branch.
Stacking items also about maximizing vertical storage, too. At Beast, storage containers with lids are prioritized because they’re stackable. Sombat adds that they tend to buy multiples of the same storage containers, which adds a little bit of neatness and uniformity.
Containers and baskets not only wrangle loose items, but add style to the shelves without eating up too much valuable real estate. Sombat has found a wealth of stylish, functional storage items on Etsy, including neutral, faux-leather bins in which they stash their silverware. (These faux-leather cups also fit the bill.)
Branch uses baskets to keep stacks of folded linens neat and tidy; she often finds them at thrift shops and estate sales. She also recommends Bisley five-drawer filing cabinets for a clean, utilitarian storage solution for silverware (the smallest cabinets are only 11 inches by 15 inches and come in a range of colors, from turquoise to sunny yellow). Trays — from punchy high-gloss to fancy metallic (or even rainbow) — can add style while keeping canisters from sliding around and going overboard. And while you can’t go wrong with glass jam jars, Branch adds that shops like Terrain, Hawkins NY, and ABC Carpet and Home stock more modern storage containers that also pull double-duty as visually pleasing objects of interest.
Romanek loves the natural look of wooden bowls (some of her favorites are made by designer Michael Verheyden), especially when filled with colorful citrus. “A bowl of beautiful, fresh lemons can change a kitchen’s look,” she says.
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