11 Cleaning and Organizing Tips from Real People Who Have Open Shelving

published Sep 26, 2017
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(Image credit: Minette Hand)

In my early 20s, I had open shelving in the kitchen. And it was awful. There was no vent into the kitchen, and only one tiny window that opened into a filthy courtyard with no air circulation. (Sometimes pigeons would get in there and fly around and poop everywhere.) The stuff on the shelves got filthy. Plus, they were totally jammed with stuff and the kitchen always looked cluttered. When I moved out, the Fiestaware dishes on the uppermost shelves were just coated with grease.

I obviously made a few crucial mistakes when it came to keeping those shelves useful, attractive, and clean. To prevent this from happening to you, I reached out to a few friends with clean, nice-looking open shelves to get their tips on how to keep them that way.

1. Fill them with stuff you use a lot.

Your everyday plates and glasses are great candidates for open shelving because you use and wash them frequently, so they don’t have an opportunity to gather dust. The bonus of storing them on open shelving is that it cuts out a step when you’re unloading the dishwasher. No precious seconds wasted opening and closing a cabinet door! (Yes, this sounds silly, but it really does save time!)

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

2. Or fill them with stuff you only sometimes use.

Stuff you seldom use, like cake stands or vases, are good candidates because it doesn’t matter if they get a little dusty and you can quickly wash them before you use them a few times a year. Medium-use items, like wine glasses, aren’t good candidates if you imbibe only a few times a month because they’ll get dusty between uses and you’ll have to clean them. (If you do keep glassware up there, store it upside down so the insides don’t get dusty.)

(Image credit: Lana Kenney)

3. Avoid appliances and plastic.

Unless your toaster’s extremely cute, most really utilitarian things like small appliances, colanders, or other cooking gadgets are going to look junky on your shelves. Try to keep them tucked away in closed cabinets.

(Image credit: Emma Fiala)

4. Repackage your dry goods.

Although I don’t really believe in putting spices into matching jars, if you want to use your shelves to store dry goods like pasta, nuts, flour, or oats, store the stuff in glass or ceramic canisters to make them look more attractive.

5. Wipe the surfaces.

Depending on where you live, how well your stove’s hood works, and other factors (see: pigeons), you could get a lot of dust on your shelves (some of my friends found their shelves got very dusty; others didn’t think they did at all). Give them a swipe about every two weeks to keep them clean — one friend likes Method’s Surface Cleaner, another uses wet paper towels, and another uses an old-fashioned feather duster to keep hers clean.

6. Organize by zones.

As much as you can, place things on shelves near where you’ll use them, like the plates near the sink or dishwasher and spices near the stove. Things you use less often can go on higher shelves, and frequently used items can go on the lower ones.

(Image credit: Tamara Gavin)

7. Stick to a color scheme.

One of my friends, who collects the most lovely things, says she always has the shelves in mind when she’s shopping. (“It helps me edit when I buy,” she says.) Whether you’re into neutrals or poppy colors, try to work within a scheme as you acquire new dishware so the shelves will look cohesive. Even if things don’t match exactly, they’ll still look organized.

8. Don’t overload them.

Open shelving needs to breathe — don’t jam them full of stuff or they’ll make your whole kitchen feel cluttered.

9. Mix up shapes.

If you can, space out larger, more sculptural items (like pitchers or decorative bowls) between stacks of plates or groups of canisters. The more you balance large and small against each other throughout, the more purposeful your shelves will feel.

(Image credit: Natalie Jeffcott)

10. Fill in the gaps.

Don’t be afraid to fill in empty spaces (although some negative space is good!) with stuff from around your house. Some planters, pieces of art, decorative objects — they can all be considered.

(Image credit: Julia Steele)

11. Consider lighting.

Illuminating the shelves can add an extra layer of light to your kitchen and make the shelves really pop. One friend installed thin LED strips under each shelf to do the trick. You can even add a small table lamp to one of the shelves.

Do you have open shelving in your kitchen? How do you keep them organized and clean?