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Are cabinets cliché? New kitchen storage trends and ideas

A cozy kitchen without cabinets
Josep Gutierrez/Getty Images
A cozy kitchen without cabinets
Josep Gutierrez/Getty Images

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Replacing kitchen cabinets is often one of the most time- and money-consuming parts of a kitchen remodel. There’s a myriad of choices, they have to be measured and installed, odds are you end up spending more than planned. In short, kitchen cabinets can be a headache.

But maybe you don’t need them — or as many of them.

There are several reasons to rethink traditional cabinetry. Cutting down costs is one, of course. Perhaps you want a more spacious feel for your small kitchen. Or maybe mobility is an issue and you want more storage on easier-to-access lower levels.

Or maybe you just want to jump on the latest in kitchen design ideas. The National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) is “seeing less upper cabinetry where homeowners are taking advantage of utilizing space with lower cabinets, islands and pantries,” says Tricia Zach , head of NKBA Research. “New kitchen designs are emerging from new technology solutions, nature-inspired themes and European trends.” With these new trends, you get new options for your kitchen storage.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the leading alternatives to traditional hanging kitchen cabinets.

Kitchen islands

Islands are one ideal alternative. Getting longer, they’re an increasingly common place to add kitchen storage, with shelves or drawers chosen by three-fourths of renovating homeowners, according to the 2022 Houzz U.S. Kitchen Trends Study. The NKBA also notes that large or double islands are in demand. Plus, Zach says, a lot of homeowners are seeking out multi-function kitchen islands, like “large islands for food prep that also function as dining tables, homework and work-from-home areas.”

This can be a huge help for accessibility. For elderly homeowners and people in wheelchairs, for example, an island with storage provides more space at an easy-to-grab height.

You can buy a pre-made freestanding island to place in your kitchen, or you can hire a contractor to build a customized version for you. You can also choose to match the island to the countertops and cabinets in the rest of your kitchen or incorporate new, trending materials and textures for contrast (an increasingly popular option, adopted by nearly half of renovators, according to the Houzz study.).

Open shelves or racks

While an island keeps kitchen storage at the lower levels, open shelves and racks can help you take advantage of the vertical space you have available. This could be as simple as buying a wire rack and placing it in your kitchen. But if you want to follow the latest kitchen design ideas, consider floating open shelving on the walls.

“Open shelving units can provide plenty of extra storage while also being super-stylish,” Zach says.

“Open shelving has been a strong trend in recent years,” agrees Susan Serra, president of kitchen design firm Susan Serra Associates, Inc. “Decorative and useful items mixed together on a shelf add lots of personality on a budget. I encourage homeowners to mix textures and finishes, which allows them to inject their personalities into their kitchen design.” She also says you can choose open shelving in a contrasting color or finish from your lower cabinets to make your kitchen look well-designed.

With floating shelves, you’ll need to find studs and mount the shelves to your wall; though it’s one of the simpler DIY projects, you can also hire a carpentry pro to handle this for you.

If you choose open shelving or racks, you can mix-and-match items, like a stack of bowls you use daily with a plant or beautiful cookbook you rarely pull down. If you want a simple way to keep things looking tidy, Serra recommends buying some storage containers. “Lidded baskets can be positioned casually on the shelves to conceal kitchen tools or other items,” she says.

Hutches, armoires and other furniture

Who says you can’t use furniture in the kitchen? “To create a featured area in the kitchen, include the use of vintage pieces such as a dresser, chest bookcase, armoire, hutch or even bar or tea carts to hold small appliances,” Serra recommends. “These pieces can be found at estate sales, often in excellent condition and of great quality. Their patina of time is exactly the soulful look that adds warmth to the kitchen.”

While Serra recommends choosing vintage — or at least vintage-looking — pieces, you could also choose modern, clean or minimalist furniture to mesh with your kitchen design. The trick is to make sure the piece you choose has the storage you need. A hutch might include drawers — a necessity if you’re skipping lower cabinets — while a bookcase might be a better replacement for nixed upper cabinets.

While furniture might seem like an ultra-easy way to remodel, Serra recommends approaching it thoughtfully. “Always carefully check dimensions to make sure proportions are appropriate for your chosen location,” she says. “Better yet, work with a design professional, even for a short-term consultation, to get the proportions, scale, colors and textures right since the piece you select will be an important part of the entire design.”

Moveable carts

There’s no rule that your kitchen storage has to stay fixed in place. “Traditional kitchen carts with butcher block tops and wheels can take the place of a cabinet at the end of a run of cabinetry, ready to move around the kitchen as needed,” Serra says.

Of all the kitchen design ideas here, this is one of the easier ones to implement. You don’t even need to decide where to place it since it can move around. This gives you the flexibility to see how it works best in your kitchen. You might stow it in a corner, freeing up space, then pull it out only during meal prep.

Styles abound, but definitely opt for a cart with a butcher block or another prep surface on top. This way, you don’t just gain storage, you also effectively increase your counter space. If you plan to store appliances or other less-than-beautiful items in it, choose a piece with drawers and cabinets rather than open racks.

DIY wood cabinet

If you’re looking for budget kitchen storage alternatives, you can save some money by building something that looks and functions like a cabinet at a fraction of the cost. “One or more cabinets can be substituted with a DIY wooden frame between cabinets,” Serra says. From there, she recommends adding roll-out shelves and a curtain at the front to conceal the contents behind. “It’s a lovely look — and can also have a modern look with the right fabric,” she says.

That said, you don’t need to cover the front if you want to mimic the look of open shelving here. Some people paint or wallpaper the interior to add more depth to this DIY cabinet.

Final word on kitchen cabinet alternatives

Kitchen cabinets may not be a total cliché — but they’re no longer a necessity when remodeling your cooking space. “Homeowners can save money and add some soul into their kitchens at the same time by substituting alternative types of storage instead of defaulting to using all kitchen cabinets,” Serra says.

You don’t have to stop at the boundary of your kitchen, either. “Look beyond the kitchen into surrounding rooms if more storage is needed,” she recommends. “A hutch or sideboard in the dining room can house packaged food or small cooking equipment. When the doors are closed, no one knows that cans of tomatoes or the hand mixer are on a shelf.”

Written by
Kacie Goff
Personal Finance Contributor
Kacie Goff is a personal finance and insurance writer with over seven years of experience covering personal and commercial coverage options. She writes for Bankrate, The Simple Dollar, NextAdvisor, Varo Money, Coverage, Best Credit Cards and more. She's covered a broad range of policy types — including less-talked-about coverages like wrap insurance and E&O — and she specializes in auto, homeowners and life insurance.
Edited by
Senior homeownership editor