Removing upper cabinets makes space seem larger

After living in their Brookhaven home for 10 years, Randall and Mary Lou Allen felt the kitchen needed a fresh look.

The Allens had a simple plan: update the appliances and make some cosmetic changes. But after consulting with Mary Kathryn Timoney of Design Galleria Kitchen and Bath Studio in Atlanta, the couple began to see opportunities to change the way the kitchen interacted with the inside and outdoor space – and expanded the project.

To create a more functional, cook-friendly kitchen, the island was reconfigured and new appliances, cabinets and countertops were installed. On one wall, where the new range sits between two large windows, there are no upper cabinets.

Without the upper cabinets on that wall, the Allens feel the space is more open and airy, making the kitchen appear larger.

“I was worried at first about losing storage space (without upper cabinets), but we have plenty,” said Mary Lou. “And since we enjoy both cooking and entertaining, the new kitchen makes that a lot more fun.”

In older kitchen designs, the trend was to include walls of upper cabinetry to house dishes, glassware and other kitchen goods. It was assumed that both upper and lower cabinets were necessary. But there has been a growing trend in the past 10 years for limiting or eliminating upper cabinets.

“I think people want their kitchens to feel less “kitcheny,” said Timoney. First, appliances became paneled and fully integrated, she added. Then some were hidden behind pocket doors or tucked into “appliance garages” because the homeowner didn’t want to see the appliances or have them litter the counter.

“I suppose the next logical step was fewer wall cabinets,” said Timoney. “In the words of (architect) Peter Block: “The kitchen becomes a living space you happen to cook in.”

If you are planning a kitchen remodel, consider the pros and cons of upper or overhead cabinets from various design experts in the Atlanta area, including Construction Resources and HammerSmith Inc., plus houzz.com and the National Kitchen and Bath Association, a trade group.

Why remove upper cabinets?

- Allows you to add a large window or a bank of windows to bring in more natural light and take advantage of a lovely view. If a kitchen has a lot of upper cabinets, it can’t have many windows.

- Frees up a wall for adding color or tile (marble too) to the ceiling.

- Adds space for decorative task lighting, like sconces. These fixtures often are available with adjustable arms to give you the option of having the light where you need it most. Sconces also can make a design statement.

- Opens up the visual space around the room, making the kitchen appear much larger and more open. Too many upper cabinets can make a kitchen, particularly a small one, feel more confined.

- Gives you the feel of having more usable counter space without a cabinet overhead. Also, upper cabinets can cast a shadow over counters, making the work space feel darker.

- Upper cabinets can be hard to reach and too high to be useful.

- For a quick update without a lot of fuss, removing a couple of upper cabinets and replacing them with open shelves or taking the doors off and painting the interiors a fun accent color are easy kitchen updates, said Kelly Carlisle, a designer with Atlanta-based Design Galleria Kitchen and Bath Studio.

- Adds an element of universal design. Storing dishes on pullout shelves in lower cabinets or deep drawers is safer and more convenient than storing them in overhead cabinets for people of all ages, sizes and abilities. And as storage goes, clients are always amazed to see how much a deep drawer can hold,” said Warner McConaughey of Decatur-based HammerSmith Inc.

Why keep upper cabinets?

- Don’t have a pantry or enough storage space. Smaller kitchens may need some upper cabinets to meet storage needs.

Alternatives: open shelving

- Provides a practical and/or decorative solution in a kitchen.

- Can personalize a space.

- Makes it easy to access regularly used items, like coffee or tea mugs, without opening and closing cabinet doors.

- Gives a kitchen a light and spacious feel.

- Has challenges. Open shelves collect dust and grease if they are near a stove. Consider storing items such as dishes or glassware, which are used and washed frequently, to avoid the problem. These shelves also can be an invitation to clutter.

- Best of both: Open-shelf cabinets and cabinets that allow you to hide the things you don’t want to display may be the best combination.