Cabinet Basics, Part 6:
Off the Wall Kitchens
Living Without Upper Cabinets

Achieving a work­able balance be­tween com­peting require­ments in a kit­chen is a large part of what kit­chen de­signers do.

For example, all good kitchens provide abundant natural light and ample convenient storage. A lot of the most useful storage is in cabinets attached to the walls of the kitchen. This is, of course precisely where the windows go. So, if a kitchen has a lot of upper cabinets, it cannot have many windows. If it has many windows, it has to do without a lot of convenient wall cabinet storage.

Wall cabinets are unquestionably useful storage, but with drawbacks. A major disadvantage is that upper cabinets make a kitchen seem smaller by closing in the space at eye level — which is where we subconsciously judge the size of the space around us. The typical rank of identical top cabinets marching along the wall of a kitchen with the precise alignment of a Marine Corps drill team creates what are in effect walls within the walls of the kitchen, really closing the space in.

Small kitchens in particular can greatly benefit from the perception of a larger room that results from no wall cabinets. But smaller kitchens are also almost always desperate for more storage. The smaller the kitchen, the more acute the storage need, and the stronger the temptation to use at least some upper cabinets to meet the need.

So, which way to go. No wall cabinets, lots of windows for a more open, lighter, airier kitchen. Wall cabinets, fewer windows for more storage but a room that seems smaller and more closed in. Hummmm!

The ideal solution, of course, is a kitchen that combines both: plenty of convenient storage while eliminating most if not all upper cabinets for more light and openness. How to do this is, of course, the problem, but a solvable problem using creative design and the innovative storage solutions that have become available in recent years.

Using Deeper Cabinets
Most kitchen base cabinets are 24" deep from front to back. This is the standard adopted by the cabinet industry, not because two feet is necessarily the best depth for bottom cabinets but because two 24" panels can be ripped from a standard 48"-wide plywood sheet, minimizing manufacturing waste — always a big mass production consideration.

But, deeper cabinets are possible and very desirable when storage is at a premium.

We are not big believers in standard cabinet dimensions. Standard dimensions are always a compromise that works best for almost no one — very few people fit the standard because very few people are exactly average. Standard dimensions are intended to make manufacturing easier and cheaper, not kitchens better.

We prefer, instead, to adopt sizes that optimize the use of space in the kitchen and fit the people using the kitchen (See: Body Friendly Design: Kitchen Ergonomics and Mise-en-Place: What We Can Learn About Kitchen Design from Commercial Kitchens ).

Most kitchens have enough space for at least one bank of deeper base cabinets — up to 30" deep, which is the practical limit. Much deeper and many people cannot comfortably reach the back of the countertop. We have gone as deep as 36", however, where appropriate.

Deeper base cabinets often permit kitchens to work better for several reasons:

  1. Drawers can be made longer — up to 25% longer in a 30" deep cabinet. This provides for a lot of good accessible storage otherwise not available. In an average-size kitchen, this is equivalent to three extra base cabinets.
  2. Appliance garages can be added to countertops and still leave plenty of useful working space in front of the garage. With a typical 24" cabinet (which usually has a 25" deep countertop), a 12" deep appliance garage leaves only 13" of working space in front of it. With a 30" deep cabinet, 19" of countertop remains, which is a workable surface depth for food preparation.
  3. Similarly, if you are one of the people who likes to keep frequently accessed items at the back of the countertop, a deeper countertop preserves a good size workspace in front while allowing plants, appliances, knife blocks, etc. to occupy the back of the countertop without getting in the way of the working surface. We have even been known to install a shelf on top of the backsplash for even more very handy storage right on the counter.
  4. Where upper cabinets are used, a deeper base cabinet allows the installation of a deeper wall cabinet. A 24" deep base cabinet allows at most a 13" deep wall cabinet (12" is the factory standard, however). A deeper wall cabinet gets in the way. But a 30" deep base cabinet can accommodate an 18" deep wall cabinet above it (Although a 16" deep cabinet is usually the practical limit — any deeper and things in the back start getting lost). Using deeper cabinets means that about 25% fewer cabinets are necessary to get the same amount of storage. Three 16" deep upper cabinets have the same storage capacity as four 12" deep wall cabinets.
Efficient Storage
Eliminating wall cabinets means that the remaining storage in the kitchen has to do double duty. Fortunately, storage efficiency has become a prime focus of kitchen cabinet and accessory providers over the past decade. Many innovations that greatly increase usable storage are widely available and increasingly used by kitchen design professionals to enhance the storage efficiency of kitchens.

These allow us to design storage that is convenient, efficient and conforms to the three iron rules of kitchen storage. These rules allow a lot of flexibility in terms of how storage is actually designed. And, while no two kitchen designers ever seem to have exactly the same idea about designing storage, there are some basic approaches that are pretty much agreed to by everyone. Here are some of the typical methods we use to enhance the efficiency of kitchen storage so that wall cabinets can be reduced or even eliminated.

Drawers, Not Doors (or Trays or Shelves) In Lower Cabinets
In ancient times — about 20 years ago — all lower kitchen cabinets came outfitted with doors and shelves. A modest cabinet had a half-shelf, often adjustable, and a premium cabinet a full shelf. Shelves on lower cabinets do indeed store things, but not very well. Only the first 11" or so of the 22"-deep shelf is actually accessible. The back half may as well not be there. Anything on the back of the shelf is lost storage — you can get to it, but it requires a lot of stooping and bending; searching and moving things around, and maybe even a flashlight.

Obviously the way to make the back of the shelf more convenient and useful storage is to allow the shelf to pull out so the back of the shelf is accessible. This was the birth of pullout shelves which quickly morphed into shallow pullout trays. If you want to get something from the back of the tray, pull it out, get the item, push it back. But first, you had to open the cabinet door (or doors), then close the door when you were done.

Almost immediately kitchen designers realized that a pullout tray is just a form of drawer. Drawers do not need doors in front to hide them, a drawer face will do that nicely and eliminate the bother of opening and closing doors just to get to the drawers within.

Today, just about every kitchen designer worth his or her credentials recommends drawers in place of door/shelf units on lower cabinets.

Drawer Organizers
Almost everything can be stored in drawers — shallow drawers for utensils, deep drawers for pots and pans. Plates can be set on edge or stacked in a properly organized drawer. The trick is to customize each drawer to the things being stored. This is where drawer organizers and dividers come into play.

Drawer organizers used to be cut and fitted to the drawer, and once cut and fitted could not be changed. If you wanted to use the drawer to store something else, the existing dividers had to be scrapped and new ones installed. No longer.

Innovative drawer organizer systems using pegboard and movable dividers reduce reconfiguring drawer organization to a simple process of rearranging the dividers in the pegboard base to any new configuration you like. Once we fit and install the Melamine pegboard base, you can arrange the drawer as you prefer as many times as you need to any configuration your need. No further cutting and fitting is required. This makes drawer storage almost infinitely flexible, able to meet your changing storage needs. Tall dividers are available for deep drawers and short dividers for shallow drawers. We have yet to meet a drawer that this flexible system will not work in or a storage requirement it cannot meet.

For pot, pan and lid storage, we prefer deep drawers with specialized organizers made just for this purpose. Several varieties are available from accessory suppliers, and we make our own. In general these organizers store pots and pans and their associated lids in the same place so that pans and lids stay together for quick retrieval.

A number of commercial pot, pan and lid organizers are on the market. Some, made out of wire, store pans and lids in the same drawer space. A deep drawer for pans with a shallow pullout for lids is also a common configuration. Another is a deep drawer for pans with narrow pockets at the sides or back for lids. Many of these are after-market accessories intended for installation in existing cabinets to make them more efficient.

In the past it was common to install dividers to keep pots and pans from banging against each other when drawers were closed. These were limiting since they had to be cut to closely fit existing pans to work properly, and could not be rearranged if you bought new pans. To overcome this problem, cabinetmakers began outfitting pan drawers with peg-board bottoms into which sturdy wood dowels could be inserted to separate plans. The dowells could be reconfigured to fit new pans. This worked pretty well, but then drawer glide manufacturers invented soft-close drawer glides. These eliminated the pan-clanging problem entirely, so dividers are no longer necessary. Today, we rarely use any form of pan drawer divider in pan drawers, which makes pan storage much more flexible and adaptable to changing needs.

Use Corner Space Effectively
One of the challenges of doing without top cabinets is to make use of every possible space in the kitchen that can be adapted to storage. The corner where two rows of cabinets come together has potential for efficient storage using any one of several kinds of corner organizers.

Corner base cabinets are notorious as dark, difficult-to-reach storage spaces. Useful corner storage requires some pretty fancy hardware to make the space work. There are a variety of solutions, some better than others. But is is possible to make a corner cabinet effective storage with just a little thought and prior planning.

Lazy-Susans By far the most common solution is a lazy-susan turntable. Anything stored in the back of the cabinet can be brought 'round to the front with a little twist of the wrist. But there are some drawbacks. Fitting round lazy susans into square cabinets means that there are dark corners where things that fall off the turntable can get lost. Fortunately, there are a couple of simple solutions to this problem. One is to make the cabinets round to fit the turntable. Another is to fit individual turntables on adjustable shelves — often called "super susan" cabinets. We like this solution better than round cabinets that tend to be flimsy (thick wood does not bend, so thin plys are used — these are usually not very strong.)

There are a lot of different kinds of lazy susan. Some attach to L-shaped cabinet doors so the doors rotate with the turntable. They tend to get jammed up more often than other styles and work best with inset doors. For overlay doors, free-standing units are the better choice. Free-standing turntables can be notched or beveled. The notched style fits L-shaped doors, and the beveled variety fits a 45-degree corner door (the preferred style — it provides more storage).

Turntables are also made in a variety of materials. The least expensive is the common white PVC plastic model available at any home store. Metal and wood units are considerably more expensive — especially stainless or hardwood finished to match your cabinets (a total waste of money). Actually, PVC is, in this instance, the better product. It is lightweight, tough, easy to clean, simple to adjust, and cheap. It is unquestionably ugly, but, so what! It's hidden behind your nice cabinet doors, so you seldom see it.

Corner Drawers Our preferred corner storage solution is a simple stack of drawers.

OK, you give up a little storage space in trade for better accessibility. But, to our way of thinking, inaccessible storage is useless storage, so the trade-off is a no-brainer. Drawers provide nearly as much storage capacity as most lazy susans, and it's better organized.

A number of drawer manufacturers have come up with clever V-front drawer units just for corner cabinets. Cute, but pricey — and unnecessary. Normal drawer stack units rotated 45 degrees work just as well, actually provide more storage, use the space in an otherwise useless corner more efficiently, and, most importantly, cost a lot less to make.

Toe-Kick Storage
Cabinets typically sit about 4" off the floor in American kitchens. The area under the cabinets is the toe-kick space. The toe-kick is that indent under your cabinets where your feet go when you are standing at the cabinet. Without the toe-kick, you could not stand comfortably at the cabinet — so all base cabinets have them. In a modest kitchen with 15' of cabinets, there is about 25 square feet of toe-kick space that could be put to some good use. This is equivalent to having two or three extra drawer cabinets.

In a smaller kitchen where storage is at a premium, this space could be used for pull-out storage trays. A drawer box is built and fastened to the floor, then the cabinets are installed on top of the box. The front of the box is recessed 2-3" behind the face of the cabinets — creating a toe kick recess.

Special latches are often used called "touch-latches". When the trays are pushed lightly with your toe, they spring out far enough so you can pull them out the rest of the way. To close them, push them back with your foot until the latch is re-engaged. Naturally, since the front of the tray is being kicked around a lot, you would probably want to cover it in a mar-resistant material like a Formica® laminate.

Some of the Worst Storage Ideas
In over 35 years of renovating kitchens, we have seen a lot of very bad kitchen storage ideas come and go. But some came to stay — unfortunately. Here are our picks for some of the very worst ideas for kitchen storage.

Blind Corner Unit
Many people cannot stand the fact that when two cabinets are butted at an inside corner, there are 10 cubic feet of empty space left in the corner that cannot be used for anything. To satisfy the need to use this space shomehow, cabinet accessory manufacturers have come up with some quaint ideas, none more fanciful than the blind corner unit.

This device is one of the most involved storage units available for a kitchen. It consists of two sets of pull-out shelves, one installed behind the other. To get to the second set of shelves, ensconced in the dark corner recesses of the cabinet, you pull out the front shelves and rotate then out of the way. This simultaneously pulls the back shelves forward into the opening where you can see and reach the items on the shalves. To close the cabinet, the process is reversed.

If this sounds like a lot of work just to get a bag of Oreos in the back of the cabinet, you're not wrong. This gizmo is definitely of the Rube Goldberg school of engineering. Plus, at $800.00 and more installed, these are the most expensive corner organizers that we know of. We suggest as pass on this one.

The Pull-Out Spice Rack
If you are looking for a really, really expensive way to store spices (and who isn't?), this is our candidate: The pullout spice rack.

At first glance, it may seem ideal spice bottle storage: the spices are easy to identify, and easy to reach. It meets all three of the Iron Rules of Storage. But, these things are, per square foot of storage provided, probably the most expensive storage solution available for a kitchen. Which is why they have the honor of a permanent home on our worst-storage-ideas list.

The idea for these gizmos came from factory cabinet designers. Factory cabinets are available in standard sizes in 3" increments usually from 12" to 42". If you need a 23-1/4" cabinet to fit your space, the nearest available standard size is 21". How do you fill in the gap? You need a filler strip. Filler strips are a "tell" that screams factory cabinets — custom cabinets, made to exactly fit the space, don't have them. Factory designers, looking for a way to liven up small spaces between cabinets that could have some utility (and better disguised the factory cabinet look) came up with spice pullouts to replace filler strips.

If they fit your kitchen, and you don't mind the price, they are available from nearly every cabinet company. Even we make them. But, odds are there is a better, and less costly, spice storage solution for your kitchen.

The Rattan Basket
Another permanent resident of our worst-storage-ideas list is the pull-out rattan basket. Set into a wood frame that slides into grooves in the side of your cabinet — usually pictured in advertising holding some perishable that has no business being stored outside of your refrigerator — they are intended to replace drawers.

Woven baskets in a kitchen environment are not good storage solutions. They are relatively fragile and fairly easy to break. If you break a pull-out basket, usually your only source for a replacement is the original cabinet manufacturer — and you are going to pay a high price. Baskets very hard to keep clean. They are difficult to seal, so any spill usually gets absorbed into the fiber of the material. Commonly lined with a cloth fabric, the fabric gets dirty easily, and though removable for washing, it has to be washed often — an unnecessary chore in our opinion. There is nothing that can be stored in a wicker or rattan basket that would not be better stored in a wooden drawer or stainless steel basket.

But, if you just like the look, go to a fair trade non-profit store like Ten Thousand Villages and buy a bunch of beautiful, decorative, hand-made baskets from Botswana, or some such place. Display them on open cabinet shelves and use them for dry storage. It will help an emerging economy, make you feel good about your good deed, cost a fraction of the the price of pull-out baskets; and for the price, you won't mind tossing them when they get just too grungy to use any longer; which will be soon.

The Perfect Pantry — The Design Guidelines for Kitchen Pantries
Every kitchen needs a pantry. Whatever the size of your kitchen, whether you have wall cabinets or not, the kitchen must include a convenient place to store groceries. And, this critical storage requires careful thought and planning to integrate well into a no-wall-cabinet kitchen. It should be large enough to hold at least a week's worth of groceries, and close enough to the food preparation area to be easily accessed. While size does matter, simplicity, organization and the right location are usually more important than size alone. A well-designed small pantry…more

Fitting It All Together

The trick to creating a stylish, functional kitchen with few or no wall cabinets is not in knowing the separate techniques, but in putting it all together. It takes experience to blend the combination of technologies that will make your off the wall kitchen work. We'll be glad to help. Contact us for an initial consultation when you're ready for your new kitchen.

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