Ask The Expert: Designing Above The Cabinets

Posted on | January 9, 2012 | 5 Comments

The tops of my kitchen cabinets do not go to the ceiling. Should I leave this space empty or try to decorate in some way? Thank you ~ Margaret

In a kitchen where the cabinets stop shy of the ceiling, we often use lighting on top of the cabinets, keeping this space open and clean instead of “decorating” it with items. Lighting can have a great impact on the feeling of the kitchen and create a wonderful ambiance in the evening hours or other times of the day when the space is darker.

Images Appear Courtesy of Bistany Design

One of the more popular options is an undercabinet type of lighting (here, it is placed above cabinets), in either halogen or xenon. Some undercabinet lighting can create spots of light, while others create a glow. You do not want spots above your cabinets, so be careful in your selection. I would recommend going to a lighting store because you will have more options to choose from and a professional to assist you.

If you do choose to put some pieces above the cabinets, keep it clean and do not over accessorize. A small collection of items placed in the right spot will make a stronger statement than filling the tops with multiples that are in all in a row.

A kitchen designer in Charlotte, Caren Bistany offers her perspective in this Ask The Expert question. Her firm, Bistany Design, is located in Charlotte and provides custom cabinetry and design services for both renovation and new construction.

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5 Responses to “Ask The Expert: Designing Above The Cabinets”

  1. Pete Walker
    January 16th, 2012 @ 10:50 AM

    Imho, the key issue here is “how large is the room?”. By this I mean the perception of the space and the objects in it.

    This comes down to two choices:

    If the cabinetry runs to the ceiling, the room stops at the face of the cabinetry.

    If the cabinetry stops short of the ceiling, the room stops at the wall behind the cabinetry.

    What goes above the cabinetry is an aesthetic choice, “decorating” if you will; the decision to bring the cabinetry head away from the ceiling is (perhaps) more “architectural”.

    With the generally insidious economic pressure eroding technical expertise, the quality of available material deteriorating and the general understanding of the industry based on less and less information; lowered expectation of product quality forces us to re-think our approach to design. Making a 42″ tall door on an upper cabinet runs much greater risk of warp than it once did.

    This should also play into our design criteria when making a decision on this point.

    In general, I believe that if you have to get a stepladder to access something in a kitchen you’ve designed, at the very least you should have considered the necessity of the higher shelving.

    In case it isn’t obvious, I am a firm believer in keeping the head height of cabinetry in the 7′-0″ range…the average height of an American female being 5’4″ or so, the reach to the top shelf of even this cabinetry height is pretty much at the extreme physical capability of the user.

    OK…apologies for the rant.

    All the best,


  2. Karen Thompson
    January 16th, 2012 @ 1:56 PM

    My copper collection sits atop my kitchen cabinets. However one of the prettiest I have seen had an antique sewing machine with baby’s breath worked in it. It was absolutely stunning.

  3. Michelle Minch
    January 20th, 2012 @ 4:32 PM

    I’m not a big lover of open space above cabinets, unless the ceilings are 9′ or more. That space is just a big dust collector. I usually install a soffit above the cabinets that is deep enough to accommodate the cabinet depth, plus any crown molding with a 1″ reveal. Alternatively, I will install a glass-front cabinet above standard cabinets as a display space for less frequently used, holiday or decorative items.

  4. Robbie Lert
    January 21st, 2012 @ 10:46 AM

    Respectfully, from what I can see in your one pic, the existing colors are quieting/aging the space, weighting it down instead of lifting it up. They are all “warms” – all have warm undertones. The cabinets, floors, tops, paint.. Just as with “color me beautiful” concept with make-up and clothing, so is with decorating. In this case, (as you do not want to change out installed items)first step is to change your paint colors to cool undertones. This will add life. Everything else follows. And what you think you need/want now, will change to less, or just change.

  5. Peggy Golden
    February 27th, 2012 @ 7:33 AM

    Lighting is a great solution and generally when the cabinets are close to the ceiling the only room is to place some faux or silk ives. We use 2-3 different types twisted together to add interest and then group bunches symetrically on each end and sometimes if it is a long wall a bunch midway. It adds just the right amount of interest and green plants even fake ones are a nice touch.

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