Unless you live in a brand-new home or have recently renovated your kitchen, you’re likely familiar with the dead space above kitchen cabinets and beneath the ceiling. Some people are content with leaving it empty, while others are compelled by horror vacui to decorate it with “live, laugh, love” signs, ceramic roosters, or Tuscan villa–themed tchotchkes.
Some of us (like me) are denied the luxury of that choice and simply need that space for storage. But what is the best way to deal with the gap between cabinet and ceiling—or just “the gap” for purposes of this article—so that it looks like an intentional part of your kitchen space and not a cluttered dumping ground for your rice cooker and Instant Pot? I spoke with three interior designers, Karen Asprea, Megan Hopp, and Jae Joo, and put together a comprehensive guide to dealing with the gap.
Some general rules to follow
1. Don’t draw too much attention.
“You don’t necessarily want to draw eyes up there,” says Joo. When dealing with the gap, she cautions against bold design choices that might accentuate the gap as a focal point in your kitchen. Things like decorative lights or an accented wall color can pull too much focus.
2. Mind the grease.
If the gap is directly above your range, it is going to get a little messy regardless of how good your ventilation is. “That area acts like a dust pocket. Then that dust gets full of oil from your cooking and gets stuck,” says Asprea. Things like cookbooks or linens should be far away from the stove, as they could get damaged over time by residual grease buildup. Check to see if that space is greasy, and if so, stick to things you can clean, like vases or glassware.
3. Have a through line
“It’s okay to be varied in what you put across the space, it doesn’t need to be all vases or all plants, just some sort of cohesive note that will streamline everything and keep it looking clean and organized,” says Hopp. Whether it be a general color scheme, texture, shape, or material, having a unified visual look will make the space look much better.
4. Make it personal
“Where I see people go wrong often is with this sort of cliche propesque decor that feels cheesy or disconnected from actual use and authenticity, like prints of an Italian vineyard or something like that,” says Hopp.
So What Do I Put Up There?
Well, first of all, do you need the space? The primary guiding force behind how to deal with the space above your cabinets is whether or not you need it for storage. If you have plenty of space to spare and it is purely a matter of decoration, you have a lot more freedom.
There’s nothing wrong with using the gap as a place for storage, but there are ways to put things up there without it looking like a catchall for kitchen-tool overflow. To do this, Hopp says to think of it as “retail space,” meaning “a styled shelf that is really purposeful in layout and appeal.” You want things to be orderly and to feel intentional enough that someone would want to shop from the space.
But maybe you need that space for paper towels or other items you don’t necessarily want to show off. This is where big easy-to-handle baskets come in handy. Baskets will not only look good as decor on top of your cabinets, but they also make the items you store in them easier to organize and access.
You can also use that space to store overflow bulk dry goods as long as it doesn’t get too hot or bright. Simply decant them into pretty airtight containers and they double as a decorative element.
Candles, linens, and glass vases
You can store any other home goods you have multiples of or you don’t use often above your cabinets. Items you use exclusively for entertaining, like linens and vases, are good candidates. Group things like they were displayed when you bought them or store them in open stacking bins like these.
“I am a big fan of using trays in the kitchen. I like to load up a tray with everything I need for a meal, so I definitely have put pretty trays on the cabinets,” says Asprea. If you have the room up there, she suggests storing the trays so that the handles, which are more visually appealing, face frontward rather than the flat side of the tray.
If you have nice-looking appliances you don’t use frequently—say, those from Smeg—the gap is a great place to show them off. But if you’d rather hide them, treat them as you would those paper towels by storing them in a basket of some sort that goes well with the rest of the decorative scheme. Hopp likes these from West Elm, which are large enough to accommodate clunky appliances.
All three designers agree that plants are a great addition to the gap, because as Asprea puts it, “It’s always nice to have some green in any colored kitchen.” Keep in mind, though, that not all plants will work. In most kitchens, your gap probably won’t get too much direct light, so shade-loving plants are a better option. Also, you should only go for plants that trail downward because upward growing foliage will get crowded out by the ceiling. Hopp likes hardy dark green ferns, while Joo recommends indoor plants that you’d find in a hanging basket at a garden store. Something like pothos or devil’s ivy—both of which have trailing leaves and can tolerate neglect—are ideal candidates.
Or fake, but they better be good
Some people can’t keep plants alive on the windowsill, let alone in the space above kitchen cabinets. But both Asprea and Hopp say that fake foliage can actually work well in this particular instance. Since the imposters won’t be up close and personal, the gap is one place in your home where you can get away with faux foliage. Try to go for the most naturalistic options you can find; anything cheap or obviously fake will look, well, cheap and obviously fake. Asprea likes the faux options at CB2.
Your best-looking cookbooks
Graphic, colorful, food-related coffee table books can also be great accents for your gap. But keep in mind that these books won’t be convenient to access, so choose ones you only reference occasionally. Again, keep them far away from the stove.
Vases or Ceramics
Joo displays pottery in her kitchen’s gap to add a cozy and homey feeling to the space. Make sure your ceramics are scaled appropriately: Fewer and bigger is better than a bunch of little things, which can easily look chaotic. You don’t want things to be scraping the ceiling either; leave a little room to breathe.
But how do I get up there?
Reaching the gap can be a challenge that makes utilizing it impractical. “Organization is all about how many steps something takes to achieve your goal, and what I advise in this situation is to invest in a ladder that is specifically appropriate for the height and space that you need,” says Hopp. She suggests finding a ladder you wouldn’t mind showing off in your kitchen, adding that it can provide visual texture when hung on a nearby wall for easy access.