Function vs Aesthetics: Cabinet Design

A good cabinet design fits the space. A better cabinet design looks good doing it. The best cabinet design also works well. When designing your ideal space you may find inspiration all around you. You see a really cool idea that you want to fit into your next kitchen remodel and share it with your designer. On the first draft of your design, that idea is nowhere to be seen! Why? There may be a few reasons for this, but more likely than not it’s because it didn’t “fit” well. Either there was some physical limitation or, it may just not look good with your style. Your designer will likely walk you through those reasons and then let you know what happens if you do include it, and then let you make an educated decision. Ready to dive into some of these requests? Let’s go!

Swing-Up Doors

This door function is really cool and looks great in both contemporary and traditional designs. These are helpful at standard wall cabinet height because you can open a wider section of cabinetry with one movement as opposed to two swing doors. However, there are considerations. It’s not ideal for counter sitting appliances because the door will remain somewhere between a 90- to 120-degree angle and the appliance will be completely blocked from use. It works wonders further up the wall because you can start to see into the cabinet. Be mindful of how high you go though. Like in the install below, the cabinets had to sit about a foot below the ceiling so the swing-up door and hardware wouldn’t hit the ceiling when open. Also, unless you are a professional basketball player, you may want to think about how you are going to close the door!

Lift-Up Doors

Very similar to the above, a lift-up is another fun hardware option – but not without its limitations. At counter level, it can lift almost to the top of the cabinet and projects only a few inches, so it’s easier to pull appliances out. However, anyone over about 5’3″ may need to duck a little to see to the back. Again, this kind of door works best at a standard wall cabinet height, and the higher you install, the more you have to consider your own wingspan and the ceiling height in the room. These doors actually need more space above a cabinet – usually, the height of the cabinet door itself, to properly open. Also, this door – as you can see below – completely covers the cabinetry above it, so if you will constantly need items from both of those cabinets, this type of door wouldn’t work well.

Legs vs Toe Kick

Normally, the toe kick space of cabinetry is recessed around 3″ from the front of your cabinet, and around 4-1/2″ tall. This allows you to step closer to your work surface without your toes kicking the cabinets. Get it? Toe kick. Mind blown! Toe kick is typically connected to the bottom of your cabinet, but you can add some style with legs. Not only does this look cool in the right setting but it can be helpful in wet areas. Only the legs would get water damage, up to a certain height, and probably protect your cabinetry longer. However, it may be a more expensive to install. You are now installing legs and you may need additional blocking in the wall to support the cabinets – both are added labor costs. And don’t forget about cleaning, as you will have to sweep or mop around each of those pesky legs.

Wet Area Cabinet Design

And speaking of ideas for wet spaces… wood and water don’t mix well. So, in bathrooms, laundry rooms, etc. you may have doubts. Below (left) we have a washer/dryer installation inside cabinetry. Aesthetically, it looks polished and clean – great for this modern style. The floor is also easier to clean. However, if that washer ever leaks, you’re likely replacing cabinets. On the other end of the spectrum, below (right) we have cabinetry that is “out of the way” of potential standing water. The wall cabinets are not actually counter sitting, but are off the counter about 4″ – the common height of a vanity backsplash. If you are a messy face washer, or if it’s a kid’s space, this can help protect your cabinetry from water, and even other stains like spilled makeup, and make them last longer. It doesn’t look as clean, but the trade-offs are fabulous.

Drawers Galore

In more contemporary designs, you see drawers. First, they open with a single movement unlike doors with roll-outs. Also, they allow you to get the back of a deep cabinet easily. But, what happens at a cooking surface? If you have doors you would likely be able to use more cabinet space but have less functionality. We did lose the top drawer (see below) for the cooktop to sit, but the drawers are in line with the cabinet left and right. Another thing we can see in more modern designs are eliminating wall cabinets. This usually leads to needing to store cups and plates below. You will likely save money on not installing wall cabinets but will need to purchase interior drawer fitting – like these pegboards below – to help you organize.

Hardware Placement

Last but not least – something cabinet adjacent: hardware. Your hardware design goes hand in hand with the cabinet design. Why? Doors, drawers, and pull-outs all typically want different decorative hardware pieces in different sizes in different locations. The location of your hardware can also help the user instinctively understand what they are trying to open. See our example below. These funky knobs really elevate the cabinet design, but you may be thinking, “Why are some of those pieces off-center? Wouldn’t they look better in the middle of the cabinet?” You’re not wrong, but those doors are hinged, and if you put them in the center it may look better, but then you would be constantly trying to remember which way the door opens. You may not like it and want to change it up, but once you drill for hardware, in order to move it you may need to order a new door/drawer front.

Want to see some additional cabinet design considerations? Check out what not to do when designing your kitchen, and see the pros and cons of open shelving in your space.