How to get the storage you want out of your cabinets

There are beautiful cabinets and there are functional cabinets. Yours can be both if you follow these steps

Cabinets are the critical, final piece of a finished home. They transform empty space into living space. They provide pizazz, substance and, above all, organization for all kinds of things, from kitchen plates to bathroom towels to living room media equipment. But poorly designed cabinets can be frustrating, a waste of money and a visual blemish on an otherwise lovely design.

Redtop Architects, original photo on Houzz

Project: New cabinets

Why: To improve the style and function of your home

First thing to consider: Determine the scope of your project and decide how many cabinets you’ll be designing and installing. If designing for an entire home, you have the opportunity to create a uniform cabinet package that suits the style of your home and complements it throughout its living spaces.

If your cabinet project consists of just one room (or a section of your home), you need to decide if the new cabinets should contrast with what exists or blend in.

What Do You Want Your Cabinets to Accomplish?

New cabinets serve different purposes for different people. If you’re building a new home, new cabinets are a necessity but also a stylistic opportunity.

On the other hand, when remodeling a kitchen you might be more concerned with creating an efficient workspace around a package of new appliances, or perhaps you’re most interested in achieving a specific style, like that white farmhouse kitchen you’ve been dreaming of.

More often than not, a balance needs to be struck between style, functionality and cost. You should start by prioritizing your desires and acknowledging any constraints you face, such as timing, cost and the structural realities of your home.

Remodel Your Kitchen With the Help of a Pro

Design 101

Cabinet designers need to balance two things: style and function.

With garage cabinets, for example, storage and function are probably much more important than style. For a powder room vanity, the function (a place to wash your hands) is easily achieved, and style becomes the more important factor, which is why we see such a wide variety in powder room vanity styles. They all meet the functional criteria, but the look is limited only by the imagination.

In just about all other areas of the home, we see more of a balance between the functionality of the cabinets and the look and feel of the space. A good cabinet designer understands the basic functional requirements for different types of cabinets (media, kitchen, display) and fulfills them with seeming effortlessness while also providing fresh design.

Function Basics

Transitional Kitchen, original photo on Houzz

So what are the basic rules a cabinet designer needs to understand? The truth is, this is where a good designer really earns his or her money, because there are far too many rules to list here, but the main one is that the functionality of the entire cabinet package should not be compromised.

As an example, here are just a few of the guidelines designers follow for kitchen cabinets:

  • Base cabinet depth of 24 inches
  • Base cabinet height of 36 inches
  • 18 inches of space between base top and upper cabinets
  • 12 inches minimum depth for upper cabinets
  • Consider the work triangle path between the sink, cooktop and refrigerator, not to exceed 26 feet total

But here’s the catch: When it comes to rules (and this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg on them), each can be broken to a greatly improved effect.

How to Get the Kitchen Storage You Want

The point is, a good designer knows all the basic rules and also understands where they can be adjusted to benefit your functionality and design. A good designer understands how rules can be bent to accommodate various styles while maintaining basic functionality. After all, if cabinets don’t function, the homeowner will surely be unhappy with the design in the long term.

Style Basics

When you factor in all the stylistic possibilities for a cabinet plan, the sky is the limit. But we can break the choices down into a few general categories. (We’ll also review these details in more depth in a future article.)

Cabinet construction style. This basically relates to the method of construction and the type of frame created for the body of your cabinets. Basic construction styles include face frame cabinetry (with 1½-to-2-inch-wide stile and rails, also called border frames) and Euro style (with no frame around the edge of the cabinet box). There are variations on these styles, such as basic overlay, mini-frame (which achieves a look similar to Euro style) and inset door construction.

Door styles. The basic cabinet door styles include Shaker, beaded, flat, raised panel and arched, but there are really too many to name here, from traditional to modern to everything in between. Just know that door style makes a huge impact on the look of your cabinets.

Material type. Your material choice matters greatly to the look of stained cabinets, while for paint-grade cabinets, solid wood material relates more to the quality of construction. Stained oak, cherry and alder are three commonly used materials (there are many others) and each takes stain and shows wood grains differently.

Finish. This is the paint or stain coating applied to finish the cabinet veneer. Your finish might be painted or stained and might have a heavy sheen (even an automotive-quality finish) or a duller, distressed look (sometimes with grooves and scratches purposely applied to the cabinets to make them look old). The most typical sheen level is semigloss or satin.

These decisions, combined with other possible design elements — such as cabinet shape, height, added moldings and countertop material (slab or tile countertops are not typically considered to be cabinetry, but have a great impact on the usability and look of the cabinet) — all contribute to cabinet style, and are certainly among the most influential on the look of your home.

Find More Kitchen Storage Products on Houzz

Types of Cabinets

DLH Inc, original photo on Houzz

Custom, semi-custom and stock (off-the-shelf) cabinets are your options. There’s a wide variation in quality available in all of these types, and we’ll detail and review the categories (and construction quality variables) in subsequent installments of this series.

As a general rule, custom cabinets allow greater flexibility and quality at higher cost. Semi-custom is probably the most commonly used category; it offers a set of styles, colors and sizes to the homeowner. Stock cabinets are typically cheapest and are available online or off-the-shelf in many stores.

It’s difficult to design a kitchen around stock cabinets without a serious effect on the functionality of the space, but stock cabinets can be a good choice for stand-alone or mere storage cabinets. The prefabricated vanities seen here are stock cabinets. This is often a very efficient and cost-effective choice for bathroom vanities, as there are many styles and sizes available. Often, the countertop, sink and even the mirror are included in the package, helping to lower the cost.


The potential cost of cabinets varies widely. If you’re picking up a stock cabinet at your local hardware store, you might pay as little as $50 to $100 per linear foot. If it’s a custom job, with specialty moldings, panels, high-quality materials and bells and whistles like display sections, spice racks, wine storage and other upgrades, then you may need to open your wallet and get ready to dig deep. Here’s a ballpark breakdown:

Categories: Architecture and Interiors