Re-Energizing Pantry Planning

Think the concept of pantries in the kitchen is as outdated as the 20th century pantries of old? Think again. Contemporary aesthetics and functional design innovations are changing how and when tall storage cabinetry is being specified in residential kitchen planning.

The reasons for this are simple. First, as elaborate vintage Old World rooms become more streamlined and tailored in design detailing over the next few years, designers will find that varying the types, shapes and sizes of the storage components in the room will provide greater visual interest.

Additionally, as the consumer's kitchen planning priorities continue to focus on both a work and socializing component in the room, the resulting large gathering spaces (where the kitchen workers interact with other family members) may be enhanced by replacing "view blocking" wall cabinets with an idea from the past a built-in storage closet, or a newly outfitted "pantry."

Some of the following ideas work best for design firms that specialize in creating kitchens. The specialist who concentrates solely on the cabinet sale will not profit as much. Why? Because the first design ideas require a site-built storage area.

Many excellent pantry or tall cabinet designs today are best constructed as part of the shell of the space (therefore, their creation is part of the carpentry aspect of the project), as opposed to organizing the area with a system created out of purchased cabinetry.

So, why focus on such a large closet-type space? Because it's the most efficient storage system around. For a family trying to organize its belongings, the easiest way to search for food stuffs or cooking/serving items is to see everything at once. This is easy to do in a specialized storage area without doors.

To begin at the beginning, let's stop calling these tall cabinets "pantries." The name should be based on what the area will store. For me, the first rule in tall cabinet design planning is knowing what my client is going to keep in it. I don't assume; I ask questions.

Consider the following:

  • A cleaning closet typically has tall doors below a smaller set of doors (ideally, the upper compartment sizing should line up with other cabinet configurations used above a free-standing refrigerator or an oven case).
  • A food pantry can be of a similar configuration, or one can re-orient the doors, splitting them at the countertop height.
  • A butler's wall (an elongated storage system spread along one wall) can take the place of the 20th Century butler's pantry. At that time (when household help was the norm), the butler's pantry not only provided a facility to store the family's dinnerware, flatware and glassware, but also provided a visual and sound barrier between the elegant meals being enjoyed in the dining room from the chaos in the working kitchen. A "butler's wall" is very appropriate today because of the increased amount of equipment being stored even in a kitchen where little cooking takes place.
  • A special purpose tall cabinet (think of the Hoosier's cabinet from the 1920s with its pull-out top and built-in flour sifting system) is also appropriate today. The wine connoisseur's bar, and the breakfast/coffee kitchen section concealed behind pocket or captured bi-fold doors are just two examples of such a designated purpose.

PLANNING storage
To begin planning a tall storage arrangement within a space, consider alternative locations during the initial "zoning" part of your conceptual planning. "Zoning" a room means blocking out major centers of activity in the room before beginning the cabinet layout. Creating scaled templates of various storage room shapes can save you time during this concentrated design exercise.

In a recent project, a client wanted a very large "walk-in" storage center. Three alternatives were presented to the client. To expedite the planning process, the various configurations of this storage area were templated in 1/2" scale. The kitchen was organized around each concept idea before presentation to the client.

In Kitchen Plan A (see Page 86), a diagonal corner pantry was planned. Small swinging entry doors were specified using entry door "side light" panels to allow the individual to walk through the space without having to deal with a large swinging door. (If a large door was used, one hinged out would be ideal.) A light switch is activated when the door is opened, eliminating the need for a switch inside or outside the room.

A diagonal pantry allows one to "step in" to the space and see everything stored along the 9"-, 12"- or 18"-deep shelving. Rarely do I recommend 24"-deep shelving in a pantry unless items are going to be grouped and stored together in baskets or another "carry out" apparatus it's just too easy for items on a 24"-deep shelf to get lost. The exception is a section of a cabinet reserved for bulk storage where "like items" can easily be stacked one behind the other because the content is identical.

You will note in this case that the walk-in diagonal pantry in the kitchen is flanked by a small but effective double-sided butler's pantry leading to the dining room. The consumer enjoyed seeing her family china and stemware in the upper cabinet glass doors as she walked through this area.

Kitchen Plan B keeps one side of the butler's pantry, but shifts the dining area door so a walk-in pantry can be created between the kitchen and dining room. Shallow shelves stretch along one wall, then turn into a deeper floor-to-ceiling adjustable unit. A hanging rack (check out possibilities at makes the wall blocked by the swinging door much more useable. This plan also transforms the corridor shaped kitchen into a more continuous L-shape.

Kitchen Plan C eliminates the butler's pantry, replacing it with two tall cabinets facing one another with glass doors, and then creates a large "step-in" pantry that has two 36" entry doors which swing into the room. This solution maximizes the available size and functionality of the kitchen's L-shape, while still incorporating this large walk-in storage section.

When planning such a storage room, learn from the booming closet industry. Think beyond wood shelving. Investigate metal commercial systems (a good source for these can be found at or specialized closet system adaptations.

CABINET solutions
In place of such a closet storage concept for a kitchen, let's return to cabinet system solutions.

Too often, a tall cabinet is placed adjacent to other tall units in an effort to minimize its presence in the room. An alternative is to make the tall element a centerpiece of the design.

  • Design Idea 1 (see Page 80): This design idea partially builds in the cabinetry. Rather than recessing cabinetry into a wall, or setting cabinetry against a wall, partially recessing the cabinet (exposing 6" to 9" of the cabinetry) allows a molding detail to be highlighted in the space while minimizing the appearance shape of the elevation. In this example, a combination of enclosed doors and glass doors is suggested.
  • Design Idea 2 (see Page 80): A designer in Italy creates a country sense of space by two large pantries flanking a built-in banquet featuring some display space directly above the bench. Note how the designer echoed the arch in the tall cabinet doors in the wains paneling behind the banquette bench.
  • Design Idea 3 (see Page 80): The designer has turned the free-standing refrigerator armoire idea into a larger integrated segment of cabinetry by flanking the integrated refrigeration system with tall units on each side. Note the open storage space above the refrigerator: a nice visual break. This entire structure juts out from the center of the cabinet run.
  • Design Idea 4 (see Page 81): This design idea offers another alternative: a hutch-type cabinet is installed at the end of the run, providing the functionality of floor-to-ceiling storage in more of a furniture piece setting. This type of cabinet oftentimes called a "dish cabinet" is an excellent approach to storage limited in its wall cabinets.
  • Design Idea 5 (see Page 81): This is a sketch of a Smallbone showroom display in London. The tightly grained oak kitchen is enhanced by a cream colored painted tall cabinet along the back wall. The base portion of the pantry finishes somewhere between 39" and 42" off the floor, with frame-only doors extending to the counter. Note the elongated glass inserts in the cabinet: an attractive solution.
  • Design Idea 6 (see Page 81): A special purpose pantry sits against a wall. When not in use, the functional interior storage system is neatly concealed by pocket doors. This is an excellent solution in a narrow walkway where the majority of the time, the entire unit will be closed. The cook or the cook's helper can then open the doors, and pull out the workstation's countertop to use the area when such activity impedes family activities.
  • Design Idea 7 (see Page 82): Created by Bill Ohs of Wm Ohs cabinetry, this mid-height pantry cabinet doubles as a refreshment center. A tall pull-out houses wine bottles installed on its side (shelving source: The next section includes a refrigeration drawer system that is enhanced by the addition of one additional drawer. Pantry storage finishes the space with every inch used: a drawer in the toe kick area, as well.

Clearly, each one of these solutions was based on the designer's keen understanding of what was going to be stored in the area by the chief chef. When planning such a space, here's an organized, systematic way to think through the details of the layout.

  • Identify what the consumer will store in the cabinetry's pantry section. This will help you determine adequate shelf frontage and shelf depth recommendations.
  • Determine if it's truly a storage facility or a special purpose work center. This identifies the need (or lack thereof) for countertops, electrical outlets, the addition of a water source, etc.
  • Observe the cook's kitchen and the family's way of life. Can this cabinet showcase alternative materials in the doors glass, wire mesh, caning inserts or the like? By the way, this is also an excellent place to use multi-panel doors, change the height elevations slightly, use a much more heroic molding at the top, or replace the traditional toe kick and with base furniture leg/arched valance detail below the cabinetry. By virtue of the cabinet section being a tall element in the space, it's an ideal showcase piece. This is oftentimes where I will change finish, materials, door style or decorative hardware.
  • Determine what interior configuration will best suit the planned items for storage.
    1. Normal adjustable shelves are fine realize the light source needs to be overhead and come directly into that cabinet.
    2. Consider roll-outs in the lower part of the pantry, door shelves above; therefore, allowing you to step back the shelves in the upper section for easy visibility.
    3. There are myriad pull-out, slide-out, roll-out and pivot-out mechanisms available today in chrome wire systems.
    4. Many of our cabinet manufacturers have "chef pantries," a very elaborate wood swing-out apparatus best reserved for food stuffs. Before using one, make sure you understand how much door clearance is required for the internal parts to swing clear, and what are the depth or storage restrictions.
    n Think in "blocks" of space, and carefully consider the proportions of this tall unit. By virtue of its size, it will dominate the space: A corner unit can appear massive! Installing such a unit in the middle of a run is only effective if two completely different work centers are on each side then it has value as a divider.

Of course, not every design will work for every kitchen, as each must factor in the specific style, space constraints and client needs in order to be most effective. Following are some suggestions for creating storage solutions that are both visually appealing and highly efficient.

Design Idea 8 (see Page 82: Pantries that step back, finishing at a slightly reduced depth from the countertop, or step beyond the countertop, allow for a gracious termination detail between the working surface overhang and the side of the cabinet. Think through how the toe kicks, the countertop, the molding above the adjacent wall cabinets and the tall cabinet elevation will interface.

Design Idea 9 (see Page 82): If space allows, a tall storage wall can be extremely effective in large, open gathering kitchens. The beautiful cabinetry enhances the overall beauty of the space, and might serve additional functional requirements. In this example, an Italian designer in Milan created a "stand-alone" storage cabinet in his minimalist design.

Design Idea 10 (see Page 82): Patterned after the Poggenpohl national ad, a wall of tall pantries uses sliding doors (as opposed to swinging doors) on each frosted glass section to flank the solid paneled center. Such interesting glass application is very effective if the tall storage unit is going to be used as a replacement for a traditional butler's pantry with dinnerware, glassware and serving pieces stored within.

Design Idea 11 (see Page 84: In this much more traditional space, a tall wall of tailored storage is elegantly located between a window and a passageway. Note the excellent detailing around the post in the foreground. The woodwork extends beyond the raised countertop and ties in nicely with the 42"-high raised snack counter.

Design Idea 12 (see Page 84): Glass doors are used in the upper section of a pantry wall that is connected by an arched detailed piece of wood in the center. The pantry wall not only provides functional storage, but serves as a room divider in this solution, as well.

Take a creative moment when you are working on your next plan featuring a tall storage system spend a little more time thinking through what will be stored within the floor-to-ceiling storage area, and a lot more time detailing this area so it becomes a highlight of your plan. Present such detailing to your customers during the preliminary presentation you will be pleasantly surprised to see how they react. Your clients will appreciate and value the attention to detail you invested for their "one-of-a-kind" kitchen, creating a personalized solution utilizing special cabinetry.