Coastal Living, Jean Allsopp

Closets, laundry rooms, pantries, basements, and garages―sometimes these spaces get no respect, but they can still gain valuable display and storage space via wall systems and shelving. These specialized offerings, which we might call utility units, range from the truly prosaic to those that rival the looks of a living room's most stylish displays.

Buying the basics

Some utility units are beautiful, others simply inexpensive. You'll find a selection of serviceable, budget-minded closet and garage lines at home centers. These systems follow the same modular principle as the more stylized European wall systems. A certain number of interchangeable boxes, rods, shelves, drawer units, and countertops can be mixed and matched to form a system that works for you. Most of these units are made from particleboard, some with melamine (a better choice) or vinyl veneers on top. Both painted and plastic versions are available.

The home-center units are typically packed flat, RTA-style. You load the boxes (which can be heavy), take them home, and assemble them. Some dealers will deliver and install for a fee.

In addition to modular boxes, you'll also find open-wire or "ventilated" shelf systems. These systems are popular for use in closets, dressing rooms, laundries, and pantry areas. Some wire systems are chrome-plated, some are galvanized, and others have a white or black vinyl coating on the wire. Some manufacturers also make pullout wire baskets, wall hooks, and other accessories that can be used alone or mixed with the shelf modules. Support for all this comes from a backing grid, a ladder frame, or some variation on the track-and-bracket scheme.

On the garage front, you also have a number of industrial-type options, including pegboard, steel, and plastic shelving units, bare particleboard modules, and units that are built from resin-coated MDF.

When it comes to utility shelves, pay attention to the spans; manufacturers may be overly optimistic about the weights their designs carry. Particleboard, the substratum for most budget units, is unreliable for even medium loads and spans.

A step up

Specialty firms offer better looks, better materials, and complete design services―all for a price. To shop, look in the yellow pages under "Closets & Closet Accessories"; most offerings are designed for closets and home offices. Some companies mix and match stock sizes; others will make any size unit you need. Typically, you fill out a questionnaire and provide overall measurements.

 

Most systems are based on the now-classic 32-millimeter design concept that allows you to plug in doors, drawers, adjustable shelves, closet rods, and other offerings. Units are usually built from particleboard and melamine. Some firms offer laminate veneers and choices of door and drawer styles. Expect prices to rise with options.

Basically, the best units are extensions of higher-end modular systems. Look for MDF or plywood cores, hardwood or laminate veneers, and a range of door and drawer shapes and styles, many in solid hardwood.

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