5 Reasons to Love and 3 Reasons to Hate Elfa Shelving

An Elfa Closet via  thecontainerstore.com

An Elfa Closet via thecontainerstore.com

First, some context for this post…Last week I found myself disassembling the contents of my son’s “walk-in” closet including the shelves, hanging rods and drawers. About five hours later, I reassembled the whole thing. Along with a few (multiple) grumbles along the way, I was reminded of both why I love and hate Elfa shelving and drawer systems.

I live with my family in NYC in a very old building, over 150 years old by some records. Originally a grand, single family home, it has long since been carved into a multi-unit building. Any modern conveniences are worked around the old infrastructure and multiple architectural challenges. This is why the air conditioning unit cooling our bedrooms is tucked inside a hidden closet in my son's room. And why his closet is more of a “step-in” than a walk-in, with two, 2-foot wide storage areas flanking the AC, giving him just enough room to step into his closet and pivot from side-to-side. This is also why I found myself breaking down his closet contents when mid-week of the first very warm week of the year, the AC unit shut itself down and demanded an immediate service appointment. Without Elfa, this periodic (every 1-2 years) activity would be extremely painful and inefficient.

Elfa is a shelving and drawer system sold by The Container Store with multiple components perfect for use in bedroom closets, kitchen pantries, offices, garages and more.  It’s a system I frequently recommend for certain client projects and situations, although often with a set of caveats. As with most design choices, there are always trade-offs.

Things I Love (or at least like) About Elfa

1: Easy to Plan

With a good, detailed set of measurements for a space, I can sketch out how I’d like to fill it and find the needed components. If you’re doing this for the first time and without a designer, I recommend you make an appointment with an Elfa planner at The Container Store, and arrive with your measurements including locations of outlets and light switches, trim details, door swings and ceiling heights. Make sure you and your planner look at these details, don’t rush to decisions, and take time to study the “logic” of each component. Some planners are better than others. But on the plus side, changes are easy to implement if a mistake is made (more below).

2. Easy to Maximize Space

Maybe I’ve lived in New York City too long, but I loathe not using storage space well. I am not a personal organizer, and not every one of my cabinets and closets are stuffed full, but I like having the potential available if needed. When designing an Elfa system, I can play around with the layout and spacing until I find the best balance which limits awkward gaps and unusable space.

A simple set of Elfa hanging trays provide glassware storage above the dishwasher in an otherwise empty wall of our North Fork home, via  tamarahubinsky.com

A simple set of Elfa hanging trays provide glassware storage above the dishwasher in an otherwise empty wall of our North Fork home, via tamarahubinsky.com

3. Easy to Change

In most cases, the only component installed on your wall (or door, or other surface) is a single top track. Consider carefully where you want to place this track, especially the height from the floor, in advance. After that, changes are simple. (This doesn’t mean making changes is hassle free – it is something I more than grumble about – but it’s something I can do relatively quickly on my own, with a little patience, a stepstool and a measuring tape).

I especially like using Elfa for children’s rooms and playspaces, changing the design and components as the children grow and their interests change. Hanging rods can be added or moved, shelving units can be replaced with drawers, and bins for large toys can be replaced with smaller scale craft cups. Using Elfa in multiple areas of the home means the components are interchangeable as long as the finishes match. In my own home, I’ve dedicated the white finish in the kids’ spaces and work zones, and plantinum finish in other areas. When redesigning a storage space, I may move components from room to room, avoiding waste or unnecessary expense.

A kid's closet with room to change and grow, via  thecontainerstore.com

A kid's closet with room to change and grow, via thecontainerstore.com

4. Easy to Return

The Container Store is very good with returns and exchanges, so when you finally get around to completing your closet install 2 weeks after delivery, and you realize you need fewer shelves than purchased, you may return the extra components. Check the return policies ahead of time and this should be a smooth process for you.

5. Fairly Good Quality and Well-Priced

While not a high-end or luxury item, I’m very happy with the durability of most of the system components and their ability to support a heavy load. The price is reasonable – a slight investment but much less than many of the alternatives.

Things I Hate (or at most dislike) About Elfa

A ventilated shelf without a liner, via  thecontainerstore.com

A ventilated shelf without a liner, via thecontainerstore.com

1. Little Things Fall Through

While there are some solid shelves available (I use them in my office and studio spaces), much of the Elfa system utilizes wire racks, or "ventilated shelves". Little items – belts, scarves, garlic cloves, pens – either stored on the system or simply set down for a brief interval, will fall through or get stuck in the cracks. Elfa has a thin plastic sheet available - a "ventilated shelf liner" - to place on shelves. I encourage you to use these if the space is designed for small or unstable items. There are also a number of trays and gliding shelves available, that may add to your system, both in function and cost.


2. The Sounds of the System in Use

Drawers are far from soft close and shelves hang off metal brackets, which hang off metal standards, which hang off metal top tracks. While there are installation tricks that help soften the noise made by light-weight metal against light-weight metal, there are audible dings and twangs as items are moved around, and drawers and doors are opened and closed.

3. Will Never Pass for an Ultra-Luxury Closet

Related to the issue of sound, an Elfa system will never look like the custom walk-in closet, dressing room, or utility space that many of us covet. There are wood trims and shelves, and lots of gadgets to add on to the system, all of which increase the cost and sense of luxury, but that’s really not the point of Elfa.

In the End, It’s Always About a Trade-off

There are other options available. Ikea, Home Depot and other home improvement stores sell similar products, although I prefer the quality, range of options and service available with Elfa. Rakks is an excellent system from the world of architectural shelving and display that I may use for certain projects, but it’s not as easy for a client to modify or move over time without the support of a design team. And of course, custom built-ins are often outstanding whether designed and built with a franchise such as California Closets or a fully custom woodworking shop.    

But for many projects, clients, and tricky situations like my son’s step-in closet built over an air conditioning unit, Elfa continues to be my top choice.