How to Style Bookshelves

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My life has revolved around these glorious built-ins for the last month or so.  I’m having a ton of fun decorating them!  Many people cringe at the thought of decorating bookshelves and others think “Decorate?  Aren’t they just for books?”  Sure you could use them just for books but my thought is that you can use them both in a practical and aesthetically pleasing way.  Shoving all your books in your shelves makes them look crowded and cluttered.  In this post, I’ll show you how to style bookshelves by using negative space, books, plants, and decorations to make your shelves look amazing.

First:  There are no hard and fast “rules” but rather guidelines that you will want to follow.  Think of your shelves as a pyramid.  You want a heavier base, with the items getting less busy and fewer as you go up.  I usually only put one thing on the top shelf.

Step 1:  On the bottom shelf you will want something visually heavy and opaque.  If you have cabinets as the base of your shelves, like I do here with my built-ins, you don’t really have to do the “heavy” rule as strictly.  This can be a basket or bin of some type.  I like that the baskets I used here are opaque but not too visually heavy since the fabric is light.  I love having the baskets because I put all my ugly paperbacks in them.  You could also do large vases or plants or things like that.


Step 2:  As you move up, you will want to divide each shelf into two or three sections.  Fill each section with one visual item–a stack of books counts as one visual item.  On top of stacks of book you can place a small decorative object to finish the piece (but it’s not completely necessary.)  Some people are slaves to the rule of 3/6/9–odd numbers grouped together look better.  Which can be true, but I don’t think it’s the only way to go.  Remember to leave space around your objects and books.  If you pack everything in, it becomes too busy.  Negative space is pleasing to the eye.

You can fill the sections with decorative objects, vases, small plants, picture frames, candles, etc.  I like using a variation of things.  Definitely use some plants though–plants give it life and color.  If you have a black thumb, just get some little fake ones.  Succulents are also great–I seriously water mine like less than once a month and they are doing great.  Play around with the composition of your items…some look better when they are overlapping (especially with frames–add a small unobtrusive object in front of it.)

Step 3: As you move upward, try to visually lighten the load, using less objects, lighter objects, smaller items, etc.  On the top I like to up just one thing, one that makes somewhat of a statement.  On my builtins I used a single media box from IKEA and matched them all the way across to give a feeling of uniformity.

A few things to remember:

  • Use a variety of textures, colors, and mixed metals.  Don’t go crazy with too many colors–try to stick to neutrals and a few others.  If you repeat the color, texture, and metal at least 1-2 other times, it won’t look haphazard.
  • I like to turn my books around for a more uniform look which also looks less busy.  This is just a matter of preference.
  • Don’t feel like a failure if you follow these rules and you don’t like the results.  It takes a lot of playing around with various groupings to get to a point that you really like.
  • Don’t feel like you need to rush out and buy a bunch of stuff to fill your shelves.  It takes way less than you might think to fill up the shelves.
  • You probably already have some things like books and little decorations here and there.
  • You can buy a few things at IKEA, Walmart, Target, or craft stores to fill in gaps (I’m thinking of storage items specifically.)
  • Most importantly, it should be a life-long journey to collect items that you love and want to display in your home.  That way your home is personal and represents your life and your memories.
  • With time you will be an expert on how to style bookshelves.

Here are some of the things I use to style my shelves (affiliate links)

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