Shelf Styling in 4 Easy Steps!

If you're like many of my clients, you're stuck on your shelves. The beautiful built-in shelves that came with your house (and, if we're being honest, which partly sold you on why you loved a certain room) are now taunting you. What to put on them? What if I don't do it right? Where should I start? Fear not, this is a much easier problem to solve than you might think. There really aren't wrong answers, and shelves can evolve with you.

Styling spaces in your home is much easier after answering a few questions on your preferences and priorities.

  • What do I love?

  • Am I a minimalist or a maximalist?

  • Is form or function more important to me?

  • What colors do I love?

  • What do I want to spend on this project?

Do a little research ahead of time on Pinterest or Instagram for inspiration. You will likely start to bookmark the same style over and over. These favorite photos can become references as you get to work!

After figuring out your style and the look you're going for, you're ready to follow these four steps for surefire success. There are no right answers - just have fun!


Step One:

Clear the shelves. No cheating, get everything off and see what dimensions you're left with. Are the shelves adjustable? Know that ahead of time. Don't be afraid to vary heights of shelves to accomodate what you love if they are. Even spacing works, but it's not the only option.

Here, I'm using a materials shelf from my office library to demonstrate. It usually holds bins of fabric and is tall and thin. It's nothing special - just some simple laminate, but when styled, it can look more expensive than it really is!

You'll notice a few things:

1. The shelves are fixed (non-adjustable)

2. The shelf spacing is not equal. The top shelf is taller than the lower two shelves

3. These shelves are both narrow and shallow - less than 12" deep. Not a lot of room for objects.

Work with what you have, if using an existing shelf. If you have the opportunity to design or purchase shelves, consider the most important objects or books you'd like to display on them and use that, plus an inch at least of wiggle room, to set the size.

A tape measure, in this step, can be your friend!


Step Two:

Take an inventory. What do you have? For me, books are the most critical part of a bookshelf, so they're my base. Sort books depending on how your brain works: by category (Dewey Decimal not required!) or color (if you're a visual person and this is how you find them fast) or type (hardback vs paperback). Whatever your system, stick to it! Then, decide what objects or photos you want to see all the time. You'll be surprised how many options you may have before you buy anything new.

Try to grab a mix of things - some tall, some short. Different orientations, too, for pictures. This way, you have options as you start to layer back in.


Step Three:

Put your most important objects or books back on the shelves. These are your non-negotiables. For me, it's books. They're always my base. Keep the arrangements interesting. Change from horizontal to vertical to mix it up.

You can see here, I've left the taller top shelf open - that will come in the last step. Not all shelves need books, even if you, like me, are a book lover.

In a narrow shelf like this, I use books to hold other books up, eliminating the need for bookends. If you have wider shelves and more space, you may want to look into bookends, which can double as objects and serve a functional purpose of keeping your books from falling over!

Don't feel like you have to use traditional bookends. Heavy objects like this monkey's fist, geodes, jars of shells, corals and more can get the job done. Look around your house to see what extra and heavy objects you love and are hiding in a kitchen or dining room cupboard. It could be their time to shine.


Step Four:

Layer things back in. Think about the following and treat each shelf as a separate vignette that contributes to the whole:

  • Scale - keep the sizes of items varied and consider the sizes of objects as they relate to shelves

  • Volume - leave blank space to give your eyes a visual break

  • Color - know what you're going for - do you like more or less color? Color is energetic - how much do you want?

  • Power of 3 - the classic designer trick is to make groups of 3s. These are always more visually compelling.

  • Balance & rhythm - keep a visual rhythm running between your shelves. For example, if everything is vertical on the left and horizontal on the right, it's going to feel lopsided

  • Play! - You might not land on the right arrangement on the first try. Just get started - designers notoriously fuss and fiddle to get things right. Walk away, squint and look at it critically. Edit, move things, curate and cull.

I want to point out a few things in these finished shelves. I love stuff and I love color. So, my shelves may feel busy to you. But, I have lots of objects that I adore and want to include them. I'll talk you through where we landed from the bottom shelf up, so you can get some insight into how a designer's brain works.

Bottom shelf:

Here, I kept books roughly in the blue family on the left and mixed it up for the two books that are horizontal. I used the rule of threes - can you see it?

  1. Vertical books

  2. Horizontal books

  3. Framed picture

It's not three like items, but it still works. Keeping the colors from being too matchy-matchy keeps the shelves feeling like you can pull down a book, not like they're permanent. I tried a portrait orientation photo there, too, and frankly, just didn't like it. If I had another small object to add to that vignette, though, I would have been happier with the portrait. Design is subjective - just stand back, squint, and see if you like it!

Middle shelf:

On the middle shelf, I put my horizontal books on the left so I'm starting to build an every-other rhythm to keep the shelf from feeling unbalanced. With this layout, your eye can travel between the middle and bottom shelves in a zig-zag, not just a straight line. Good design should be a treat for your eyes and let them wander and linger. You still want to control the narrative, though, and rhythm is one of the tricks you can use to help steer visitor's eyes around a space or area. This shelf was at eye level for me, so I put a few faves in - still grouped roughly by color, but also with a little bit of subject curation.

We're a big baseball family, so we always have baseballs lying around our house. I was also gifted this gorgeous trifle bowl for our wedding many years ago. Needless to say, in a house with 3 young boys, making trifles hasn't been a top priority. But, instead of collecting dust in a cupboard, why not use it to display something we love. I think the stitching, wear and tear, and shape of a baseball is beautiful and I always have. They also remind me of my grandpa and uncle who were big ball players and had amazing baseball stories. So, since forever I've had a bowl of baseballs in arms reach on a bookshelf. My kids pull them down for a toss in the yard - sometimes they return, sometimes they don't but the fluid nature of it makes me happy. Somehow enough always return to the bowl.

Did you count how many groups we have here? Yep, three! You're getting good at this, friends! So - color, rhythm, threes, scale and volume! The big reference books are nice and weighty with a pop of color, and the clear glass lets your eyes rest and breathe a little in the space.

Upper shelf:

I will tell you a funny story about this one. This is a picture of my two oldest sons, and John must have only been a month or so old. What you see in this picture is NOT reality. There were zero pictures where both kids were looking in even remotely the same direction. So our kind photographer, seeing recently post-partum me starting to lose it, promised she'd get it! So she photoshopped the baby's head from another picture onto this one. I laugh every time I see it, not because the photoshop work isn't excellent (it is!) but because it so captures a time in the life of a young family.

This was the shelf that was tall and narrow. So I started with a tall and narrow item (the picture). I used the picture strips to mount it to the shelf so it doesn't get toppled accidentally, then layered in these two little fat Buddhas that came home in my suitcase with me from Beijing when I lived there on a study-abroad in college. Here, I'm using repetition - two boys, two buddhas, and also (get ready for it!) threes.

1 picture + 2 Buddhas = 3 things!

I played with this a bit and decided I preferred the picture off center, and also tried other objects (plants, something taller) but landed here and I think it's a quiet moment after the two more functional shelves below.

For top shelves, think about putting items you're not reaching for every day - they can be a bit more decorative and breathe a little. The white mat on this picture is another good thing to see - again, blank space for your eyes to wander over. Not every inch has to be jam packed.


Here are a few book-heavy shelves from other designers that I love:

This one from Coote & Co has a pretty color on the back bookshelf wall to add depth. The shelves vary in size and height, and work around specific objects and collections.

Books are grouped roughly by color, and the orientation changes from shelf-to-shelf to give visual interest. Horizontal stacks are used as bases for smaller objects. I like that it doesn't feel perfect or fussy.

Use art or photos in shelves. A simple 3M Command Hanger on the back of the shelf lets you make a short-term commitment with no long-term damage.

Here, LNI Studios has created depth and dimension in otherwise simple laminate shelves. Color clusters seem to be the guiding conceit. It's not the most curated, but it seems to me to reveal the interests and style of it's owner, which to me is an important part of shelves.

Little objects don't get lost because they're put onto stacks of books and clustered in groups. Don't be afraid to let things dangle off the shelves - plants, beads etc. Natural objects ground these shelves, too. Feathers, antlers and more.


Remember, your goal isn't to have a museum piece that no one ever touches. Shelves should be usable, flexible, and ever changing depending on what you're reading, where you've been, and what you love.

If you're looking for some simple shelves to put into your space, here are some options that I like at a variety of pricepoints.

A few rules of thumb - if you know you're putting heavy things (ie: books) on shelves, be sure of the quality. You're unlikely to ever find shelves spanning more than 30" as over that length tends to sag in wood. Thicker shelves look more luxe, metal shelves give a little glamor. Don't be afraid to add wallpaper or paint to the back of a shelf to dress it up.

Measure your space (width, depth and height) before you buy anything. It's much easier to tape something on the floor to see if it fits than it is to deal with the hassle of returning something.

1. Crate & Barrel Prescott Shelf - what I love about this is you don't have to style the whole thing because the bottom is closed. The bottom can be where you hide board games, family photo albums, art supplies, electronics, and things that are important if not beautiful!

2. Pottery Barn Aubrey Shelf - this one is great because it can be ganged to resemble built-ins for a fraction of the cost. It would be beautiful flanking a fireplace or lining an office wall. Has a bit of a coastal or country vibe depending on the room you put it in.

3. Overstock Winsten Shelf - more industrial looking, and could be great in any number of rooms. I'd add baskets at the bottom! Most importantly, real wood, not laminate so less likely to warp.

4. Target Gold Etagere - I haven't seen this finish in person, but for a small, elegant bookcase you can't beat the price. Would be lovely in a bathroom for towel storage etc.

Happy shelf styling, friends!

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