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If you’ve always struggled with bookshelf decorating, then you’ll love these tips that make bookshelf styling simple and fun for decorators of all levels.

white floor to ceiling built in bookshelves decorated with neutral colors

Struggling to Style Your Bookshelves?

Do you have a bookcase in your living room or home office but you’re having trouble decorating it like you see in all those beautiful home decor magazines and catalogs? This blog post is designed to demystify the art of shelf styling, offering practical tips to transform your bookshelves into stunning focal points that reflect your personal style.

Gone are the days of putting everything in a row on your built-in bookshelves and hoping it will look good. With a few simple steps, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll find an easy way to decorate beautiful shelves that can enhance the entire room.

white built in bookshelves with only a single item on each shelf
How NOT to style your shelves

Basic Shelf Decorating Formula

1. The Rule of 3

Grouping items in odd numbers, particularly threes, can create a visually pleasing and balanced arrangement. When you place three objects together, it allows for a sense of movement and dynamism. The eye naturally moves between the items, creating a more engaging experience than a single item or a pair might.

While the rule of three is a great guideline, it’s not set in stone. It’s okay to play around and see what looks best in your space. Sometimes, one, two or four items might work better, depending on the size of your shelf and the items you’re working with.

2. Vary the Height, Shape and Texture

Incorporate objects of different dimensions to keep the eye moving. A tall vase next to a short, round bowl creates a dynamic contrast. Add varying heights by stacking coffee table books and placing items on top. Mix and match different textures like glossy ceramics, rustic wood, or sleek metals for a sense of visual interest.

styled bookshelves with labels showing how to layer and vary the height and color of objects

3. Create a Sense of Balance

Creating a sense of balance on your built-in bookcases is crucial in achieving a visually pleasing and harmonious display. Alternating the side with the taller object is an excellent strategy for maintaining balance and symmetry. Here are some detailed tips on how to implement this approach effectively:

styled bookcase example showing how balancing heights creates a zig zag effect
  • Alternate Heights: When arranging items on multiple shelves, place the taller objects on opposite sides from one shelf to the next. This creates a zigzag effect that’s pleasing to the eye and keeps the overall display from feeling lopsided.
  • Symmetry and Asymmetry: While symmetry is often equated with balance, asymmetrical arrangements can also be balanced. The key is to distribute visual weight evenly across the shelf. This doesn’t mean that everything needs to match perfectly, but rather that the overall composition feels stable and harmonious.
  • Visual Weight Consideration: Balance isn’t just about the physical size of items, but also their visual weight. Darker or more vibrant colors, dense textures, and complex patterns can make an object appear heavier. Keep this in mind and try to distribute these elements evenly across the shelf.
  • Grouping Small Items: If you have multiple small objects, group them together to form a larger visual unit. This can then be balanced with a single larger item on the opposite side of the shelf.
  • Use of Negative Space: Balance isn’t always about filling space; it’s also about where you choose not to place items. Negative space, or the empty space around and between objects, plays a crucial role in creating a sense of balance. Ensure that the spacing between items is thoughtful, allowing each piece room to breathe.
side by side of two decorated bookshelves- one with too many items and one that has negative space

5. Layering Art, Vases, and Objects: Adding Dimension and Depth

Adding layers to your bookshelf is one of the easiest ways to give your display character and depth. This technique involves strategically placing items in front of or behind each other to create a rich, textured look.

tall styled bookcase with a large piece of art in the middle
Lean artwork on the back of the shelf and layer smaller art prints or decorative items in front for an intriguing depth effect. The cascading branches from faux plants can create an organic feel in front of these art pieces.
  • Art Layering: Start with larger art prints at the back, leaning against the back of the bookshelf. These can serve as the backdrop for your display. Then, layer smaller pieces or even family photos in front so that the ends overlap. You don’t want the entire frame covered. The picture frames can be a vertical or horizontal, but make sure whatever is in front is shorter.
  • Varying Vase Heights: Vases can be both functional and decorative. By choosing vases of different heights and shapes, you can create a staggered effect that adds vertical interest. Place taller vases behind shorter ones, or group small vases together on top of a stack of books.
  • Decorative Objects: When it comes to decorative objects, think about how their placement affects the overall composition. A small bowl or a collection of decorative boxes can be nestled in front of taller items, while smaller items, like thrift store finds or interesting objects, can be positioned to fill the gaps.
ladder style bookshelf decorated with various books and objects

5. Personal Touches: Tell Your Story

Your shelf should be a reflection of who you are.

  • Display Personal Items: Integrate items like travel souvenirs, photo frames, or a special collection. These pieces infuse your personality into the space.
  • Mindful Arrangement: While personalizing, balance is key. Avoid clutter by thoughtfully placing each item and leaving some negative space.

6. Seasonal Switch-Ups: Keeping It Fresh

One of the joys of shelf styling is the ability to adapt and change.

Rotate items with the seasons – bright, airy objects for spring, warm tones for autumn, festive decor for the holidays.

built in bookcase decorated for Christmas with a wreath hanging from the top shelf

In this example of a bookcase decorated for Christmas, there’s touches of gold as well as lots of white. Pinecones have been strategically placed and a wreath has been from the top shelf. You could easily replace the gold with a few pops of red for a more traditional look.

built in bookcase decorated for fall with various orange tones and pumpkins

For fall, lots of warmth has been brought in with various pumpkins, a vase of beautiful fall stems and an overall neutral color palette.

built in bookcase decorated for spring or summer with a lighter color scheme

Things much more light and airy for spring and summer, with pretty flowers and natural textures.

Final Thoughts

Decorating bookshelves is not just an art; it’s a way to showcase your style and interests. Whether it’s the vintage books you’ve collected over the years, the ginger jars passed down from your grandmother or photos from your travels, each choice reflects a part of you.

With these best practices and tips, you’re well on your way to creating a well-styled bookshelf that is not only a great place to showcase your favorite things but also enhances the feel of any room.

Whether you’re an avid reader looking to showcase your stacks of books or an interior designer curating a space, remember these simple steps can lead to an impressively designed space.

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  1. I thought you meant decorating for Christmas! You mean STYLING! Decorating is something else…at least to me.

  2. Jenna, this is so helpful! I know tons of people who could benefit from your tips. I’ve heard shelves are nice when they have 1/3 EACH books, decor and open space. That seems to have worked well for me. Thanks for the great post!

  3. Your bookcase looks so light and airy. It’s beautiful! Our problem is that most of our bookcases are functional and not just decorative, so there’s a LOT of stuff that needs to be put in them. Definitely going to give these basic tips a try next time I style a bookcase, though.