Bookshelves · Design Dilemma · Inspiration · Interiors · Tips

Tips for Styling Bookshelves

A good friend e-mailed me recently with this question: “How do you make book cases look smart and elegant and not cluttered, if you have books and objects displayed?”

Bookshelves are wonderful— they provide excellent storage and a venue for displaying special objects—but they can easily become an untidy eyesore!

Here is our family room bookshelf, which I have tried to arrange to achieve the “smart and elegant” look, without clutter, using four styling principles that I describe below:

Our Family Room Bookshelf

These are the steps that I use to style my bookshelves:

  1. Empty Out the Shelves and Purge!  Remove every single item from the shelves. Give the shelves a good cleaning. Purge your books like crazy; you don’t need to keep every single book that you have ever read. I generally don’t keep paperback books, unless I want to reread them. I keep hardcover books that are display-worthy. Don’t feel bad about donating your extra books—they will be appreciated, and you will enjoy the extra breathing room. Give yourself a pat on the back and move on.
  2. Put Books Back on the Shelves in Discrete Groupings Leaving Plenty of Open Space in Between. For visual interest, vary the way in which the books are shelved and leave space between groupings of books. Books in a given group can be oriented upright resting square on their bases (the way books in a library are typically shelved) or face up in a stack (as the books would appear on a typical coffee-table display). Aim for one to three groupings of books per shelf leaving, open space between the groupings and open space between the tops of the stacks and the shelf above—this is very important so the shelves don’t look cramped. Try to keep similarly sized books together. I often remove the dust jackets from books before displaying them, because the jackets are so shiny and bright, and I prefer seeing the more muted spines. Try to make each grouping of books visually appealing in its own right by, for instance, composing the grouping with similarly-sized books or books with particular design features that go well together. If you want to get fancy, you can arrange your books by color, or cover them with craft paper for uniformity, but this isn’t necessary. If you need shelf space to store kids’ toys and books or other random items, you can add matching baskets to the entire bottom shelf and put the objects in the baskets. The bottom shelf is one that doesn’t necessarily need open space.
  3. Add Decorative Accessories. One or two small paintings or prints that fit in the back of the shelves can look great. Small framed art perched on top of a shelved stack of books can add to the perceived depth of the shelves. I don’t like the look of family photos in bookshelves—I know this is controversial, but I think they clutter up the space and are distracting. Add a few sculptural or similar decorative elements to the open spaces—an interesting ceramic vase or a plant in a pretty pot can work like a book end; a ceramic or wood bowl or box, or a large sea shell, looks nice. I never put anything on top of the upright-oriented books, as it looks too cluttered.
  4. Inspect and Edit as Needed. Step back and look at the space and start editing accordingly. If it looks too cluttered, you need to remove some things, if it looks too empty, start adding. You want it pleasing to the eye, so tweak it until you are happy.

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Here are some examples of well styled book shelves.

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Ashley Whittaker Design
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Hancock Design

There is plenty of open space in the above two examples–notice the vertical and horizontal placement of books, the propped paintings, and use of sculptural objects.

Made By Katy

In the above image, notice that the books have been turned around so that the pages face the front instead of the spines. This gives the space a very neutral, clean, and coastal feel, however, I can imagine that it would be a challenge to find the book you are looking for! The basket on the bottom shelf is perfect for hiding small objects like toys or DVDs.

Bliss at Home

Lots of open space above–the grasscloth wallpaper on the back of the shelves is a nice touch.

Mark D. Sikes
Amber Interiors
House Beautiful

If you want to really make your shelves pop you could paint the back of the shelves a different color like in the beautiful image above.

I hope this gives you some ideas for styling your own shelves. Rearranging your bookshelves doesn’t take long and it can yield a very rewarding result!

header image from House Beautiful

5 thoughts on “Tips for Styling Bookshelves

  1. Now I am inspired to edit my books! I have regularly donated books that the kids have outgrown–now it is time to take on my husband’s and my books!


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