How To Style A Bookcase

More than a few readers have asked for some bookcase-styling tips & tricks. Of course there’s more than one way to skin a cat when it comes to this subject, but this is our take on an often agonizing task. In terms of placing items on a bookshelf, there’s no cut and dry formula. You just have to play around with things and keep an eye on the overall composition. Do you have too many small items that look cluttered and busy? Try switching them out for a few bigger pieces. Do you have one heavy item that makes the whole arrangement feel unbalanced? Place a similarly sized object on the other side of the bookcase, even if it’s not on the same shelf (you’re going for balance, but not matchy-matchy symmetry).

This is the bookcase in our sunroom (it’s actually an exact match to our green bookcase in the living room pictured a few images down). We used the wicker basket to subtly counterbalance the folded blankets on the other side of the shelf below, and we used white, tan and blue objects to keep everything looking cohesive.


Here are a few easy steps to run through when it comes to styling a bookcase, a wall of built-ins or even some open shelving in your home:

1. Clear everything off so you have a blank canvas. Keeping things where they are might feel like a short cut, but you’ll really get a much better result with a total reset so you don’t spend hours fine tuning when you could be rebuilding things from scratch with a newer, stronger foundation.

2. Begin by adding your biggest items. Ideally you’ll have a good amount of similarly sized and colored large objects, like a few stacks of hardcover books or a group of rectangular wicker baskets. Placing these items in staggered (but not predictable) places will create the foundation for your new arrangement. Displaying them in an obvious zig-zag pattern is a big no-no, but creating a seemingly random pattern that still feels balanced left to right and top to bottom is the goal. Covering books with craft paper is a time consuming project, but it can really unify mismatched spines for a chic display that looks eons more cohesive (you often see this in catalogs like Pottery Barn). It’s definitely not necessary, but if it’s your thing it can make a big difference.

3. Next add the medium sized objects. Fill some of the empty spaces with items like planters, vases, or smaller lacquered or wooden boxes. We usually suggest eliminating picture frames since they can be a bit jarring and they never match perfectly with each other so they tend to look more like clutter than items like woven baskets, books, plants and vases- which all look very textural and decorative.

4. Finally, add the smallest items. Maybe three glass candle holders, a shell ball, and some white faux-coral. You’ll notice that a few big items may look much better than a bunch of little items (which quickly become “clutter”) so although this step is “add the smallest items” it’s important to note that we’re not suggesting that throwing a ton of small things in at the end will look good! And when in doubt, replace a few small items with a bigger piece and evaluate whether the bigger piece is the right way to go. Hint: it usually is.

5. You’ll also want to note the color or material of the objects that you’re displaying. If you step back and there’s one red vase that sticks out like a sore thumb, remove it. If you notice that one side of the bookcase has a lot of mercury glass while the other side has a lot of natural woven baskets, switch a few things around. It’s important to mention that sometimes grouping like objects is the way to go (three glass candlesticks can have more presence when they’re grouped together than when they’re spread across the bookcase looking spindly and lonely). So it’s fine to keep like with like, just try to position something of a similar size, color, or material somewhere on the other side of the bookcase for balance. Our pale green bookcase in the living room is a nice reminder that keeping everything within a similar color palette can make displaying things downright easy.


6. Go back and forth. You usually don’t want anything too similar above or below each shelf. For example, if you have a stack of books with a votive candle on top, the next time that occurs on the bookcase shouldn’t be above or below it in the same vertical line. It should shift from one side of the bookcase to the other- nothing too predictable or obvious of course, but keeping things moving around from side to side makes for an interesting arrangement.

7. Step back and really “see” everything. Don’t get discouraged if you’re not there yet. The important thing is that you’re on your way, and you’re noting things like balance, color and scale- all of which can make or break an arrangement. If you step back and notice all the big items seem to be on the bottom shelves while the top shelves look a bit sparse, move some of the bigger things up so they feel balanced right to left, and top to bottom. You might see holes that need to be filled or areas that are too crowded and could use some thinning out. Do a bit of fine tuning and reevaluate. If everything is starting to look too balanced and static just randomly shift things (and maybe even remove some objects) for a less predictable look. The goal: off-key balance that looks effortlessly stylish… like “oh we just threw this together.” That being said, an effortlessly stylish bookcase can take hours to get right, so work hard and then act like you just threw it together!

What about you guys? Do you have any tips and tricks to add to the mix? Any particularly sexy bookcases you’d like to link to? Share and share alike!

For a truly tasty bookcase, check out this one that was recently featured on Apartment Therapy. It’s functional and there are definitely some repeated shapes and materials, but they’re placed in a seemingly offhanded yet totally balanced way!


  1. sarah says

    this is helpful, but sometimes there are limitations in what you can do. we have a floor to ceiling bookshelf in our 2nd bedroom (future babies room) and I’m dreading having to decorate it. while i would love to follow the formula, it’s not always that simple… with a baby i have no choice but to put breakables at the top and functional items/toys at the bottom within easy reach. and i don’t want to put books all over it and then have to go on a search and rescue when i want one book. i can get a lot of baskets and bins, but that’s not going to be aesthetically pleasing either. any tips for me to create a balanced built in with a baby in mind? thanks!!!!

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Sarah,

      I would check out the bookcase that we linked to at the very bottom of the post over on Apartment Therapy. There are a bunch of child-friendly (and storage friendly!) bins on the bottom row and there are also lots of other baskets and boxes for keeping things looking clean and orderly while providing a place for everything (goodness knows there’s tons of stuff by the time babies come along).

      Perhaps the key to your bookcase conundrum is to use containers (and not decorative objects) that look lovely (ex: pretty boxes and bins and baskets) that aren’t breakable or dangerous for baby- and they can be filled with plastic toys and DVDs and all the other unsightly things people are always trying to hide!

      Hope it helps!


  2. says

    I love your shelves! When I started a blog in January as a New Year’s resolution, my very first post was about organizing my book shelves (also a resolution!)
    My shelves aren’t nearly as pretty as yours because they have to hold soooo many books, but I think the “after” picture is much better than the “before” picture. I really like those Pottery Barn shelves with the white book covers, but I search through my books far too often to cover up the titles. Maybe one day I’ll make neutral covers with the titles typed neatly on the spine.

    Thanks for the great post!

  3. says

    Great topic – I think styling a bookcase can be one of the hardest tasks in a home! We have a huge built-in in our current home and I am constantly re-arranging things trying to get it just right. Where did you get the bookcases you feature here?

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Wendy,

      The two bookcases that we pictured from our own home were actually free from a friend 4 years ago in New York (they came to Virginia with us and little else in a minivan). We have seen extremely similar models at Bed Bath & Beyond & JC Penney quite recently, so you might want to check there to hunt some down for yourself.

      As for where we found the other bookcase images that we featured in the post, they’re both from Hope it helps!


  4. Stephanie says

    Whoa, you’re like mind readers. Our new house has built-ins, and I don’t know what to do with them. I was just thinking “I bet those youngsters would know just what to do.” Spooky :)

  5. says

    Great post Sherry! I recently styled my friend Jill’s bookcase and this would have been great to have as a reference. Such wonderful tips!

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Aw shucks guys, we’re so glad you’re enjoying our little bookcase styling tutorial! Smooches to all you lovely commenters who make our day with such kind words!

      Sherry (& John who is equally wooed by you charming people)

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Laura & Vid,

      John is equally enamored with the color coordinated book idea (here’s an old post he wrote about it last year) so if you have a lot of books to arrange this might be just the thing. But if the thought of having to remember the color of the book you’re looking for strikes fear in your heart, here’s a fabulous bookcase from an old issue of Domino that’s packed with books but somehow still looks oh-so-chic at the same time! This one (also from Domino) also stores a ton of books and still looks pretty cool thanks to some great decorative objects stuck in there to break things up.

      As for where we keep our books, the few that we have are stuck in various stacks and piles throughout the house (a few hardcovers on a bench in the guest room, a few more on our floating shelves in the living room, etc) but we like to get books that we only plan on reading once from the library and sell or donate others that we purchase if we’re done with them to keep from amassing a library of books that we’ll never read twice. Of course there are a few keepers that we could never part with that are tucked neatly away along the top shelf in our closet. Thanks to the two built-in wardrobes in the bedroom we have lots of space in the original closet for storing other things! Hope it helps!


  6. Vid says

    I was looking at your house tour, and noticed that you guys don’t have any bookcases with books on them. So have you two amassed books over the years, and if so, where do you store them? Do you keep them out of sight, perhaps? Or do you give them away when you’re done reading them, because you don’t want too many cluttering up your space?

    I’d love some pics of how to decorate a bookcase that has to hold lots of books – I have tons, and I have no idea how to make my bookcases more pleasing and less purely functional.

  7. Heather says

    Just an FYI, my husband and I have a bookcase that looks EXACTLY like the ones you have, I really think they’re the same ones, we got our’s from World Market for roughly $40 (and they come in different colors!)

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Heather,

      That’s pretty funny! Does yours fold up (the sides of ours swing out and the shelves fold up to make them easy to carry/move) ? It’s a pretty cute feature (especially when you’re moving from NY to Virginia in one minivan) which is probably why we still have them today and didn’t Craigslist them like the rest of our NY furniture! Well, that and the fact that they’re great little bookcases. Thanks for solving the “where are those from?” case!


  8. says

    Uggg! This obsession over styling shelves sounds like all the stuff I don’t like about designers. My husband and I have tons of books that we love and read. We need places to put them where we can get to them and use them. Plus I have lots of ceramics I have from living 4 1/2 years in Italy. I don’t want to go out and buy stuff just to “style” my shelves. I want to use shelves to store and display the stuff I love. The shelves you display as your own and from other sites look like all the other fake designer, styled shelving–too cute and too put together and too thought out. Even the disclaimer that it’s supposed to look thrown together casually is a tip-off that it’s not really functional, but just for show.

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Pamela,

      If you scroll up a few comments you’ll see that we hunted down some additional links to bookcases that have TONS of books on them and still look lovely! It’s all about working with what you have and making your home work for you! Since John and I don’t have a lot of books (we prefer to rely on the library for almost everything we read) it would be silly for us to run out and buy a ton of books to load up on our bookcases- that would totally be just for show! Instead, we happen to own more decorative objects that we love to enjoy, so displaying them makes us happy! But if storing tons of books is more your style (and the way that you live), we totally understand and support that too. We hope those links to those book-riddled shelves above are of help!


  9. Heather says

    Yep Sherry, our’s does fold up just like that! I found them on the World Market website ( but it looks like they’re $60 right now and they only offer them in the dark finish. When I bought our’s last September they carried light, dark, and white finishes. I probably wouldn’t put anything too heavy on them, but it is perfect for photo albums and little accessories.

  10. says

    THANK YOU!!! I have been agonizing over how to style my little bookcase and this post is just what I needed!

    P.S. I am amazed by how you can be so kind to people who are so critical. Kudos to you for your excellent manners and diplomacy! :)

  11. Vid says

    Thanks so much, the pictures of the bookcases with lots of books was super helpful :) Though your little green bookcase is so cute it makes me want to get rid of some books and buy a ceramic rhinoceros!

  12. says

    Hi Sherry, John….Burger,

    What is that on the top shelf of your living room bookshelf? It’s on the right side and looks like it is off-white, silver, and green…have you pointed it out before?

    Love your blog!

    • YoungHouseLove says

      Hey Smokey Evo,

      Why that’s our little piggy bank! It’s actually a metallic… er, piggy bird from West Elm (it’s supposed to be a partridge), but it’s just as functional as it is cute. We dump all of our loose change in there and when it gets nice and full we treat ourselves to dinner and a movie. We got it a while back (two Christmases ago) but maybe you can find one on ebay?

      Sherry (& a sleepy Burger in my lap who’s ecstatic about the shout-out)

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