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!






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