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!
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!!!!
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!
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!) http://littleredroost.blogspot.com/2009/01/book-shelf-bonanza.html
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!
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?
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 potterybarn.com. Hope it helps!
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 :)
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!
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)
One look I’m thinking of trying is color-coding, like Erin over at Elements of Style did in her home:
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!
I loved it too. Thanks! Smooch!
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.
Also, I have seen some AMAZING color-coded book shelves! Here’s one example: http://weburbanist.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/04/colored-bookshelves.jpg
It’s a great way to bring a good shot of color into a dark room. And actually, as a bona-fide bookworm, I have a much easier time finding the book I’m looking for since I color-coded my shelves.
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!)
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!
Pamela Wynfield 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.
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!
Yep Sherry, our’s does fold up just like that! I found them on the World Market website (http://www.worldmarket.com/3Shelf-Folding-Bookcase/lev/4/productId/6632/Ntt/folding%20bookcase/Ntx/mode+matchallpartial/Ntk/Def/N/0/Nty/1/index.pro) 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.
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! :)
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!
Smokey Evo 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!
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)
Love your blog! So glad to have discovered ya’ll all the way in San Diego, ESPECIALLY since I was born and raised in Richmond, VA!!!!
As I read this post I immediately wanted to ask “what about all of my wonderful, actual BOOKS that I love to live with?” and then I get to the comments and find that, of course, it has already been addressed multiple times!
The house we just bought has a small-ish living room with a big picture window, and space on either side of a fireplace (the fireplace takes up more than 1/3 of the wall) that would look just great with some built-in bookcases. I think I want to paint that wall a light dusty blue and install white bookcases, and then load it up with all of my books. I think the secret to making all books still look nice is to do some vertical stacks in with the traditional rows of books, and intersperse some knicknacks, of which I have plenty.
Thank you so much for another great post, keeping it real for everyday decorators! I can’t wait to post my before and after photos.
This post has made me very happy. I am bookshelf-challenged and I am in fact printing this out and putting it in my idea folder. So, thanks.
Annie Peterson says
Thank God for this post! My hubby and I have a new bookshelf in our basement and I have various items ready to be organized on the shelves but I previously had no idea where to start. This is on my to-do list for next week now!
My bookshelf always seemed too cluttered. Of course it had 2 books on it (Barbie book and Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go)and tons of frames and decorative pieces. This will help lots when we finally get around to hanging our floating shelves in our living room.
BTW~When you hung your floating shelves what spacing did you end up going with? I am having a hard time deciding…which is probably why that wall is bare :-(
We hung them 17″ apart. I don’t remember for the life of me how we settled on that number, but it seems to have worked out pretty well. Hope it helps!
Pamela Wynfield says
Mea culpa, please. I don’t know what got into me last night, but I was totally snarky and critical with my earlier comment, and you don’t deserve that. You guys are so cute and creative (I mean that in the best possible way), and you’ve done such a fantastic, wonderful job of making your house a cozy, loveable home. I really look forward to seeing how you’ve solved problems I’ve also wrestled with, or have not because I can’t figure out a way to solve the issue without spending tons of money. So for example, I’ve changed my plan for tackling the cement used-to-be driveway, now ugly patio from staining to painting…
So, I have thought about this all day (hanging my head at my over-the-top mean comment, and kicking myself for being so negatively critical), and I think the word “style” in conjunction with “shelves” is what got me going ballistic. Organizing/arranging shelves sounds practical to me, and doesn’t conjure up the tons-of-money stylista/designer/non-lived-in/in-your-face rich consumption(?) look that has been such a subject of ridicule lately (the AIG office, for one example).
Sorry. I know from reading virtually everything on your site that this issue doesn’t apply to you. You guys have been so smart and creative about not only design issues, but money issues.
I really do admire you both greatly, and I’m a huge fan of your site, and your very clever and creative home. Kudos to you both.
Aw thanks Pamela! No need to hang your head at all! We know that design is totally subjective and we understand that not everyone will love everything that we do! Thanks so much for taking the time to say such kind things! We really appreciate it!
Sherry (& John)
Thank you, thank you. I was just about to ditch the small bookcase in my family room until I read this post. For years I’ve been trying to make it look pretty, and your tips have given it new life.
Cecily T says
Just got around to reading this in-depth now. Great ideas! I’m just sort of coming around to using bookshelves for anything other than storing books. I have so many, and they are almost all paperbacks. I don’t know how I’d cover them all; I think together we own at least 500. But I think if we got a few MORE bookshelves, I could use the baskets to store some of them and that would definitely make it more attractive than just a giant shelf of books.
OK – I think I did it! Check out this bookshelf I styled myself thanks to your helpful tutorial. http://i136.photobucket.com/albums/q163/elisaf86/DSC01041.jpg I took some of our small, better-looking books and stacked them on the top shelf. The rest of them are hiding in that woven basket. Then for our larger books, I covered ’em in scrapbook paper and put them on the bottom shelf. Thanks for your guidance, I am so thrilled with the final product!
Love it, Elisa! Nice work – especially how you got creative with the book covers. And you know we love some white animals so we were totally fallin’ for your birds.
It’s been a long time since you posted, but I wanted to comment on color coded books on shelves. I love them! At first I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a specific book, but I just kept all the books on their same bookshelf (I have three bookshelves in my apartment) and color coded them like that, so I know that a certain book I’m looking for is on a certain shelf, not in another room. It only takes 15 seconds to find the book, and it looks great!
I love this post! One of my favorite things to do is to style up shelves and bookcases around the house. I just got stuck on this one thing:
We have one of those “plate shelves” (I’m sure theres an official word for them but I really dont know it) Running along the top half of our dining room. Since we don’t really have a plate display, do you have any suggestions to style it up a bit without it looking cluttered? It wraps around about 1/2 of the room. :) Thanks you guys are great
How about leaning white frames with simple black and white images and line art against the rail? We’re afraid that a bunch of colorful accessories would definitely clutter things up, so maybe keeping it sparse and open looking by adding just a few small leaning frames with simple art work might complement that ledge best. Hope it helps!
Hi..you may have answered this elsewhere on the site but I keep getting distracted floating around so I figure I’ll just ask!
The fat long shelves in your dining room behind your Target table (love that BTW..do they still sell it? I have been looking for a dark dining table but hate spending too much!)…are those the shelves from PB? Or did you find them somewhere else? I love the PB ones but hate the price tag! Would love to know if you made them or where you got them!
Thank you in advance! And your ‘after’ house is simply amazing. Just wonderful.
Those shelves are from Ikea (very cheap and they still sell them in many colors and lengths) and as for the Target table we haven’t seen the exact same one lately but they have similar ones so just look for a chunky wood table with simple and straight legs. Happy hunting…
Hi Sherry and John,
Just discovered your blog recently and love it! I have two low built-in bookcases on either side of a gas heater with a long shelf running along the top (from bookshelf to bookshelf, and about 10″ above the heater). I’m pretty happy with my styling of the bookshelves but am lost when it comes to decorating the loooong shelf. Too much stuff to fill the length looks really cluttered, too little and it’s too bare. I’m somewhere in between at the moment and it doesn’t look very cohesive. Any hints or tips?
Thanks from Angela in Australia
Our tips would just be to play around with things to land on an arrangement you love. To keep things cohesive you might want to try a collection of like objects (blue and green glass vases or vintage snow globes for example). You also might want to experiment with spacing things in an asymmetrical yet balanced way (clusters of objects might look less stagnant than a bunch of evenly spaced things). Hope it helps!
Thanks for the tips. It’s funny you mention vintage snow globes – they are actually what I collect when I travel!
Love your site! Congrats on your recent anniversary! I have been going over your mood boards for ideas for my family room and have settled on Bonnie’s dilemma with the beachy theme. I have painted the back of my built in bookshelves BM Beach Glass (beautiful) and will be painting the rest of the room Ashen Tan. I ordered the shell photo that you guys recommended. It’s lovely, but the glass broke so they will be sending me another, framed and all! There is a question here, I promise….Is it too matchy to put each of the shell spiral framed prints in each bookcase (on either side of the fp)? I took out the shelves. It looks so lovely against the beach glass color. Is it weird to have a picture hung in a bookcase at all? Should I just go with trying to style the bookcases instead and hang the prints on the wall instead? I wish you guys could come on up to Syracuse so I could get your advice on my entire house! You are the best….and your little girl is adorable! Thanks for reading. xo
No it’s not weird- it sounds awesome! Definitely go for it! And we’d love to see before and after pics of the amazing transformation! Good luck!
Hey Sherry and John,
In my house, we have anchors on the tops of our bookcases that keep the bookshelves from being crooked. I am really tired of looking at those dang things, and I was wondering if you had any ideas for the tops of bookcases to make them less…boring and annoying to the naked eye?
Why not try putting something cute up there to hide the anchors and add height & interest. We’d try a plant in a cute pot, a woven basket, a collection of glass bottles or vases, or even a cute aqua globe. Hope it helps!
Do you have any advice for what to do with built-in white wire shelves that you want to store books on and/or make more attractive? Our new rental house has a great built-in desk/office nook, but the three tiers of shelves above it are all that white plastic covered wire that’s usually for closets. Thinner books fall through and thicker ones lean and plus the edge of the shelf is ugly. Any ideas? Thanks!
Maybe lay white foram core or wood painted white across the top like a shelf and then use a thick ribbon to hide the edge (so none of the wire shows and the shelves look more substantial? Good luck!
I’m so happy I found this in your “Projects” section. My husband has just bought me 7-shelf bookcase for my office, & I was like “Meh, all these books are going to look ridiculius.” Then I saw this! I’m def. looking forward to decorating my bookcase tonight! (:
All the above-counter cabinets in my kitchen are glass-fronted and have been looking chaotic since my man and I moved in to our house in March. After reading this post I put your tips in action and within an hour I had my kitchen looking picture perfect! Yippee!
You have no idea how happy that makes me! Seriously, it’s kind of crazy. Haha. Congrats!
Common Sense Mom says
We have a set of corner bookshelves with cabinets on the bottom and bookshelves on top. We also have a TON of books. I get frustrated with bookshelf arrangement tutorials because these tutorials use monochromatic books (with no titles on the binder!?)of the same size or they use no more than 15 books and a bunch of really nice matching nick-knacks. Real books come in multiple colors and sizes, not so pretty when put together. If I arrange them by size, then the subjects are mixed up. If I arrange them by subject I have a crazy mash of sizes. So what I end up is a public library look.
Can you PLEASE do a bookshelf arrangement tutorial using real books and lots of them? I would GLADLY offer my house for a before and after!! :) (We live in the same area). Thank you!!
The last bookshelf pictured looks to have a fair amount of all-different-colored books. Even if you have books in a wider range of colors, you could cover the ten bright clashy ones with paper bags from the grocery store for free and have it looking a lot less chaotic (writing the name on the spine will help you quickly locate what’s in them. Even if you have a lot more books than are pictured in that bottom bookshelf I would just emphasize that it’ll always look like a huge jam-packed bookcase without any order or balance unless you make room for other accents to break things up (ex: baskets, planters, vases, etc). I would just play around to see which vertical and horizontal stacks with some other accents throughout look best! Good luck!
I’m trying to find the white craft paper you mention for covering books for bookshelf display. Do they sell this sort of thing at Michaels? Or is there somewhere else I could go to find white (or cream ) book
Yes, I think they sell it in rolls at places like Michael’s or JoAnn or you can ask them where you should look locally if they don’t carry it. Hope it helps!