Shelf Styling 101: 11 Tips That'll Elevate Your Space

Wooden open shelves styled with books, houseplants and small decor items

The Spruce / Michelle Becker

We get it, shelf styling can feel extremely daunting, whether you have a small collection of books and accessories or are the proud owner of boxes and boxes of trinkets. To make the process easier, we’ve rounded up 11 key tips to keep in mind as you work to make your built-ins and bookcases look better than they ever have before. We’re happy to note that styling this area of your home doesn’t have to be extremely costly, either, and have included some money saving hacks along the way.

  • 01 of 11

    Cut the Junk

    shelfie with mixed accessories

    Goldalamode

    A strong shelfie features plenty of accessories, but the key is for such items to be artful and well curated. More is not always better—if you find yourself purchasing trinkets that have no personal meaning solely for the sake of display, you may want to evaluate this strategy. Additionally, some items may just not be worthy of being stored out in the open—that’s what closed cabinets are for; put that less than stellar vase behind doors and call it a day. 

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  • 02 of 11

    Buy Items Slowly But Surely

    built ins with variety of found objects

    D Burns Interiors

    One-stop home decor stores are wonderful resources as you furnish your space, but they aren’t the answer to your shelf styling woes. Opt to curate your accent pieces over time rather than making one bulk purchase and calling it a day—you’ll thank yourself later when you've got more treasures you want to display! So what’s the best way to proceed? Keep in eye out while traveling or at vintage or antique stores, for example, for items that really speak to you. Not only will you make more thoughtful purchases (which can ultimately help you save money), you will have a story to tell about each item that you feature. The pieces you do select don’t have to be expensive, either. Flea markets and thrift stores are full of gems of all kinds. 

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  • 03 of 11

    Think Outside The Box When Shopping

    bookshelves with collected finds

    Gray Space Interiors

    Ceramics, candle holders, woven baskets, bust sculptures, cloches, and figurines all look beautiful on built-ins. If you love chinoiserie style, for example, you may wish to search for items that support that aesthetic, such as Staffordshire dogs, foo dogs, or blue and white ginger jars. 

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  • 04 of 11

    Incorporate Some Books

    shelves with variety of books

    Mary Patton Design

    You don’t want your built-ins and bookcases to solely feature accent pieces. Most of us have piles of books that need a home—so why not display your fave titles on your shelves? Books are also instant conversation starters and can provide those who visit your home with a quick glimpse into your hobbies and passions. Coffee table books can be quite pricey when purchased new, so don’t be afraid to search through a used bookstore or library sale to find some budget-friendly titles that appeal to you. 

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  • 05 of 11

    Vary Book Positioning

    shelf with varied book design

    Ashley Montgomery Design

    If you do choose to display stacks of coffee table books or novels on your shelves, keep things looking interesting by creating a few types of arrangements. It can be tempting to stack books horizontally in groups of three on each shelf, as this setup is often very appealing visually, but don’t let yourself get too repetitive. Try stacks of two, four, or even five, if your shelf height allows. Stand some books vertically—you can always cap them off with artful bookends, which add both personality and function.

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  • 06 of 11

    Spread Out Colors

    shelf styling ideas

    Kate Marker Interiors

    On a related note, you’ll want to spread out accessories and books of the same color, which is more appealing to the eye. If you have a few blue trinket boxes, for example, place a couple on one shelf and place the remainder on a shelf located diagonally across. The same rule applies to materials—spread out your metals, glasses, and porcelains. You want your shelving to look like a well-planned display, not a section in a store where everything is sorted by color and type. 

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  • 07 of 11

    Have Fun With Paint

    black painted bookshelves

    Lauren Zillinger for Laura Metzler Photography

    If you’re just not thrilled with your solid white built-ins, go ahead and paint them! Even if you choose to keep the trim of your shelves white, you can go mod and moody by painting the back walls black. Or embrace a retro look by opting for a tangerine or turquoise.

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  • 08 of 11

    Incorporate Art

    bookshelves with art

    Mary Patton Design

    Artwork looks wonderful on built-ins; layer a few pieces alongside a stack of books and you’re golden. There’s no need to stick to one specific theme or medium, either. Set a framed black and white photo on one shelf and lean a vibrant abstract on another. Whether you DIY your artwork or support local makers, you can’t go wrong! You won’t want to incorporate artwork on each and every shelf, or your setup could easily look too busy, but adding prints to approximately one third of your shelves is never a bad idea. 

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  • 09 of 11

    Skip the Excessive Family Photos

    shelf with variety of styled items

    Hannah Tyler Designs

    Displaying one or two favorite snapshots is fair game, but in general, it’s best to save the family photos for another space in your home rather than letting them live on your bookshelves. Outfitting your shelves with rows of framed personal photographs can look cluttered and dated—while we’re all for preserving special memories, we suggest placing your frames on a petite table in the formal living room or hanging a gallery of pictures on the staircase instead. 

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  • 10 of 11

    Consider Item Weight

    shelf with baskets

    M Starr Design

    Heavier items look best when displayed on bottom shelves. So save that stack of thick coffee table books for the bottom part of your bookcase and place your dainty woven baskets higher up. Petite trinket boxes look lovely anywhere, but if you’re placing larger storage bins on your bookshelves, you’ll also want to keep those toward the bottom. 

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  • 11 of 11

    Rearrange as You Wish

    shelving with vessels

    Ashley Montgomery Design

    The beauty of built-in shelves is that you can easily switch up their look whenever you please. Your style will naturally evolve over time, and you’ll bring home new pieces that you wish to display and may need to move items around accordingly. Styling is an ongoing process and if it’s something you enjoy, you’ll appreciate how easy it is to give your space a whole new look on a whim simply by rearranging your bookshelves.