Is there anything as satisfying to look at as beautifully styled built-in shelving, whether it’s living room built-in shelving or tidy home library bookshelves? Neat freaks and design-minded individuals alike will say no. Unfortunately, though, if your home doesn’t have pre-existing built-ins, it can range from extremely costly to practically impossible to install them and get that neat, streamlined look—though you can fake the look.
We asked the experts to share their tips for achieving the aesthetics of built-in storage—on a large and small scale—no construction required.
Fill the Gaps Around Your Shelves
Kane Hughes, interior design expert at MyJobQuote, has the perfect hack for anyone hoping to convert a regular bookcase into a built-in look: adding trim (decorative or otherwise) to cover the gaps on the sides of the shelving units.
“[The bookcase] doesn’t need to be the exact width of your alcove,” says Hughes. “The gaps along the sides can be covered over with decorative architrave, just as you would with a doorframe. If you use a duropolymer or MDF molding, it can be simply attached using ‘grab’ glue rather than nails or screws.”
As an added tip, Hughes says, “If you use a [flatpack] bookcase, construct it upside down so that the base is at the top. You can then use the base area to fix crown molding to the top of your shelves. This will give it an authentic-looking finish.”
Use Paint to Trick the Eye
“Painting the alcove walls, shelving, and base cupboard in one color will help [your bookcase or shelving unit] to look built-in,” says Hughes. “However, if you’re using laminated furniture and MDF, it will need a light sand and priming before you can add your paint.”
If you do need to sand, Hughes warns not to use a heavy hand. “Laminated furniture only needs a light sanding, as you want to create a surface that your primer can stick to, but you don’t want to remove the thin veneer or laminate,” she says. “Wipe it down to remove the dust and then add your primer. [A] shellac-based primer should do the trick. Give it two coats of primer and at least two coats of paint for a good finish. Let your surfaces dry fully between coats and use a roller where possible for an even finish.”
To really complete the look, don’t forget the small details. “Conceal the unused shelf fixing holes before you paint for a more professional finish,” says Hughes. “Use a suitable wood filler and overfill each hole. Then, once it’s dry, rub over it with a bit of sandpaper until it’s flush.”
Use What You’ve Got
To help ensure a truly cohesive and finished look, Hughes advises homeowners to cover the base of their shelving unit with the same style of trim or skirting that runs around the room. “You should then be able to seamlessly join the existing skirting with the piece you add to the bottom of your shelves for that built-in look,” she says.
Join Multiple Bookcases Together
“You can easily [use] separate bookshelves that, put together, will add up to the area of an entire wall,” says Kristina Morales, realtor for eXp Realty. “Connect them and attach them to the wall studs for a built-in look. Hide lights on top for muted lighting that warms the room. For a truly classic look, attach a library ladder on a track running along the top of the shelves.”
“If you’re joining multiple bookcases along one wall, use decorative strip molding to hide the joins between each case,” Hughes adds. “These are usually simple enough to glue in place with a suitable adhesive.”
Consider Custom Cabinetry
While a custom install of built-in cabinetry might be prohibitive due to cost or construction limitations, having customized cabinets made to look like built-ins could be a possible workaround.
“Bespoke joinery is something we install in many of our projects,” says Louise Wicksteed, design director for Sims Hilditch, an interior design company. Along with lending themselves to more of a built-in appearance, “pigeon hole [shelves] are a great [option], helping to keep the space organized.”
Enhance Small Spaces With Shelves
Getting the built-in look doesn’t have to just happen on a larger scale. One of the biggest reasons built-ins are so appealing is that they maximize space, but even without built-in shelves, there are other places that can function the same way. “[Utilize] the space under tables, recess shelving into walls, or even install hidden cupboards underneath the stairs,” Wickstead suggests.
“Installing baskets beneath a console table or bench also works well, creating an ‘in-built’ feel,” she adds. “While not shelving per se, the space underneath a bench seat … can lend itself well to storage space.”
“Stacking cubes that are placed on the floor along the length of a wall and painted the wall color look built-in,” says Morales. “Finish them off with stone countertops for a custom look.”
Pre-Plan Your Layout
If you’re hoping to blend your bookcase or shelving unit into a room so that it gives off the appearance of a built-in unit, then choosing the correct placement is key. This can only enhance the built-in vibes and ensure you’re not using up valuable floorspace.
“When we select freestanding furniture with shelving for storage, we work closely with our clients on the spatial planning of their home to ensure the result is a user-friendly and spacious interior,” says Wickstead. “We have worked on many properties with awkward alcoves that are difficult to utilize. These lend themselves well to bespoke storage solutions, such as … shelving, or even a desk or workspace.”
"[On one project with a pitched ceiling], we installed shelving and cupboard space in the guest bedroom, transforming what was once an awkward area into a useful space,” she says.
Once your built-in vibe is in place, the real fun begins: styling your shelves with all your favorite books, accessories, and treasures.