Reader’s Request: How to Style Bookcases and Built-Ins

Do you have “shelfie” envy lately? If so, you’re not alone. The hashtag has taken over social media in recent months as people show off their stunningly styled shelves, bookcases, and built-ins. I recently received this message: “What am I doing wrong?! My “shelfies” are boring and just don’t compare to what I’m seeing online. Help!”

Here are my steps for achieving the right balance and style for shelves you’ll be proud to share:

Stop Crowding Your Stuff   Designers know that “negative” space is just as important as “positive” space. What does this mean? It is all about balancing empty spots with your items that will fill the shelves. Overcrowded shelves are distracting to the eye and can cause a touch of anxiety. If your shelves are packed with stuff, clear off the shelves to start fresh. Slowly add items back until you achieve a good balance of  ⅔ items on display and ⅓ empty space. Once you have that balance, it’s time to place your items properly.

Properly Place Your Items   Visual balance is the key to a well styled shelf. This means pairing or grouping items. Pairs should be used to anchor other items, for example a pair of vases on either end of a fireplace mantel or a pair of candlesticks to balance a table centerpiece. Groups of items should be clustered together, like a stack of books or a group of picture frames. Groups should also be odd numbers which is more pleasing to the eye than evens. Once you have your pairs and groups, start placing them thoughtfully on your shelves. If you have a single vase of flowers, you can place it on one end of the shelf and balance it with a group of picture frames on the other end. Or try placing a treasured decoration in the center of your fireplace mantel and balance it with a pair of candles on either end. And remember to keep that negative space for visual appeal.


Be Consistent   Have a consistency to your shelves to keep them from feeling haphazard. If you’re styling a bookcase, arrange the books thoughtfully. This can be done by color or alphabetically. A popular trend in bookcases right now is to turn the books facing out so that the colored spines are hidden and all you see are the white pages. While not at all practical for when you need to find your favorite book, it does create a beautifully monochromatic, sleek look. If you want to focus on decorating your mantel with pictures of family and friends, have a common element that links them all together – such as all black and white photos or all rose gold picture frames.

Make it Special   The most important rule I can share about decorating is that it should be special to you. A few generic accent pieces are fine, but the majority of your decorations should be meaningful to you and your family. My own bookcase is decorated with items that bring back fond memories of life with my boyfriend, such as a picture of us in Maine, a memory jar from Florida, and a whale bookend to remind us of our hometown. Having these meaningful decorations on display will make you love your home so much more.

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