Analysis of a Well Styled Bookcase

By Kate Riley June 15, 2011

I truly love to see bookcases in homes because they are the perfect solution for adding storage and style to your surroundings.  Books and collectibles on display add warmth and personality to any space, whether it’s a living or dining area, bedroom or home office.  To any visitor, a bookcase will communicate what you read, what you collect, and what you love.  Bookcases are a window into your passions and pursuits, and an opportunity for you to put your most favorite things on display. 

The challenge for most people is how to style a bookcase well.  How do you maximize both utility and aesthetic appeal, but also avoid monotony and clutter?   Styling a bookcase is an art, but a job easily tackled if you study those done right.    

Analysis of a well styled bookcase:

It Starts at the Back.  Simple inexpensive bookcases become stunners when their backs are dressed up with paint, fabric or wallpaper.  Eddie’s Billy Bookcase was brought to life with a pattern that accentuates the balanced display of books and collectibles. 

eddie ross billy bookcase styling for womans day

via Eddie Ross

When styled against a backdrop of robin’s egg blue, this collection from the home of model Coco Rochas has visual appeal, and showcases a love of books, antique coffeepots, vases, and glass bottles.     

vogue bookcase

via Vogue


Think in Layers.  Here is a shelf masterfully styled by Emily Henderson.  Notice the balance achieved between the books alternating in placement from left to right with the ceramics poised on the opposite side.  The middle shelf repeats the books plus ceramics combination, and also provides the opportunity to display smaller collectibles.  Different heights and textures also add to the appeal. 

emily henderson hgtv

via HGTV


Vary Book Placement.  Did you know there are 7 ways to stack books?  Karen from The Art of Doing Stuff teaches us how she styled hers in her IKEA Billy bookcases to break up the columns.  Notice how she doesn’t just stick to books, she adds art and natural objects too.  And don’t you love that reading chair?

art of doing stuff bookcase

via The Art of Doing Stuff


Arrange Books by Color.  Inside this IKEA Expedit, the books are grouped by color, and also displayed both horizontally and vertically.  Practical baskets mix with glass bowls, vases and collectibles to form an aesthetically pleasing display on a brightly painted wall. 

ikea bookcase style at home

via Style at Home


Hang Something.  There’s no rule you have to keep it all inside.  Why not add one more layer of interest?  Consider using the framing of the bookcases to suspend a dramatic mirror, framed artwork, or sentimental photographs. 

framed art on bookcase

House Beautiful; source unknown

bookshelf hgtv

via HGTV


It’s OK to be Single.   Smaller cubbies look simply perfect with a textured or sculptural object placed all by itself.  Notice the use of a single vase or shell in the smaller spaces of John & Sherry’s bookcase, and the fantastic contrast with bold blue and crisp white. 

yhl painted built in

via Young House Love


Think Oddly.   Objects tend to look better when gathered in odd numbers, and the basic design principle of the rule of threes is cleverly applied in this bookcase featured in Lonny Magazine.  Notice how most of the books are stacked horizontally, but the bookcase becomes so stylish with the varied and perfectly placed decorative objects, prints, and forward facing book covers.  

bookcase lonny

via Lonny

Varied groupings of three or five are always visually appealing.  This bookcase from the home of Lisa Martensen is an example of a well edited display from her treasure hunts and travels all around the world.  

dmagazine lisa martensen

via D Magazine


Allow Room to Breathe.  With airy shelving, it’s best to not overwhelm and allow for plenty of breathing room around objects.  Deliberate use of open space keeps the eclectic collection on this bookshelf from appearing too cluttered. 

viva terra railroad bookshelf

via Viva Terra


With a little concentration, it’s possible to style a bookshelf well with both books and the things you love.  The secret to doing it successfully is truly all in the placement and editing of your favorite objects. 

More Helpful Articles:

22 Ways to Arrange Your Shelves at Real Simple.

Steps for Styling a Bookcase at House Beautiful.

How to Style a Bookcase Like an Interior Designer by Simplified Bee.

Tips for Decorating Shelves or Bookcases at HGTV


How do you display your favorite things on open bookshelves?  Have you struggled with it, or do you have a useful tip to share? 




  1. I love the look of open shelves, but mine look too cluttered to me… I may take everything out and start over again. Thanks for a great post :)

  2. Neat post. I just ‘styled’ my bookcase right OUT of the house!!! Even when it looked stylish, it was a dust collector!!!! lol I got tired of the upkeep. Maybe someday it will make it’s way back in. But for now….not so much! lol :)

  3. It is really hard for me to “style” a bookcase, even though I love the way styled ones look. I’m a librarian, see, so my books (of which there are many… not just a few art books or a stack of design magazines…) need to be in order. It’s very hard for me to purposefully put them out of order in order to make it look aesthetically pleasing. Any tips for how to style a bookcase when you’re trying to keep your books findable?

  4. I like the look of a decorated book case, but in actuality I feel that bookcases should be over packed, and a bit “cluttered”. I am wondering if there are any examples of an over packed bookcase that looks good and fits in a decor style?

  5. I love this! I just set up Crate and Barrel’s Sloane leaning media cabinet/bookshelves in my living room and I’m at a loss how to style them. They’re a little modern for my taste but we needed something and the price was right – we bought 2 of the pieces off craigslist and the other with a friend’s C&B discount for a total of $300. I can’t wait to experiement with some of these tips.

  6. PERFECT timing!! We are putting shelves in this large open drywall cubby space in our family room this weekend. I had no idea what I was going to fill the spaces with but this is GREAT!! Yippie!

  7. Hi Kate! I just started following your blog! I am new to the blogging world but I refinish thrift pieces too and love to see your inspiring pieces! I just got an Ikea Expedit bookshelf for our playroom. It fits into a perfect niche in our wall so it mimics the look of a built-in. I have divided all of my son’s toys into sea grass bins on the bottom rows and then stylized the top with coastal elements, stacked hard cover books and textured baskets. It really helps find a balance between playroom and living room!

  8. Loved this! Was just re-styling my expedit last night and found some of these same images on Pinterest! Thank you!

  9. These bookcases are beautiful. Thanks for all of the inspiration and advice on how to style a bookcase. Now I need to find a bookcase to accessorize, maybe I will be as lucky as I was over the weekend when I fould my antique fan and tobacco basket. Stop by and see my finds if you get a chance

  10. Great ideas on styling bookcases! My husband and I built bookcases earlier this year to separate our master bedroom & sitting area/office. It was a bit overwhelming to tackle floor to ceiling bookcases (35 cubbies to decorate), but I had been collecting items for years from our travels & flea market finds along with a ton of books that I’ve read over the years. It took two days and the help of my mother, but I love my bookcases. If you decorate with items that you love, the end result will be better (and having a mom or friend help is great too!)

  11. Great post, Kate! Styling bookshelves is definitely an art, but I like that you’ve shown that it can be broken down into easy-to-follow elements. This should help me out next time I give styling a bookcase a whirl!

  12. I’m constantly adding items to my bookcase, but not changing the books around. This is my task this weekend to do a bit of bookcase pimping. Great tips as always thanks :)

  13. Thanks so much for posting! I just got floor-to-ceiling shelves on one wall in my dining room. They are white with a beautiful blue-gray paint on the wall showing through. Mine are actually for my books, but I still want them to look nice. I have included art and objects as well, but I love the 7-stacked shelves and will be trying some of those ideas.

  14. I have so many books that there is absolutely no room for all the decorative stuff. I LOVE my books. And I do not arrange them by color which I always thought was pretty but dumb. How do you find anything! And I do not stack my books b/c that takes up more room and it is much harder to pull one out. Can’t books just stand on their own b/c they are wonderful and inspiring and filled with knowledge and information and can transport you to another world. Books are so much more then any decorative element. GIve me a stuffed bookcase filled with books anyday.

  15. OMG, first your cheese post and now this bookcase post! I have this extra Billy bookcase hanging around and have been contemplating what to do with it and how to make it look its best and here is THE PERFECT post with so many cool ideas!! Thank you.. your timing couldn’t be more perfect :)

  16. Bravo Lynda and Cat, way to dissent! I love it! You’ll communicate you are practical and well read individual, a thinker, and also collector of great books, my kind of person!

  17. I love this post. It makes me feel better about my bookshelves, from IKEA that I added black and cream chevron fabric to- and maybe I need to put less on them- but I tried to follow “Nate’s advice”…anyway- there may be a few recent pics on my blog. It is the only wall feature in the room. Thanks for sharing all these great tips! I love it and appreciate it!

  18. Thanks for the mention Kate! I wanted to mention so people don’t get discouraged that it took me MONTHS to get my bookcase looking how it does. And trust me. My bookcase is packed with books! They’re organized into categories and author. (All instruction manuals on one shelf, research/resources on another, David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs get an entire shelf to themselves, LOL etc. etc) So you can have a loaded bookshelf that’s organized! Having said that, I’ve been wanting to colour (color) block my shelves for about a year now. Just for fun! When I have a spare 18 hours, I might just do it.

  19. Oh how I would love to see one of these bookcase styles in my home! Unfortunately my husband and I have WAY too many books. No matter how many purges we go through our bookcases are always full. Though I have gotten away with displaying small decorative items on the shelf space in front of some books I don’t think we’ll ever have that less crowded bookcase look. :-) I ended up getting a cute decorative display case for all my treasures from around the world. That way I get to enjoy them and my husband doesn’t get cranky about his book space (one of the few house decorating things he gets cranky about).

  20. I struggle so much bookcases. Hoping all these tips will help me. Wishing someone would come help!!

  21. I had to read all the comments to see if anyone felt like me, that a styled bookcase is great AS LONG AS you can still easily find and access all the books! Glad to see that I’m not alone in this regard. As beautiful as I think Emily Henderson’s shelves are, there is no way those books are meant to be taken off of them to be looked at, lol. Maybe you can have some shelves that are for looks only, and some that are for using?

  22. I liked seeing the different ways people use their bookshelves for styling. If I had my own library room, I’d probably use the rest of the shelves in the house for “pretties.” I’ve weeded out a lot of books I don’t need/read and donated them or handed off to the used bookstore, but I still have a LOT of books. So, my bookshelves (and a box in the attic) are currently stuffed with books. Someday, maybe I’ll have a bookshelf to just look nice!

  23. OH yay! perfect timing. I have some ledges above my couch that I can borrow these ideas for. I just started from scratch to completely restyle them. It was becoming a hodgepodge of things I would just throw on there without thinking. I was going to update with pictures today, but maybe I’ll wait til I get home to use these ideas!

  24. I have awful looking book cases so this post is perfect for me! I need to get it together but right now I just want to stack everything and anything.

  25. great post!! We’re building 10 foot tall built-in’s for the dining room and man, I’m excited to fill up all that space!

  26. There are some gorgeous display ideas here. Sadly my bookcases are too crammed with books for there to be much artistic styling going on. I think some of these photos are more instructive in art/collectible display as opposed to ‘bookcases’ but they are still beautiful.

  27. We are working on the guestroom/office and this is great to know. I have some lovely contact paper I used in the kitchen that will go well on the back of the bookcase.

  28. we have one bookshelf in the den, two in our bedroom, one in baby boy’s room, and one in the loft. each one is full of books and other items. i love styling cases and have helped a friend or two as well. all of your ideas are great….and the pictures are helpful. just remember balance as you work, but don’t forget that not many things are “wrong” on a book case….colors can mix and styles too. it adds to the pleasure of the eye. many people think, “oh that wouldn’t look good on a book case”; but you’d be surprised what you can put in a grouping of on top of a stack of layered books. we also enjoy turning some around for that yellow and white page effect ala PB’s shelves.

  29. Awesome awesome AWESOME post! I always have such a hard time arranging my shelves all over the house in ways that I actually LOVE them and not to where I am just semi-pleased with them. I can’t wait to finish my bathroom and start working on the living room now! I am seeing all my “junk” in a whole new “shelf-arranging” light! Thanks Kate for giving us all these great tips and great sources! :) You rock!

  30. This is a wonderful post, but I have issues with bookcases being all perfect and matchy because, really, they are for books. They are to be useful. If I had only cream colored books or whatever in mine, then where would my unmatching books all go? I don’t want to just look at the bookcase like it is a piece of art, you know?

  31. I’m with the utilitarians on this one. While all the pictures are gorgeous and interesting, I need my shelves to hold things. I’ve already pared my books down as much as I dare – it’s like getting rid of old friends and I come back to almost all of them at various points throughout the year. So the million book question is: what do you do when you need your shelves to do what they’re supposed to do and your storage is very limited and you don’t have scads of square footage? I also want to send the message to my children about the importance of reading and books, so this isn’t just a storage issue.

  32. I love this post. I can say that the bookshelf is the one place in my room that I’m completely stumped on. AND the bad thing about it is I have a huge built-in in my living room that is screaming for attention. It is the biggest and ugliest mess in one of the most meaningful places in our house. Thank you for these pics. I have ideas running all through my head. Hopefully I can use them to create a more welcoming atmosphere in my home.

  33. thank you for this post! styling bookshelves are a problem for me, but a bigger problem is keeping my 2 year old away from it, got any solutions for that? anyway, I would love to see a post too on mantels, I have a very long mantel with a painting hung over it and I have the biggest problem coming up with things to put on it that don’t compete with the painting, the vaulted ceiling doesn’t make it any easier either

  34. Thanks for this!! I always find it hard to have a bookshelf in the house, as my hubby thinks it’s ALL for books! So it ends up looking like a tornado went through it, housing everything from his video games to board games to 10-year old college textbooks! I finally had to move ours downstairs to get away from the disaster, but now I’m missing the extra storage it offered…maybe I could make it look pretty again, but still actually keep “his” junk off of it!!

  35. This is such a great post. Thank you Kate! Gives me lots of ideas. But there is one problem I have with “Entertainment Centers”. Hope you might have some ideas. They have a a bookcase like area most of the time, well as least mine does. I have glass doors on mine and I have some crystal vases in there and stuff that we were given for our wedding. I don’t have anywhere else to put it, but I HATE how it looks. Any ideas for making it look nicer? Could I place cheaper things in with the crystal like books an other decor to finish off the area? This is the one place in my house that I’m at a loss. Thanks Kate! Love your blog. Always have such great inspiration.

  36. These are all fantastic examples of bookshelf styling. I have to say that I love reading and love books so my bookshelves are practical and I don’t love having heaps of little things all over, but a few carefully placed vases and sculpture, and having some books stacked, creates a practical and good looking shelf. Thanks for this post!

  37. I fell into blogland by trying to find suggestions for decorating and styling my bookshelf. The bookshelf is the main reason we chose this house. Finally, after 2 years someone has wrote about this topic. Thanks so much! I still feel overwhelmed by the whole thing. I will definitly check out the references at the end of your post. Thanks again!

  38. Wonderful article – we have taken a number of these approaches to different bookcases throughout our NorCal home. Books by color is the choice du jour in the office right now – thinking of removing all of the covers for a different look soon.

  39. I ALWAYS have trouble with the huge bookcases that flank the fireplace in my living room. I think I definitely want to tackle backing them in something graphic. But I haven’t decided if I want to paint or use fabric/wallpaper. We’ll see! Thanks for sharing these great tips!

  40. Thank you! My hubby just built some amazing built-ins with tons of storage…. but I was a little lost with how I would style them! I find that so many of your posts go perfectly in line with what I’m needing to learn at that time. Amazing!

  41. @Julianne: If you choose the fabric/wallpaper route, take this tip I picked up from The Thrifty Decor Chick — use cheap foam core board (you can find at some dollar stores) to back each shelf with, and then wrap the foam core board with your fabric or wallpaper choice. Hardest part is cutting the foam core board (which isn’t that hard). It looks great, it’s easy, AND you can easily change it out.

  42. Oh, my word. I love this post – thank you so much! I’m afraid of clutter, and when it came to styling our media wall (which you featured, talk about a happy day!), I was totally scared. I didn’t know what to do. I actually had that Lonny image and Sherry and John’s photo for inspiration. Here’s what I came up with:

    But, dang! Too bad this wasn’t posted a few months ago :) Regardless, it’s going on my Pinterest!

  43. My bookshelves bother me because I wish they were more stylish like this. But, we have so many books and so little space, right now we HAVE to only have books on them. Also, not sure my husband would let me paper the backs…

  44. Awesome array of ideas. We have two huge, wall-covering built-in bookcases with books organized by color right now but they definitely need a little somethin’ somethin’ more.

    Thank you!

  45. such a great roundup of beautiful bookcases. my only regret with owning over 500 books is that i don’t have the space to display them artfully… though i’m slowly reorganizing and making room by moving books to other rooms.

  46. I will anxiously await seeing what you will do to decorate your beautiful built in ! Wow! That is amazing that you did that with pre fab bookcases! Lucky you that it fit together so nicely! I have a wall unit in my living room that will be the death of me yet! I have quite a few pieces of Polish crystal that are special to me, but no matter how I try to arrange them , they just seem like they are being ‘stored’ on the shelves, and not really ‘displayed’ to there best advantage. One thing I am thinking about now is possibly incorporating some books (what a novel idea!) to display the crytal pieces on several piles of books to elevate the various pieces. My problem is, we are not a big book collector family, so where to find books is a challenge. Love the look of bookcovers- will have to check out goodwill for some generic books, then work on covering them. but the problem will STILL be how to ‘stage’ them! I need help!


  47. This is just what I needed! I’m a little too OCD with bookcases, “books. must. all. line. up. in. the. same. direction.” and I really needed concrete ideas of what little odds and ends to stick in with the books. Thank you for the collection!

  48. This post is old, but I’m so glad I came across it. I just moved into a new place that has a huge built-in shelving, drawers, and entertainment center. It has more shelves than I know what to do with. One bookcase and id be fine, but this thing runs the whole length of the wall and is literally about 16 ft long. The bottom portion is drawers which are nice, but everything else is open shelves, except for the shelves on either side of the TV that have glass cabinet doors (so you can still see what’s inside). I’ve been really struggling with what and how to arrange these shelves. I’m so glad I came across your post, super informative and helpful!

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