Styling Bookshelves Revisited

By Kate Riley August 2, 2017

I was helping a friend rearrange her bookshelves in her family room and I was going through my step by step process with her. How to style a bookshelf is something people genuinely struggle with, asking themselves. “Oh God and open bookshelf, what do I put there that actually looks good?” Bookshelf styling is a little bit science and a little bit art.

The science part is achieving balance through scale and calculated use of negative space. The artistic part is what objects you choose, and they are completely subjective. The decorative objects should be a combination of the the things you love and the books you can’t part with. Incorporate the textures that speak to you, the small works of art you’ve collected, that little antique vessel you picked up on vacation, etc.  My favorite way to style open bookshelves follows this process:

1. Start with the Bulky Items. Heavy or large scale objects work well on lower shelves to provide visual weight. Consider using a series of matching baskets or bins across the bottom shelf.


If the open shelving has closed hutch storage below, lucky you, you can store those bulkier or unsightly items behind the closed cabinets.


dalliance design

2) Use Books as Filler. Stack your favorite books in groups both horizontally and vertically, varying the stacks shelf to shelf. Use bookends or heavy objects to flank vertical books. Stack a small sculptural object on top of the horizontal stack of books.


amber interiors 

3.) Include Artwork. Use just a few pieces or multiples. Framed artwork fills the vertical space above and between shelves adding balance to the display.



4) Layer with Decorative Objects. This is always the fun part, playing with decor. Pick objects with varied shapes, sizes, and textures. Incorporate round cylinders, stacked boxes, shapely vases. Group objects with similar finishes together to form mini collections.


studio mcgee

5.) Allow for Negative Space. Leave room in between the books and objects to give the eye a place to rest. This helps the display feel less cramped so the individual pieces don’t compete for attention.


bethany nauert

6.) Add the Organic. Botanicals help a display feel less sterile, so do natural objects like shells or branches. Succulents in pots or terrariums work well on shelves since they don’t need frequent watering. You can always add a good fake so you don’t need to worry so much about watering, just dust the leaves from time to time.


curated interior

That’s my basic approach to bookshelf styling. Got any other great styling tips to share?



  1. I would love to see a bookshelf that used primarily for books, but still styled to look intentional. I think these are all very pretty, but I have a lot of books and not a lot of space for spare bookcases.

    • For booklovers, I say prioritize your collection! But a few decorative objects do keep it interesting :)

    • Same here! I love my books and want to display them not hide them. If you google “styling bookshelves with books” a few good resources come up. I’m a firm champion of organizing by color/size. I haven’t had trouble finding what I’m looking for and it actually makes them easier to put away.

      That’s the best post I’ve found and I found it via Katie’s last post on bookshelf styling:)

    • YES. Bookcases are for books. It does look nicer with some negative space but bookcases are for book storage. I love looking at my private library

      • We ditched the dining room and turned the space into a library. Books, Books, Books…and a few other doo-dads.

        Perhaps the shelves in the photos are for more public spaces, so they are used in a different way. Some people have other ideas for their shelves. Maybe they only read books on some device, so they only have decorative books vs. books they actually read. Who knows…

        We don’t have any need for a dining room, but we sure could use a library, so that’s what we decided. We are working on accomplishing that now. We need more shelves. WE didn’t even know how voracious we are when it comes to collecting books and reading them. My wife and I keep our books separate, but there are a few cross-overs that interest us both, so those get a shelf of their own.

        So, do we really believe what we see on the internet, or do we not. Who cares, really, because everyone chooses to use their spaces differently. Some of us stow our books away for future reading on BOOK shelves, and other use shelves to display other goods that reflect the personality of their house. Have fun decorating as you wish!

  2. So, these posts about styled bookshelves always leave me wondering, is this a done thing in the US? What is the purpose? I mean, if you dispaly a collection that is of interest tto you so much that you want to look at it very day or show to visitors, but this mix of things does not even seem like things you have memories attached to? Isn’t it terribly annoying to keep clean?

    I mean, in Europe we have/had a thing called “Display Cases” with glass doors, where you would display heirloom porcelain/the good dishes/your collection of 18th century fidget spinners, you know. But its mainly a grandparent-thing to do. They were fairly easy to keep clean, because glass doors. Maybe its because our places are smaller generally, so I know plenty of people who have bookcases full of books and topped with some picture frames, memorabilia and plants. Or messy open shelving for things they frequently use, but never in this intentional way, where you would deliberately buy objects that match… I know that if a room has a theme, like “African”, “Morrocan” etc. it is considered very bourgeois over here, so maybe an intentional bookcase goes along with that? Cultural differences…

    • Sorry, I didn’t mean bourgeois, I meant tacky. English is my second language.

    • great comment Dalia! I saw the same think when I visited homes in Scandinavia, much of the décor behind glass doors. Thanks for sharing your observations. :)

    • Yep. I agree. I find themes and the items signify those themes artificial and in poor taste. In my efforts to decrease the world of chachkies in my living space, I keep only what is prized and that includes books. These bookshelves and the contents therein appear contrived and cheap.

  3. I’m in the store-books-on-bookshelves camp. Books can be arranged in a pleasing way with accessories thrown in. That’s what bookshelves are for! Kelly from View Along the Way did a great post called “Save the Books” that is really great on arranging bookshelves with actual books. I’m tired of seeing bookshelves arranged solely for displaying stuff. Then again, I am just tired of so much stuff to begin with. :-)

    • Yes there is truth to that Sharon! A more minimalist and practical approach, love it.

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