Styling Bookshelves

Bookshelves are tricky – you know a good looking arrangement when you see it but it’s hard to pinpoint what makes it look good.  Done right, they add lots of visual and tactile interest to a room.  Done wrong, they create visual clutter or just look tired and dated.   Elizabeth and I just finished making over a client’s living room bookshelves and we thought we’d share our approach.

1. Apply the “Rule of Three.”   Unless the room needs to function as a true library,  books look best when they are interspersed with other things – like china or baskets or photographs for example.   So as not to end up with a whole lot of visual clutter, we apply “the rule of three”, limiting ourselves to three main types of items to use throughout the shelving unit.   In the case of our client, the item they have the most of is books so that was our first and largest element.  Our second element was wooden bowls which serve the purpose of corralling smaller books and breaking up the monotony of all books.    For our third element we used  small items from nature – pinecones,  some faux greenery and rocks.  We selected these because they echo the home’s woodland setting as well as its earthy, “woodsy” interior.

2.  Place the item you have the most of first.  In our case 80% of our items were books.  We placed the larger heavier ones on the lower shelves and smaller, lighter ones on the top shelves.  Placing big, heavy pieces on the top will cause the shelves to look top heavy.  Books can be grouped by color (nice if you need a pop of color), by topic or by size.   Often we’ll remove the dust jacket to find the hardcover much more tactile and pleasing to the eye.  We also alternate how we place them –  some vertical, some stacked, some angled and even some turned around so that you see the edge of the pages.  This is especially nice if the edges of the pages have a design – like the gorgeous edges we discovered on the 2 books on the lower right shelf pictured below.   If a book has a particularly pretty cover, we’ll lean it against the back of the shelf so as to display the front cover.

3.  Step back periodically. As we place the books we periodically step back to see how the composition looks overall.  Do the colors look balanced?  Are the stacks high enough for the scale of the shelves?  Is the shelving unit starting to look cohesive?

4.  Place the second largest group of items.   Here’s where our wooden bowls came in.  We placed them atop stacks of books, in between groupings of books and used them to corral smaller books (baskets can be used in this way, too).

5.  Place small items last.  Finally, we placed our smallest and fewest item – the nature elements.  We used some reindeer moss and faux moss balls to fill the smaller bowls.  Stepping back allowed us to see where we needed a pop of green and to make sure the color  was evenly dispersed throughout.

We still have more work to do in this room – like filling in the space below the credenza … and wouldn’t a flat screen be nice!  We’ll share more pics in the weeks ahead.  Debra


  1. Nice ideas…any tips for a plain white bookcase built into the wall in my living room 😦 . The owners before us painted a beautiful brick fireplace and shelf white!!!

  2. I checked it out and came to terms with my white shelves! I took the paper off a lot of the books, which made a big difference. Some of the covers were really pretty and interesting. Thanks! And i bought my first piece of milk glass.

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