Styling Bookshelves: Ultimate How-To Guide

February 5, 2020

You may have seen over on my Instagram stories that we’re adding built-in bookshelves around our fireplace. I’m super excited for this project and I’m already loving the way it’s looking. I think built-in shelves really complete a wall, especially for a feature wall with a fireplace like ours, and by styling bookshelves effectively I can make a total statement to complement my interior design.

When it comes to renovating our North Carolina home, I’ve really enjoyed being hands-on and taking my time with all the design choices.We got SUPER hands-on by painting the exterior of our home ourselves. Harper’s surf-themed room renovation was a totally all-in project, and though I got to stretch my shelf-styling skills a little bit there, these new built-in shelves are a totally new challenge. It took me a while to figure out the exact placement for Harper’s shelves, but I think it turned out great!

Surf-themed styled bookshelf

If you’ve ever tried to get those magazine-worthy shelves, find the perfect spines for your book stack, or wondered how many vases on one shelf is too many, I’m hoping these tips for styling bookshelves will help you out a bit. I’ve compiled my top tips and resources to help you get the perfect #shelfie every time!

My Top Tips for Styling Bookshelves

Did you know there’s a foolproof method to styling bookshelves?

  • Step 1: Take EVERYTHING off of your shelves.
  • Step 2: Compile your books, knick-knacks, and art.
  • Step 3: Mix and match.
  • Step 4: Repeat until you find something you like!

Okay, so that’s a little bit simple, but I promise you there’s no secret formula or magic layout to styling shelves. This is what I do every single time and sure, it takes me a few (dozen) tries, but I always end up with something that looks intentional and artistic. But no matter how you go about styling your bookshelves, the one thing I recommend more than anything else is to have a good selection of decor pieces so you can mix and match.

Some of my favorite bookshelf inspo pictures aren’t all perfectly symmetrical or planned; it’s all about the mixture of old and new, big and small, neutral and colorful, or cheap and expensive, so don’t be afraid to try things that you don’t immediately think would go together.

Though it can be tempting to go out and buy a whole bunch of new things to style your shelves with, you don’t need to break the bank to create a gorgeously styled shelf. I love to mix in Target steals with some of my treasured finds.

Target is actually one of my favorite places to find bookshelf styling decor. Their decor pieces are pretty much always on trend and really fairly priced. A Target trip is perfect for picking up a bunch of little items to style bookshelves. I especially love Target’s selection of fake plants. Real plants are always great, but faux greenery is safer for my wooden shelves and for my less-than-green thumb. Most of my gold frames on my bookshelves come from Target!

For more unique finds, I like heading over to Chairish. I could browse Chairish for HOURS. Chairish is an online marketplace of vintage and antique furniture and decor and has amazing pieces, small and large. My favorite find so far has been an antique water pitcher in the form of a monkey dressed up in a sailor’s uniform. I have a thing for monkeys, and this little guy brings me so much joy just sitting on my shelf! He’s perfect for a bookend or just a standalone vase option. Super cute, and I love the touch of charm that you get from buying antique pieces.

My Favorite Styling Books

Shelves were originally built to hold books. I mean, they are called bookshelves, right? It’s pretty much a no-brainer that books are the first things that come to mind when I start styling shelves. Coffee table books are an art form in and of themselves, and I’ll definitely be using several to complete the look of my built-in bookshelves. But how do you find the perfect balance between artfully placed tomes and looking like a full-on library? I’ve hunted for a while to find books that I actually want to read and that look good on shelves. Here are just a few of my favorite picks! If you want to see all of my styling book recommendations, check out my post on 100 styling books every interior designer needs.

Books for styling bookshelves graphic

I also adore styling bookshelves with ginger jars. Ginger jars are a classic design staple, named for their purpose as spice storage in Ancient China. The ornate blue Chinoiserie pieces are a perfect addition to any home, and look especially good as a pop of color on a white shelf with gold accents. Finding good, cheap ginger jars can be a bit of a goose chase, but I’ve collected my favorites for you here. I especially love how the ginger jar trend has expanded into more modern colors and different styles like lamps and trays.

Amazon and Williams Sonoma Home are both great options to source ginger jars online, or check out Steven Shell Living in Charleston or Raleigh for an in-store option. Check the shop the post carousel at the bottom of the page for direct links to these ginger jars.

Ginger jars for styling bookshelves graphic

Interior Designers’ Tips for Styling Bookshelves

It’s taken me years to cultivate my go-to styling books and knick-knacks, and I still struggle. There are so many incredible Charleston interior designers, and I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of them, so I reached out to get their top tips for styling bookshelves.

1. Use Natural Materials

Fill bowls and baskets, place on stacks of books, or fill up empty visual space on shelves with driftwood, deer moss, seashells, or even pine cones. Nature has so many free elements to use to add texture to your bookshelves!

— T. Phillips, owner of Latitude Design Group (@wtp.ldg)

Design by Emily McAden. Photos taken by Andrea Kinnear.

2. Fill Larger Spaces

Keep things symmetrical, especially on larger bookshelves where it could easily start to feel cluttered. If you need “filler” books for styling larger bookshelves, go to a thrift shop and buy books based on their color under the dust jacket. You can also always turn them so that the pages face out for a more flexible, neutral look.

Amen Design Co.

3. Try Color Coordinating

Styling bookshelves can be intimidating because there’s a lot of space to cover! A great tip to keep in mind when starting to style your shelves is to lay out all of your accessories either on the floor or a table so you have a good understanding of what you have on hand to work with. I like to start with the larger items first such as ginger jars or baskets rich with texture (and hidden storage!) and use those as anchor pieces to create smaller pockets for accessorizing. I’ve found this method helps compartmentalize the bookshelf, making the styling process more seamless. 

For example, when it came time to style bookshelves at our flagship store, Society Social Charlotte, we had a large assortment of gifts and decor items we wanted to beautifully display. After placing our anchor pieces, we started to play around with color coordinating, grouping decorative objects and gifts with a similar color palette on the same or neighboring shelf.

With visual interest in mind, we made sure to incorporate items of varying heights as well — stacking books or placing tchotchkes on top of decorative boxes to create different levels. For the last layer of accessorizing, we grouped our smaller pieces in sets so they made more of a statement vs standing on their own!

— Melissa Napier, Society Social

Photos courtesy of Society Social.

4. Don’t Be Afraid of Layering

It takes a few tries to strike the perfect balance of displaying your beautiful and meaningful items in a group together so that it doesn’t look cluttered, chaotic, or simply random. Try stacking things in different ways and try to maintain some color or material continuity throughout the shelves. Layering is great, but it’s also important to edit!

— Cintra McGauley Sedalik, interior designer at Herlong Architects (@cintra.by.design)

5. Group in Odd Numbers

I love to layer with books and trays. Make sure the objects are varying heights to keep the eye moving around the shelves. Grouping in odd numbers generally works best when styling bookshelves.

Bobbi Jo Engelby Interior Design

6. Think Vertical

Filling up awkwardly spaced shelves can be a styling challenge. Use books to add height to tall spaces. Stacking books and using a stack as a pedestal for an object or frame is a great way to add visual interest!

— Lesley Bright, Ellebright Designs

Design by Emily McAden. Photos taken by Andrea Kinnear.

7. Add Some Artwork

Prop artwork in the back of shelves and layer items to create depth. Fun frames with pops of gold or silver metals always add a great touch! You can personalize your bookshelves by adding items that are meaningful, such as photos of family and friends or items you may have collected from travel over the years. Vary sizes, shapes, and textures while keeping with a set color scheme, although we do sneak an unexpected pop of color in sometimes! A great way to do this is to add live greenery in a fun pot.

— Emily McAden, Emily McAden Interiors

8. Leave White Space

Don’t give into the temptation to fill every inch of every shelf. Let each item, or collection of small items, shine by leaving some empty visual space around it, similar to matting a piece of art inside a frame.

Use books in strategic and interesting ways. Instead of displaying every book in your collection, choose a few that coordinate with your color scheme, or a few that are especially meaningful for you. You can use them to add pops of color throughout the shelving unit, or as pedestals under items that you would like to display.

— Lauren Haskell, Lauren Haskell Designs

Photos taken by Kacey Gilpin

Along with all these amazing tips from some of my favorite interior designers, I also take a lot of guidance from other beautifully styled bookshelves I see. I get great ideas for arrangements and unique decor pieces like this. Most of my inspiration comes from Pinterest, and I’ve collected some of my favorite shelves I’ve seen online for you here:

Featured photo:  Taken by Andrea Kinnear.

Design by Emily McAden.

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