If you’ve ever had trouble decorating a bookcase, you’re not alone! This seems like it should be an easy interior design project, until you’re staring at the empty shelves and can’t decide what to do. So today I’m sharing some of my favorite bookshelf styling ideas to help you bring a fun and unique style to your living space.
I don’t know about you, but I have a lot of bookshelves in my house. They’re in pretty much every room.
And while some of them are completely full of books, some are meant for decorating.
With all these bookcases and after all these years, I have finally figured out some tried-and-true ways to decorate them.
Which means I no longer waste the whole day staring at the shelf trying to decide what to do.
Or even worse, putting all the decorations up, only to take them all down again because I don’t like it.
So today I’m sharing those step by step bookshelf styling tips in case you have trouble with this, too.
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Decide what arrangement to use
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The first decision when arranging your bookshelves is to decide what pattern you are going to use to lay them out.
While this isn’t absolutely necessary, this is the easiest way to make sure that your arrangement doesn’t end up looking messy and cluttered in the end.
The first way is to create a single grouping of accessories that are centered in the middle of each shelf.
To make them look balanced, these groupings should be about the same width. And using a similar color palette keeps them looking cohesive. But they certainly don’t have to be the same.
Sarah at Thrifty Decor Chick uses frames and a plant on her top shelf, a couple of large vases on her second shelf and books with a patterned bowl and beads combo on the bottom shelf.
Lining the backs of her built in shelves with a peel and stick graphic wallpaper keeps them from looking too plain.
Divided in half
The next way to decorate bookshelves is to divide them in half vertically and decorate each side.
To keep this pattern interesting, alternate the size of your shelf accessories.
On one shelf put a larger object on the left with a smaller object on the right. Then on the next shelf put a smaller object on the left with a larger one on the right. And so on.
This causes your eye to go down the shelf in a zig-zag motion which makes the bookshelf look more dynamic.
Michael from Inspired By Charm does this so well you don’t even notice that the small accessory on the bottom shelf is actually a speaker.
Just be careful that your small accessories aren’t too small or the shelf will look off-balance. If you end up with this problem, try grouping 3 or 5 small accessories together to create a bigger footprint.
Split into thirds
If you have wider shelves, try dividing them into thirds instead of in half.
The simplest way to do this is to use individual accessories in each of the sections.
However you can get fancier than this by grouping accessories and layering. But I’m getting ahead of myself…more on that later…
Mixed and matched
If you like a more eclectic look and you’re feeling confident in your design skills, you can always mix and match by using a different styling pattern on each shelf.
In this bookcase from Home Bunch, some of the shelves are using center placement while others have been divided in half.
To make this look cohesive, the total width of the decorations on each shelf should be about the same.
Zig zag pattern
Another creative way to style your bookshelves is to use a zig zag pattern.
Karianne from Thistlewood Farms did this with her bookshelves by placing books and accessories all the way to the right on one shelf. And then all the way to the left on the next one.
This works particularly well when you’re decorating with books since they can lean right up against the sides of the shelves.
Bookshelf styling tips
Now that you’ve decided on which bookcase arrangement you want to use, the next step is decide what you’re going to put on your shelves.
But before you do that, here are a few styling tips to keep in mind. These will help your shelves look beautiful and cohesive when you’re done.
Repetition is one of the basic design principles of interior decorating.
And there’s a good reason why. Anything that’s repeated helps to lead your eye through a scene and automatically makes things look like they belong together.
So repeating shapes on a bookcase is a really simple way to make it look good.
At Just a Girl Blog, Chris used a lot of organic round shapes which pull your eye all the way across and down her bookshelf. Even though they are different colors and textures, the similar shape pulls them together.
Repeating objects is another way to incorporate the repetition principle
Leslie from The Leslie Style did this with candles.
Alternating them from one side to the next as you go down the shelf adds to the balanced feel.
Repetition of color also makes a strong impact.
These blue and white ginger jars create a definite path across the shelves that helps to make it more interesting. Even when the rest of the shelf is just filled with books.
You can also create an interesting color story by decorating each shelf in its own palette.
This could be a color scheme using multiple shades like this one.
Or a more limited one that only uses two or three colors from your room decor.
As I mentioned earlier, you usually want to avoid having a really large accessory on one end of a shelf with a really small one at the other end. It makes the shelf feel unbalanced, like one end is heavier and is going to cause the whole thing to tip over.
Which is why grouping objects is often helpful. If you can get the group as a whole to look about the same size as what you have on the other side, it won’t look unbalanced.
So how do you make those groups look good? By using layering.
If you group accessories of different heights and depths so that they overlap each other, your eye will treat the whole group as one object.
And odd numbers like 3 or 5 objects in a group usually work best.
Robert and Christina at New Darlings did this using a tray in the background, with a pretty postcard leaning up against it, a pillar candle in front of that and two wooden candlesticks on the other side of the tray.
While you want a variety of heights and object sizes within a grouping, each separate vignette on your bookshelf should be about the same size in order to look balanced (as I mentioned before).
To do this you may need some of your accessories to look taller and larger. Which is where stacking comes in handy.
Stacks of books and decorative boxes make great stands for all kinds of other accessories that might otherwise be too small for your space.
Jen from City Farmhouse did this to perfection when she was decorating the large bookcase in her den.
What to put on your bookshelves
Finally, you get to decide what you’re going to put on your bookshelves.
Of course, I have a few ideas for that, too.
This one might be a little obvious. But I believe that all bookshelves benefit from actually having some books on them.
Not only is it a functional way to store them (I refer to the gardening books on these shelves pretty regularly), but they are great for adding height and weight to smaller accessories.
Laying books horizontally as well as having them standing up vertically creates divergent lines for your eyes to follow. Which helps to make the shelves look more interesting.
And those coffee table books that you never read make excellent trays.
Using books that have covers which are color coordinated with your home decor makes them blend in.
Ashley from At Home With Ashley took this idea one step further by finding other decor items in the same colors to add to the mix. (I love the mint green camera!)
As we saw previously, if your books aren’t the right color for your decor, making covers for them out of wrapping paper or wallpaper is a quick fix.
Bookends are great if you only have a few books but want to fill a big space.
Place them on one side or both sides, such as these modern bookends Kelly at Studio DIY used.
Of course, you don’t have to stick to real bookends to hold up your books.
Anything that is large enough to keep them standing will work, like the vintage jars and bottles that Ann from Dabbling and Decorating used on her shelves.
On a bookshelf, things can easily become all square.
So adding in rounded shapes like the gold sphere on this bookcase by Laura on The Makerista gives the eye something new to look at.
Metal accessories like baskets and bowls add some shine to shelves that may be a little dark.
And they also provide a contrast in texture from the books.
Baskets are an easy way to add texture and like vases, they come in many shapes, sizes, and colors.
They are easy to source and can stand on their own or be filled with other decor items. If it is sitting below eye level, you may want to put something decorative in the basket. Above eye level, they can be used for storage…no one can tell!
Using a see-through basket like the one used in Lantern Lane Design’s bookshelf doesn’t make it look too bulky on the shelf.
Plants give life to any space and can easily fill gaps in a bookshelf. Plus, it’s hard to overdo greenery and flowers.
Also, you don’t need a green thumb or lots of light to have them in your home. Faux flowers work wonderfully to add naturalism and color to your space.
And they’re not your grandma’s fake plants anymore. You can find some high-quality flowers and greenery that look just like the real thing.
Laura from The Turquoise Home uses plenty of flowers and other faux greenery in her decor.
Bring nature indoors, and you will find unlimited textures and shapes to add to your bookshelf decor.
This means not only greenery but also wood, geodes, shells, etc.
And natural decor doesn’t have to come directly from nature to have the same effect, as long as it is inspired by it.
If you have fun or quirky accessories that you love, a bookshelf is a great place to put them out.
And if there’s a story about where it came from or how you find it, even better. Because they’re an easy conversation starter.
Like this animal head on Aniko’s bookshelf from Place Of My Taste.
Do you collect owls? Or penguins? Or have some other kind of collection?
Collections look best when they are displayed together. And creating a grouping of them on your bookshelf is a great way to do that.
They also add some more of your personality to the decor.
Like the brass animals on this bookshelf by Michael from Inspired by Charm.
Bookshelves are great for highlighting small personal photos with memories from family vacations, beloved pets, special occasions, and more.
Find a fun frame such as the one Lemon Thistle used so that your photo is not only personal, but stylish.
A piece of art doesn’t always have to be big or act as a feature piece.
Small paintings make versatile fillers or backdrops, like on this bookshelf decorated by Robert and Christina from New Darlings.
It is often easiest to find abstract art in the colors and size you need. And using it in your bookshelf decor brings a sense of modernity. It also incorporates bright lines and interesting shapes you might not already have included. They certainly draw the eye in!
You can order great prints of all sizes directly from artists on sites like Etsy or Redbubble.
Bookshelves are one of the most interesting things to browse through at someone’s house. Every bookshelf is different and reflects the home’s personality. I hope you have found some inspiration from this list of ideas for decorating a bookshelf in your home.
Other bookshelf ideas you might like
- Creative ways to hide clutter on a bookshelf
- Small home library design ideas
- Small living room library makeover
- DIY bonus room built-in bookshelves
Have questions or comments about our bookshelf styling ideas? Tell us in the section below.
This post was originally published on May 19, 2021 but was updated with new content on April 22, 2022.