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Styling With Too Many Small Objects

Buying a lot of small knick knacks is like ordering a lot of small appetizers at a restaurant in lieu of an entree = it seems easier and cheaper, but ultimately you end up spending more and walk away less satisfied. I love tiny accessories, as you know. Like super tiny. I even once framed some handmade dollhouse fly swatters – which were each only 1 inch high. But if you ONLY have small things on your shelves they lose their individual aesthetic value and your whole space can look VERY cluttered.

You know these people:


These shelves mainly have books, then tiny pieces of stuff. What they are lacking are larger accessories to help contrast the smaller pieces and anchor everything. These could be larger frames, stacks of larger books. large vessels, art leaning against the back, etc.


These larger items give the eye some visual landmarks to rest for a moment so that you don’t get too overwhelmed. They also help to distinguish between your collections so that it all doesn’t just mesh together like a big cluttered mess. A little more order, a little less hoarder.

3 Steps to Styling Your Bookcase_Emily Henderson_midcentury_bookshelf_modern_blue_white_books_final

3 Steps To Styling Out Your Shelves – Photo by Tessa Neustadt

We have covered the process many times here on the blog on how best to style out your bookcase, and the proof is in the many different versions of my bookcase that you may have seen. Although the contents of the shelves are constantly changing for different blog posts or shoots the formula and process of how to style it out stays the same (in case you missed our most recent post on how to style out your shelves,  you can check that out to help you through the process), and is quite simple when you boil it down.

You start with your larger books, then add in your art and larger objects, and last you style and accessorize with your other smaller items. The mix of large and small will fill out the shelves well, and help the whole space to feel a bit less cluttered and a bit more pulled together. In case you need a few more shelves to inspire you, scroll on through to some of our favorites from recent past projects. Now get out there and have fun with it, your shelves will thank you.


Bookcass Update – Photo by Brittany Ambridge


Lisa’s Home – Photo by Bethany Nauert


Ian Brennan’s Home – Photo by Bethany Nauert 


Oh Joy’s Studio – Photo by Zeke Ruelas


Lisa’s Home – Photo by Bethany Nauert

For much more bookshelf styling goodness, look here: The design/build of my bookshelf 1 Bookcase 4 Different Ways | 3 Steps To Styling Out Your Book Shelves and in case you missed any of our other design mistakes/PSA’s: The Generic Sofa Roundup | Rugs That Are Too Small | Painting a Small, Dark Room White | How To Hang Art Correctly | How to Hang Curtains


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44 thoughts on “Styling With Too Many Small Objects

  1. Shelves are so tough for me. I live in a 2-bedroom, 1400-square foot condo with a fairly open-ish floor plan. I’ve built up everywhere that I could, but every inch of my shelving has to be functional. I spend a small fortune on kolo scrapbooks and blurb photo books, so the stuff that I’m storing isn’t super ugly, but it is bulky and just doesn’t leave a lot of room for knickknacks. My place goes from zero to clutter with even one vase, so it’s tough to curate items to complement the items I’m storing.

    1. Yes! I’d love to see some bookshelf styling that’s a little more functional for those of us who need our shelves to mainly hold books. All the shelves in this post are styled beautifully, but the ratio of books:accessories is very different from what I need in a 600sq ft 1 bedroom.

      1. If the whole case is full of books, you can just stack some horizontally to break it up. Or, embrace the books-only situation and decorate the space around the bookcase. Cocoon it with art and objects on the walls, a stool or chair and lamp…soon the various colors and shapes of your books will blend in with their surroundings and you won’t sacrifice any library space.

    2. Yes. We just bought a house and had 2 beautiful built ins made for each end of our living room. They Are gorgeous but we have a zillion books. I’m trying hard to break it up but my husband is on the verge of lining up crazy old man objects in front of packed shelves. Not cool.

      I’d love to see some styling for shelves with lots of books!

  2. This one made me cringe a bit…I have too many small brass things, and it drives me mad. I think it’s because I get carried away with things that are ‘so cuuute’ because they are miniature, then I get it home and put it next to the other ‘cuute’ things I have. Next thing you know, I look like a hoarder. I’m hoping that reading this again and again will help!

  3. This is probably my Achilles’ Heel too. I had so many little things from my travels that were getting lost on the shelves. So I ended up with a couple wall mounted curio boxes and that really did the trick.

  4. These are lovely! I have two big bookcases full of books that I love and need to style around. I don’t want to cover them or turn them around so you can’t see the spines, or organize them by color. They’re not all hardbound either, so, of course, there is all of this randomly ordered color that makes it difficult to work around.

    Would love some suggestions for dealing with that!

    1. Paperback novels look less “cheap” if they are grouped together in shelves that are scaled for their height. So if your shelves are adjustable, you can try moving them so that the small books are together in a smaller vertical space than your bigger books. Same principle as a smaller space for small collectibles.

      Paperback books of bigger sizes can be less conspicuous if sandwiched between hardbacks so only the spine shows…or just group only paperbacks together and it doesn’t stand out…then have spots of only hardbacks…

      1. Yes – good advice. Thank you!

        I think I’ve organized my hard and soft-bound books pretty effectively already: some standing, some stacked, etc. And my shelves were literally purchased from a large bookstore chain that went out of business, so fit the books well. They are also now white and bright with moldings above and below. In looking again at the pics above, though, I think I just need to re-align so I have more white, spaces throughout and then use that space for a few larger objects or some larger objects with maybe one or two small objects in a group.

        The book is in my amazon basket as we speak! So excited to get it. It’ll be my reading material on my upcoming vacation.

  5. One thing I’ve noticed in Blogland (Hendersonville included) is that almost of these examples of how-to-style-your-bookcase show primarily white, shallow bookcases. They’re bright and things just pop right off them.

    I’d LOVE to see examples of styling done on darker, deeper shelving (like your “before” shots above, only, you know, not gross). Pretty please??

    BTW, I just treated myself to your book for an early Christmas gift. It’s awesome, no surprise.

  6. I have such a hard time with my shelves! The shelves I have flank either side of my fireplace and are custom built. Which sounds great but they line up with the depth of the fireplace which puts them at 4 inches deep. It’s a challenge for sure! I have a hard time finding things that are large enough to anchor the space. Any ideas?

  7. Ugh, my shelf styling leaves a lot to be desired. Definitely guilty of throwing a few small items up and calling it a day. Love this post and your advice here… guess it’s time to get back to the drawing board with my shelves!

  8. I have three Billy tall bookshelves in my dining room area. I have a lot of books as well as interesting objets and stuff, but I feel like I’m not at the sweet spot yet. Some shelves are not at the same height all the way across–I’m open to asymmetry but it seems like in this case it’s not pleasing to the eye. I agree about the comment if the shelves are painted white, thinks on them pop more. This part of the room is kinda dim and the birch color doesn’t do anything any favors.

  9. There is **a lot** of negative space in the “good” examples pictured, and in all of those (except Oh Joy’s, which to my eye is messy, decidedly unpretty, yet clearly the most functional and utilized of the bunch) the backdrop is a very pale neutral. The “bad” examples you / your staff have chosen all have darker, patterned backgrounds (woodgrain).

    These “bad” examples also have not been professionally lit / photographed ….. I’d like every single thing in my life, including my face and my ass, to be professionally lit and photographed.

    All. The. Time.

    1. Emily,
      How about this for a future blog: Pruning a messy bookcase. Take a cluttered bookcase and show how you could make it better by trimming 10, 20, 49% of the stuff, painting it, adding art, etc.

      While the results wouldn’t be as stunning as your bookshelves, the post could inspire those of us who want beauty/need functionality.

        1. I agree too! My books, even if they aren’t the most expensive or elegant, are some of my most prized possessions. They are “me” and I can’t let them go but I sure would like the shelves to be more aesthetically pleasing. And also – find a way to balance all of that color around and on the other side of the room.

  10. Help! I still only find Sept 16th and earlier blog posts by going through your website. The only way for me to access new blog posts is through your daily emails, please fix, need my daily dose of EH!

  11. Oh, goodness! Now I understand why my bookshelves look “blech” even though I mess with them constantly! Thank you, and I’m perplexed that this never dawned on me before. Ha! Time for a trip to Home Goods and West Elm! XOXO

  12. Hm. Too Many Little Things IS a common design problem – but I don’t think that’s really the main problem with the example photos you included. The thing is, a lot of people have bookshelves that DO look like those photos – show them how to fix THOSE! You’re so good at explaining basic design concepts (color continuity, proportion, negative space, visual lines, etc)… I’m surprised you didn’t explain more. Marianne’s suggestion to write a post showing how to edit bad shelves was great. It would be really helpful if you could minimize variables by using someone’s ordinary mediocre wood bookshelves and ordinary mediocre tchotkes and framed family photos to really demonstrate the concepts – people shouldn’t have to go out and buy all new books, artwork, and pottery to get well-styled shelves (and they won’t. And if they do, they’ll be disappointed that “cool stuff” doesn’t automatically = beautiful shelves.) OR, style your own shelves badly, with “too many little things”, and then fix them, keeping the lighting and other variables the same, so people can really see what you’re talking about. Of course that kind of post takes a little more time, and you DO have a newborn and a toddler, and this IS free content… ;). But in case you need blog fodder for the future. I’d read it.

  13. I have taken tons of cues from your shelving style and love your style in general. But you seldom have all that many books – your shelves are art more than practical storage. Have you considered a series where you advise a non-employee or -client on styling their shelves with things they own? Tell them to move things around, try to find something bigger, wider, whatever that they own to help the process? I think that could be a fun exercise or even series… And yes, I’d volunteer… But would be fine if you do it without me too! 🙂

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