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How To Make Your Bookshelves Look Better (We Have 5 Easy Tips For You)

I’ve always thought that having a home with floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves would be a dream, but such a luxury can actually be quite sinister. When you have shelves galore the cold hard truth is that you’ll need things to fill up said shelves. And ideally, you’ll have things that speak to you and your style which takes time and effort to curate. Once you do have all your things in order, then you have to face the daunting task of styling. Luckily, there is somewhat of a formula to follow if you want your shelves to feel collected, stylish, personal, and intentional. So today, I am walking you through our 5 steps to get your bookshelves looking better than ever. Class, let’s begin:

Stack Books Vertically And Horizontally

staging by a 1000 x better | creative direction by gillian lawlee | photo by scarlett macdonald

The first step to styling bookshelves is to arrange your books. Whether you have a few books or an entire library, start by stacking them vertically and horizontally. You can play around with this as much as you want, but make sure you leave room for your decorative objects if you plan on using them. In the above photo styled by A 1000 X Better, they opted to fill most of the shelves with books, creating an eclectic library look. However, there is still room for small objects so some personality and flair are added to the space.

styled by emily henderson for cup of jo | photo by  ryan liebe | from: cup of jo makeover

Remember when Emily helped design and style Joanna of Cup of Jo’s living room all those years ago? Name a more iconic duo!! On these shelves, they left more space between books to play around with art and decor. As you can see, arranging the books horizontally and vertically allows the decor to be dispersed in unexpected ways. Books take up much of the shelves, but where there is decor it’s very special. Like, do you see the brass swirl lamp?? It’s such a statement and makes the shelves feel very “styled” instead of random. There’s also a small collection of narrow-necked vessels that creates an intentional styling moment.

design by ryann trombetti for ehd | syled by emily bowser | photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: ryann’s moody living and dining room

In my living room, I styled my entire bookcase with books if you can believe it. Boring, I know. But I did this because A) I have a lot of books and needed the storage and B) I wanted to create a scholarly library look. Since I was going for a real library feel, I kept most of the books stacked vertically but when I needed more space, I stacked books horizontally on top. This is a very relaxed way to style bookshelves and works well in a space you want to feel lived-in and inviting.

HOT TIP: For a collected look, avoid putting the same color books near each other (unless you want your shelves to be neat and color-coded). Instead, pepper the light and dark colors around to create an eclectic yet pulled-together look.

Lean Art

design by julie rose for ehd | photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: a mid-century eclectic living room with kilz primer and paint

Using art is our number one trick to styling your bookshelves like a pro. Framed art scattered between your books and various decorative objects will make your bookshelves feel like their own design moment. In the above living room styled by Julie Rose, she chose to create height and take up unused wall space by leaning large scale framed art on the top shelf.

design by velinda hellen for ehd | photo by sara ligorria-tramp| from: velinda renovated & furnished her “fixer upper” for under $55k…here’s how

When you lean art on shelves it draws your eye to the back of the shelf, making the space feel deeper and layered. Above, Velinda couples two framed pieces in her living room by leaning them on top of each other to create a relaxed but collected look. As we all know, art shows off personality so if you have the room to play with it on your shelves, we always encourage you to go for it.

If you are looking for some fun art to play with here are some ideas:

1. Vintage Beach Painting | 2. Graphic Notes by Paul Cezanne | 3. Folded Lines Framed Wall Art by Minted for West Elm | 4. Fruit Still Life Framed Wall Art | 5. Center Disruption White Framed Wall Art By The Holly Collective | 6. Saddled Chestnut Race Horse

Create Vignettes Within The Shelves

design by sara ruffin costello | styled by erik kenneth staalberg and velinda hellen | photo by sara ligorria-tramp for the new diesgn rules

To prevent your shelves from feeling like a thrift store with random objects laid out next to each other, try creating vignettes within the shelves. If you focus on making one cohesive vignette at a time, the entire shelf won’t feel as overwhelming. You can start by adding books, stacking them horizontally and vertically, and then start to layer in your art and objects. In the above room designed by Sara Ruffin Costello, most of the shelves are split into two separate vignettes (one on each side) which leaves some breathing room within the shelves. Keeping some space open gives your eye a break and keeps the shelves from looking too visually heavy.

This built-in bookcase from Emily’s Glendale home will always be the prime example of shelf styling. These shelves have seen many iterations but a few things remain the same: the color palette is cohesive, enough space is left open so you can take it all in at once, and she mixes up the decor so the shelves feel balanced and collected.

HOT TIP: Make sure to mix it up. When arranging your objects, sculptures, art, books, and even lighting, be aware of the textures, sizes, and styles, and avoid putting a lot of the same elements near each other.

Here are few decorative objects we love:

1. Vintage Bust of David | 2. Zeta Murano Glass Bowl | 3. Emmet Teak Bowl | 4. Five Link Hand Carved Wood Chain Decorative Object | 5. Calabria Vase | 6. Wooden Sphere

Include Greenery

To easily bring in some movement, add a potted plant or even a vase with branches. Plants are a surefire way to add color and vibrancy to your shelves without disrupting the color palette or style. Plants can also create height and shape, and quite literally bring life to your shelves.

HOT TIP: For a less expensive option, go outside and forage for branches. The more dramatic the branch the better, and add them to a vase for an easy yet impactful styling moment.

1. Faux Potted Greenery | 2. Monstera Deliciosa | 3. Potted Houseplant Wandering Prayer

Use Bookends

design by velinda hellen design | photo by sara ligorria-tramp | from: how to make your smallest room, the coziest room in your home

You might think that a bookshelf would eliminate the need for bookends, but bookends are actually a great way to allow for space within the shelves. On Sara’s built-in above, she uses bookends to separate her individual vignettes and to keep her books from falling over. Unique bookends can also provide style and texture while serving a purpose. I love how Sara used a potted plant bust as a bookend which adds a ton of personality. She also has marble and wood half circle bookend on the top which adds a round shape and even more texture to the shelves. If you are considering adding some bookends to your space, here are some we love:

1. Gray Lava Stone Bookends (Set of 2) | 2. Vintage Brass Bird Bookends | 3. Human Heads Bookend

Annnnd congratulations! You’ve just graduated from styling bookshelves school. I hope you now feel empowered to tackle your shelves like an actual pro. Now I would love to know what other styling questions we can help with so please drop them below. Happy Monday! xx

Opener Image Credit: Home of Corbett Tuck | Styled by Velinda Hellen, Erik Kenneth Staalberg, Emily Bowser, & Julie Rose | Photo by Sara Ligorria-Tramp for The New Design Rules


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33 thoughts on “How To Make Your Bookshelves Look Better (We Have 5 Easy Tips For You)

      1. No offense Ryann, I think my brain saw Corbett’s living room again (it’s so familiar now) and thought it might not be new.

  1. 1. The Glendale bookshelves will always be my favorite. Iconic for residential bookshelves, in my mind.
    2. A1000xbetter can do no wrong for me. Even though not styled out with many decorative items, it’s so real and organic. Love.
    3. The cup of jo ones are good. I like the varied shelf heights to include a lamp. Perfect.
    4. The Sara Ruffin Costello ones are really good. The perfect amount of decorative items so it’s not cluttered and you can appreciate it all.
    5. Estate sales and thrift stores are a great source for decorative items for a bookshelf.
    6. Sara’s built in cove bookshelf is another one I could look at forever. Styled perfectly. And I’m always drawn to that half-bow bookend. I’m obsessed.
    7. Idk about plants unless your shelves are in direct sunlight all day. And I’m not into fake plants. But that’s just me.
    8. Bummed my comment was deleted from the artificial turf post. Was it too negative…whatever the reason, it’s annoying.

  2. These are great tips and beautiful bookshelves. My feeling is the more books on a bookshelf, the better! Yours is my favourite, Ryann – moody and uncluttered and full of good books.

  3. Few things in home design are as much fun as arranging books shelves. Mine are mostly books, too, but I do enjoy adding and subtracting to the “stuff” on my book shelves. And while I bought most of the books new, the stuff is almost entirely old. Vintage, antique and thrift stores are filled with tiny treasures that look great on a book shelf.

  4. Featuring some of my favourite rooms – yours, Velinda’s and Sarah’s! Not that the others aren’t good, but I enjoyed seeing those three together. Nice simple read at end of day after watching the Queen’s funeral and reflecting on her remarkable life.

  5. I also lean art books with beautiful covers against the back of the shelf the way you would framed art.

  6. It would be great if there were links for some of the bookcases featured. I’m getting ready to put some in.

    1. Stephanie, the bookcases in the Cup of Jo photo look like Elfa from The Container Store. I have the same set up in my sewing room, and I love the functionality. But for more furniture like bookcases, a furniture store is probably a better bet.

    2. Unfortunately, most of the shelves featured here are built-in or custom, but the one from my makeover is from Room and Board! It’s such a good, solid piece. You can find it here.

  7. A few tips from a former librarian:
    line book spines up to edge of shelf instead of pushed to the back, unless you’re displaying something in front of them. Remove book jackets that are ugly. Hardcover books tend to look nicer than paperbacks. Even with all my experience working with books and a knowledge of design, styling bookshelves can be challenging for me–a large collection is harder to manage, not all our beloved or useful books are instagram worthy, and culling a collection is not a top priority on my to-do list, so my shelves are looking a bit messy these days!

    1. I watched a lot of organizing pros line up spines and take off dust jackets. Great tips!

      I would love to see bookshelves, too!

  8. As much as I love styled shelves, I have far too many books and not enough shelves for that. So in the end, Ryann’s set up is most functional. A library. I also like the librarian’s suggestion in the comments to pull books to the front edge of the shelf and remove book jackets.

    1. I have a small freestanding bookshelf and had to move the books to the back of the three shelves so it wouldn’t tip over! Something to be aware of when placing objects on shelves not secured to a wall.

      1. Good point, Char. All of my shelves are either built in, secured, or short and sturdy, but I can see that being a problem with some of my shelves in my first apartment. I always pushed my books to the back then.

    1. That is my question too! It looks to be the same one as in the post: “In defense of the comfy sectional” but without the controversial sectional from an older post. DEFINITELY custom. It is so gorgeous.

  9. I love the top photo and recognize the room from a sixpenny couch post. I’m always curious about how six penny couches wear, so I’m wondering whether these people replaced it already? I’d love to know why!! Or is this couch change just for purposes of photos? The green couch is also lovely, but I wouldn’t have the resources to replace so soon, so I’m really curious. Thanks!

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