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How To Style Your Shelves in 3 steps

Maybe you’re someone blessed/cursed with built-in shelves in your home. Or maybe you can’t throw a book away. Or worse yet, an object hoarder in need of shelving to house your collection of vintage baby doll heads. Either way, making the shelving in your house look pulled together, interesting and stylish is challenging and poorly styled shelves are a problem riddling America. In the book, STYLED, (yes, its been a while but surely some of you haven’t purchased it yet) the secret to styling the shelves (as well as every single surface or piece of furniture in your house) is outlined and the daunting tasks of making your home look pulled together and beautiful is broken down in very manageable ways. 

Before you begin there are some universal rules to styling any surface or room in your house that I need to go over: 1.) Have a clear consistent color palette and 2.) Edit out what you don’t need or like. That sounds obvious but it’s not. If your pieces aren’t a.) Functional, b.) Sentimental or c.) Beautiful then please donate them. That’s just a universal rule for the styling of any surface (and one that I expound on in the book).  

*Let me add a disclaimer – there are lots of ways to go about this (first off being that just having books can be good enough) but we wanted to show another option or method of styling shelves that could be helpful. 

Emily Henderson Pink Shelf Styling Step 1

1. Start with your books – maybe it’s only a few books (like this) or a library full of dusty old novels. Stack them both vertically and horizontally and pepper the colors around evenly for a more collected, yet pulled together look. In other words don’t throw all your darker books in one corner and your lighter books in another UNLESS you are doing that color coding thing which is more for a proper bookshelf, less for a collection of pieces and objects like this.

Emily Henderson Pink Shelf Styling STEP 2

2. Add art – Not all shelving can house art but if it can, DO IT. Incorporating art into your shelves does some really good things: 1.) It adds personality, obviously, as art is one of those purchases that we make based on what we like, not based on function. 2.) It draws your eye to the back of the shelf, thus making it look deeper and bigger and creating a sense of layering. 3.) It takes up a lot of visual real estate that is otherwise hard to fill with smaller objects.

Emily Henderson Pink Shelf Styling Step 3

3. Mix it up – This is where you add all your pretty things – your objects, sculptures, vessels, collections and even lighting. Mix up the textures, sizes, styles and tones but stay within that color palette so it doesn’t look like a thrift store.

Emily Henderson Pink Shelf

A lot of people don’t know where to start when decorating their own home, so in the book, STYLED, I break down the smaller concepts, each vignette, each art wall and if you read the book and implement the ideas you will, someday soon, look around and magically (it will seem) your home will have come together to look like the best version of your personality possible.

How To Style Your Shelves Emily Henderson Pink Shelf Styling Guide To Styling Your Shelf Henderson Emily Henderson Pink Shelf Styling Pink_Shelf_Gif

***All photos by Tessa Neustadt for EHD, check the design/build of my bookshelf, and how to style 1 bookcase four different ways for more shelf styling fun. 

**Here’s a secret. We made the red in the rug more pink to work with the shelves. Did you catch the difference? Also we shot this when we shot this bookshelf styling post but saved it for spring what with the happy color palette and all. My shelves are back to normal although I loved seeing them this way. 

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8 years ago

Hey guys, always love a good styling post (and GIF), but the link to the rug in the photo is for a different rug you have. Is the one in these images vintage? I LOVE it!

8 years ago
Reply to  Grace

It is vintage 🙂

8 years ago

These built-ins are something of my dreams…

Just bought your book and love it! Particularly the style quiz- I always gave my style the name of “global glam” – and the result of my quiz was glam! I think with a bit of the things I have collected in my travels instead of some gold accents I will have the ‘global’ part incorporated perfectly. Thanks for a fun rainy day activity!


8 years ago

I would love to have built in cabinets like this. We always seem to need more storage and I love how cute these look. They’re functional but not too cluttered.

8 years ago

Love white built ins and hope to have them someday, but for now mine are a dark cherry. Would you consider showing how to style these darker bookcases for those of us who love the lighter airy style, but struggle to do that with darker woodwork in our current homes?

Nina D
8 years ago
Reply to  Maggie

I have made this very request before. While I love the look of light and bright white shelving, I have a dark — and deep — shelving unit which isn’t going anywhere. (It’s where my husband’s beloved ginormous TV lives.) Things just end up looking lost in the deep recesses of the dark shelves. Nothing pops the way it does against a narrow, white backdrop.

It’s good to know I’m not the only one out here. Emily, please help us!

8 years ago
Reply to  Nina D

I had a dark bookshelf and just painted it white. Such an amazing change for inexpensive paint.

8 years ago
Reply to  Nina D

White paint? 🙂

8 years ago
Reply to  Maggie

I too have two big dark bookcases, and what I’m thinking of doing is to cut posterboard to the size of the back of the units and painting them my wall color. It will either lighten the space up, or look like crap, and if it’s the latter I’m only out some posterboard and a pint of paint.

8 years ago
Reply to  Carol

You can also line the backs of your shelves with patterned wallpaper or wrapping paper as a temporary fix.

8 years ago

I second that request on how to style darker bookshelves. Also where do you get those yellow flower looking things in the vase? I’ve been searching for something like that for a couple of vases and can’t seem to find anything as simple and sculptural. Please help!

Emily K
8 years ago
Reply to  Sandra

They’re called billy balls but I’ve never been able to find them here in the Midwest without resorting to ordering them online. If you’re crafty there’s some tutorials out there that show you how to make similar looking ones out of felt.

8 years ago
Reply to  Emily K

You can find them on etsy at a reasonable price.

8 years ago

I love the shape of the shelves in your house, they’re so pretty!


8 years ago

I have to say, not only do you have excellent taste in shelving decor, but you have FANTASTIC taste in gin 🙂

8 years ago
Reply to  katie

St. George gin is the best! They’re here in Alameda, where I live. They do tours of the distillery too.

8 years ago
Reply to  Lilli

I agree! I’m actually an employee over here at St. George. I always get excited when I see a glimpse of our bottles in Emily’s photos.

8 years ago

You make it sound/look so easy.

Just wanted to say how thankful I am for your blog and book. Two weeks ago, we finally redid the home office. I’m a big reader, so I own a lot of books, but after a KonMari purge, I found myself with less books than shelf space. For the first time in my life I got enough space to do some styling !! So, I got to the styling, remembering your advices. A consistent color palette couldn’t be archieved through the books, because I don’t choose to keep my books based on their color, so I painted the back wall a beautiful Oval Room Blue from F&B. Since the shelves are mounted on the wall, the books kind of disappear. Then, I organized my books by subject (I personally can’t find a book based on its cover color, and feel like I’m separating friends from each others). I put the books in first, because that is what my library is about; but in the large spaces left, I put two art pieces I love, a collection of three vintage clocks, and a vase. I also left some space unoccupied because that is a first in my library for me !… Read more »

8 years ago

I just have to say that “feel like I’m separating friends from each others” re. keeping topics together is one of the most charming things I’ve ever read in a comment, and I feel exactly the same way.

8 years ago

I really value your tutorials. Thank you! I’ll be coming back to this post over the weekend.

8 years ago

Emily, what about book cabinets with glass doors? We have 2 of them on both sides of the fireplace. Can I use the same steps or it is an entire different algorithm?

8 years ago

Thank you! You are such an inspiration to me. I have to learn how to think in small steps. What ca I do if I feel like moving objects from there to there? Can’t decide where to put them on shelves.

8 years ago

Ah, There is nothing better then a fabulously styled and well balanced shelf, love this post!