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  • Writer's pictureKori Steigerwald


White theme living area

There’s just no getting around it. At some point in our lives, we all ask the same question: What do I do with all of the beautiful small and large pieces I’ve picked up over the years? And when you look up at your empty shelves, the thought of styling shelves can be overwhelming. It’s often difficult to know how to start: How do I arrange everything to look good? How should I group items together? Should I arrange by size or by color?

Luckily, I have some insider tips I’d want to share that will alleviate your shelf decorating nightmares and give your home a strong, pulled together look…a look that tells a story about you…that “makes things personal”.

How to Style Shelving - General Tips

Before you begin, please keep the following “rule of thumb” tips in mind:

  • Start with larger pieces and the objects that have meaning to you

  • Everything does not have to match, but try to carry consistency throughout

  • Try thinking in layers and using different shapes, heights, and textures

  • Groupings of threes and fives looks cohesive

  • Do not overcrowd your shelves!

Grey and black style shelving unit

Tip 1: Declutter!

First, you want to start with a blank slate. Empty every shelf before beginning. Get rid of any clutter that should be thrown out, eliminate anything that you’re tired of looking at or don’t use anymore, and donate anything that may still be good, but you just no longer love. A frequent shelf mistake is styling with too many (usually small) objects.

Think of it this way – the more “things” you have on a shelf, the less impact an individual item is going to make. Some pieces are even large and dramatic enough to stand alone on a shelf.

Tip 2: Choose a Color Palette

White shelving with blue themed items

Like with most things related to interior design, it is important to have a clear and consistent color palette when styling shelves. Take a look at the photo on the left. The books, porcelain pieces, and built-in shelves make for a rich and airy feel. Mix in perhaps nickel or gold décor, and the shelving looks complete and effortlessly sophisticated.

Tip 3: Should You Emphasize the Back of the Shelf?

Now that you have everything cleared off and pared down, consider the bookshelf itself before you begin.

If you have a built-in bookcase, try dressing up the back of the unit with paint, fabric, or wallpaper for a stunning transformation. Drawing attention to the back of a shelf creates a sense of depth that can otherwise get lost, and it can provide a complementary or contrasting element to the shelf décor itself. Just look at the photos below for some inspiration!

Tip 4: Display Books and Magazines

Start with placing your books on the shelf before any other items. Use your favorite reads as display pieces for shelving that looks effortlessly put together. You will want to mix up your book placement from shelf to shelf. For example, do not put all stacks of books on the left-hand side. Mix it up with some on the right side or even in the center of the shelf. The picture below is a great example of this!

Displaying books and magazines on shelving

Make sure your books are grouped by color and use a mix of vertical and horizontal arrangements. Or go minimal and present a few of your favorite covers as an art installation.

The number of books in each stack will vary depending on the size of your books and the height and width of your shelves. And, in addition to stacking, you can also stand books upright and use bookends for support!

One point to remember is that stacks should generally include three or more books at minimum – more than twelve or fifteen books might be too many.

Tip 5: Add Greenery

White build in shelving with items and plants

Nothing adds a little life to a room like a bit of flora. Like the picture above illustrates, just a few plants can wake up an entire space, adding texture to your shelves and a pop of color to your room.

Look for plants with a visual appeal like fresh cut blooms, or an edgy succulent. Fresh flowers also smell lovely, which is always a plus. You can also use great looking artificial plants, as well.

Tip 6:. Balance, balance, balance!

Because shelves offer a lot of space to fill, balance and visual weight play a big part in getting it right. Make sure your shelves are not so crowded that they begin to look like a New York City China shop, but go too sparse, and your décor will look lost in an empty cube.

When styling shelves, large sculpture pieces can definitely stand-alone while smaller sculptural items should be grouped in pairs or serve as an accent item to a vignette or stack of books. Your shelves should also have symmetry. Take a look at the shelf mockup below:

Displaying items correctly on white shelving

Notice the symmetry between the top left and right shelves and the bottom left and right shelves, creating four strong corners that frame everything else. You can also see how each column and row has an even spread of heavy décor (the black books) and lighter décor (the black and gold objects).

Another suggestion for reaching balance is putting the “heaviest” items at the bottom of your shelves. Not just heavy physically, but visually. The shelves can feel grounded and make the room feel more balanced and not top heavy.  As you move up from shelf to shelf, each has similar weight balanced on both sides. This lets your eye move rhythmically and easily around the shelving.

Tip 7: Display Leaning Art and Photographs

Items on white shelving

In a world where pictures are usually hung, leaning your artwork is an elegant way to break the rules. In addition to being incredibly stylish, open shelf art displays are very practical for small spaces. Long shelves and small photos also give you the option to group your pieces together, letting you mix and match for your own in-home art shows. It’s a great excuse to pull out all of your art and experiment until you get the perfect look.

Your Story…

It may sound obvious, but the most important thing really is to display the pieces that you love most. Nothing is better than filling your shelves with the things that are important to you. Forget all the generic stuff, all the things that you think look nice, things that match…make things more personal. Let any visitors that reflect on the contents of your shelf, see the real you.

Of course, not every shelf has to be about you, but if you have the space, I highly recommend that you afford yourself this self-indulgence. Together we can share your story… “make things personal”.

And, if you need help, please contact me at 248-863-8566.


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