The Art of Shelf Styling: How to Decorate Shelves Like a Designer
In busy households, shelves can become catch-all storage for a wide range of items. Overstuffed shelves, while evidence of a rich and full life, benefit from a little pruning. That’s where the art of shelf styling comes in.
Looking to learn how to style shelves in a cohesive way? Whether they’re floating shelves or built-ins, the basic styling principles of how to decorate shelves remain the same. Incorporating a mix of pieces you love—from beloved books to family heirlooms to mementos from family vacations—adds personality and emotional depth to a space. And establishing harmony and balance in your design brings greater peace to your larger space.
How to Style Shelves
So how do you take shelves from chaos to calm, all while retaining the essence of your personal style? Here, we explore the essential elements of shelf styling, step-by-step.
1. Start with a blank canvas.
If you are moving into a brand new home, you’re already starting with a clean slate. If you’re rearranging shelves in your existing space, however, the first step to smart shelf styling is clearing out any items that currently reside there.
As you clear things from your shelf, evaluate each piece, and think like Marie Kondo: Is this something that brings you joy? Does it evoke a fond memory, speak to a passion of yours, or remind you of friends or family? If so, that’s a sign the item deserves a place of honor on your shelves.
Any books or baubles that have remained in your space as a result of decor inertia — rather than love — are worth retiring.
2. Take inventory.
You’ve weeded through your items and have established a blank canvas. It’s time to evaluate the dynamics of the space through a series of questions:
- How tall are your shelves?
- How many rows and columns of shelves are available to play with?
- Are the shelves open, or are there individual cubbies?
- What is the sightline for each shelf?
Similarly, consider the decorative objects you already have in your collection.
- How many of each type of item do you have?
- How large are the items?
- Are your items unified by color, theme, or some broader element?
- What do you wish you had to display on your shelves that’s currently missing? How can you fill those gaps?
Thinking about the confines of the space and how your items relate to it will help you begin to piece together your styled shelves in broad strokes.
3. Ground your corners.
The process of shelf styling begins in the corners. Each of the corners of your shelf should be weighted down visually with larger pieces. These could be baskets, sculptures, framed artwork, potted plants, or stacked cocktail table books.
Let the theme of the room guide you. A children’s bookshelf might feature shadow boxes with beloved Lego creations preserved in each frame. A minimalist study may have a stone sculpture in one corner and a fiddle leaf fig in the opposing cubby. A mid-century modern family room could use framed pop art and hulking bronze bookends to ground its corners.
It’s less about selecting a specific type of item than it is about considering heft. These items need not be physically heavy, but they should have a strong visual presence that lends gravitas to the shelves’ ends.
4. Play with your elements.
As you begin to fill in the rest of your shelf space, it’s all about variety. Introducing items with different heights, textures, weights, and significance lends visual interest to your shelves.
However, variety can veer into bedlam if not appropriately managed. There should always be one element of cohesion in your design. Items needn’t match, but connect the dots in your design through color, interior design style, or theme.
Elements of Shelf Styling
In the spirit of variety, there are a number of types of elements we commonly use when styling clients’ shelves. Here, we explore the core elements we turn to time and again.
Playing with height allows you to control how a viewer takes in a space. Tall items draw attention from across the room, while stouter decorative objects beckon viewers closer to get a better look.
- Make waves. Don’t place all of your tall items in one row and the short ones elsewhere. Create visual peaks and valleys across each row, with short and tall items interspersed.
- Use the buddy system. Typically, oversized items are self-sufficient and can easily stand on their own, whereas there’s safety in numbers for smaller items. Group similar items together—like a trio of tiny succulents or a collection of beach glass and shells.
Texture adds depth even to the narrowest of shelves. You can introduce texture in a variety of ways.
- Party in the back. The backs of your shelves needn’t remain bare. Introduce texture by lining your shelves with fabric. A chunky-weave burlap or rich, jewel-toned velvet adds instant dimension.
- Play with opposites. Embrace contradictory textures in your design, like a spiky pine cone juxtaposed with smooth balls of moss or a slick glass vases with rough, natural agate.
It’s your home; don’t be afraid to display items with personal significance.
- The way we were. Use your shelf to share family mementos, from school photos to a wedding shadow box, shelves are a perfect place to celebrate those misty watercolor memories.
- Proustian decor. Items that transport you back to a particularly memorable trip are worth showcasing on your styled shelves.
A classic shelf display item, there are dozens of ways to introduce books large and small into your shelf styling design.
- Color coordinate. Arranging books by color has always been an interior design trick, but it’s experienced a renaissance of late, in large part because of Instagram accounts like The Home Edit. Color coordination is an elegant way to introduce order to your bookshelves, particularly when your library is sizeable.
- Switch your point of view. While we traditionally think of displaying books vertically on shelves, horizontal stacking is an option, too! And not just for chunky coffee table books—introducing smaller titles into your horizontal stacks adds visual interest.
Infuse your shelves with life. Introducing greenery can make a room feel more serene.
- Get the light right. Select plants that will thrive in your shelving. If your shelves shield the plants from sunlight, pick low-light plants or introduce grow lights into your design.
- Water, water everywhere. When it comes to selecting pots for live plants, it’s about style and practicality. Choose planters with proper drainage so your plants don’t drown and your shelving doesn’t get soggy.
There are no absolute rights and wrongs when it comes to shelf styling. Creating a wellstyled shelf should be an enjoyable creative process, so do not let these guidelines intimidate you.
Instead, go slow and follow your gut. Allow your space and your items to speak to you, and don’t be afraid to adjust your original layout as you acquire new items or your tastes change. Part of the beauty of shelf styling is that the designs are ephemeral and can morph and grow with you and your space.