Styling Bookshelves: A Guide to Upgrading Your Bookshelves from Storage Spaces to Decor

Are your shelves a stylish, functional addition to your room or an open mess?

If books, travel memories and collectible memorabilia are an important part of your life, your bookshelves are the perfect place to reflect and display these passions. In this handy guide, I’ll share tips for styling your bookshelves to display your books and favorite items and turn your bookshelves into an important decorative feature in your home.

The following bookcase style tips are recommended by interior design professionals, but you may or may not choose to incorporate them all, whether it’s due to space, decor preference, or simply budget. Play with what works best for you!

Bonus: Stick around to the end to see how I use these style tips in my own home on my family’s tiny, overcrowded bookshelf!

Tip #1: Use a consistent color scheme for your shelves

Look at your current book collection and note which colors are most prominent. Black, navy, red, yellow, cream, etc.?

Decide which colors you want to emphasize and play down. Maybe you prefer more earth tones, like brown, cream, dark green, tan, black, etc. Or you want to celebrate your colorful book collection.

When considering your color palette, keep in mind that your decor items should fit in with your chosen theme, which brings us to tip #2

Tip #2: If you use decorative items on your shelves, carefully consider which decorative items to use

Some people prefer to use only books to style their bookshelves, but adding some elements to your shelves can add visual interest.

First, the best things to use are the ones you already own. “Shop” your house before you rush out and buy anything new, as you likely already own items that fit your color scheme and also have sentimental meaning behind them.

If you have no items, or too few, I would recommend that you wait to collect items for your shelves. When you travel, or have a new experience, or develop a new hobby, you can look for things to take back with you or create that will have more meaning than something you bought at Target on a whim.

You are looking for items that vary in texture/material. Decide what kinds of materials you want to use (perhaps brushed gold, darker woods, stoneware ceramics, etc.) and find items that fit within those parameters.

In the example below, notice the brass lighting feature above the shelves, the ceramic pieces, the wood accents (all within the same family of wood color – a midtone), a ceramic vase, a woven basket, a glass cover, and a plant. But they all fit in a neutral color scheme, so even though the materials are quite different, they complement each other.

Use items that can be “statement” pieces – things that can stand on their own and are visually interesting – and smaller, more “regular” pieces that aren’t necessarily eye-catching but are in keeping with the theme and help to enhance your look.

If possible, leave some shelves to be used only as niches for your statement piece. This draws more attention to your chosen subject and creates a more finished, thought out and curated look.

Always group your items in odd numbers (1, 3, 5, etc.) and place larger items near the bottom and smaller items near the top. Also vary the height of items to prevent boring uniformity.

It’s okay to use figures on your bookshelves, but do so sparingly, as too many figures can make a bookshelf look like a misplaced toy box. Consider using figures that fit in with your color scheme, and also add some history or humor to your shelves.

Also consider using plants. Faux or real depends on your preference, but in general it is recommended to place all drapery plants, such as ivy or pothos, on higher shelves, and smaller, squatty plants, like succulentson lower shelves.

Tip #3: Arrange your books in different ways

With books, it’s tempting to cram as many as possible onto your shelves, all lined up like little soldiers, but that can look visually uninteresting. The key to better looking bookshelves is how you arrange your books.

Heavier books come near the bottom of the shelves, and lighter, smaller books go near the top. This is not only a clever idea from the perspective of physics; heavier books on top of a bookcase give the overall impression that the bookcase is hanging together and about to topple over. Not a stylish or safe look!

Some books must also be placed in horizontal stacks with odd numbers (1, 3, 5, maybe 7 books in a stack), and others must be kept upright. It’s up to your preference which books to display horizontally or vertically, but play around with different books and see which ones you like best when grouped together.

For example, a red book, a yellow book and an orange book together in a stack might not work for some shelves, but if you are creating a rainbow look for your shelves – or just one shelf, like in the example below – it could be perfect!

But not all book covers are very pretty on the shelf, right? What to do when some books have bright, garish colors on their covers and look out of place?

First, if there is a book cover, remove it to see if the book cover underneath has a better color.

Or you can too turn the book aroundso that the neutral colored sides face outwards.

This option also works if the majority of your books have darker covers and your bookshelf looks a bit gloomy. Break up the dark shades with a few books turned around to show their lighter sides and it will brighten up the look of your otherwise emo bookshelf.

Finally, if you’re like me and your bookshelves are shared by the whole family, consider keeping the books the smallest family members enjoy closer to the bottom.

Also for younger children, don’t be afraid to “cycle” their books. Our toddler has more books than she’s even interested in reading, so we curate her selection occasionally, keeping the books she’s still interested in, but replacing the books she’s grown bored with with a new selection . These are either new books, or simply old books we had previously put in stock from the last “cycle”.

If you have the space, these Montessori-inspired bookshelves are a delightful, easily accessible option for your family’s smallest reader.

Using selected style rules from above, here are the before and after results of my family’s bookcase

Our family loves books, but since we won’t be living long-term in the country we currently live in, we are careful about which and how many books we own, as shipping heavy books will be expensive!

So between me and my husband’s book habits and our toddler’s growing book habits, our humble bookshelf has been pushed to its storage limits. It’s a messy mess!

Burst at the seams, to the point of inaccessibility. You can’t grab one book without another falling out!

Our toddler books were overdue for a “cycling” and we had to arrange all the books more carefully. There would be limited space for tchotchkes, so if I used any they would have to be smaller and preferably functional.

In addition, we have several books with very “tall” covers that immediately catch your eye. I flipped them around where it made sense and removed the book jackets where possible.

Finally, I noticed that we had some lovely blue and green covers that could be used to create the appearance of a cohesive color scheme for the bookcase. I moved the heavier books closer to the bottom and varied things up by creating horizontal stacks of books.

Here’s the final look, which apart from the little succulent top (which was bought on sale for just €0.69. Budget win!), was created for free using existing items from around our apartment:

image of an organized bookshelf
My Brazilian husband will be pleased that Mr. Mãe plays such a crucial role in tying our bookcase color scheme together, I’m sure.

The brightly colored basket adds diversity to the materials and stores our remote controls. Also the green succulent in the blue Bembel pot draws the eye upwards, and the blue and green tones echo throughout the bookshelf. In addition, the pot is a German souvenir, so it has a history.

(Yes, the styling tips call for smaller plants to be placed near the bottom, but there’s no way that tiny succulent would survive curious toddler hands, so up to the top it went. 😉

Our daughter’s books were pared down and then arranged in a way that will hopefully make them more noticeable and accessible to her. I have no expectation that this sweet arrangement will last long, but it is good to know her books able to fits on one shelf now :).

Here are the before and after results side by side:

two pictures of a before and after arranged bookshelf

Overall, it’s a more functional, nicer arrangement for our family and our needs, but what about you? What styling tips do you plan to try for your own bookshelves?

If you’re inspired to try these styling tips, take “before” and “after” photos and share them in the comments below or tag us on Instagram @primermagazine!

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