Your Step-by-Step Guide to Style a Bookshelf

Time Several Hours

Budget $ $$$

Skill Level

WORDS BY Gillian Grefe

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Published on March 12, 2021

Let’s face it—bookshelves aren’t just for novels anymore. From built-ins to shelving units big and small, a bookcase is the perfect opportunity to infuse your space with personality and style. But we get it. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by a bookshelf and its contents or lack thereof. Many fall victim to remaining near-empty due to design decision paralysis, or become a mess of randomized books, frames, and knick knacks. 

Thankfully, the transition from a disorganized library or cluttered catch-all is relatively easy, no interior design experience needed. That said, interior design guidance can help. Here, Havenly designer Melissa Wagner shares her simple, step-by-step instructions to organize a bookshelf plus bookshelf decor ideas for a functional yet stylish space that is uniquely yours. Read on for her expert tips.

Create a Book Base

First things first—clear off your shelves and give them a good dusting. Then, take a look at your books. “Books act as the perfect base layer,” Melissa says. “Start big with larger, thicker coffee table books in stacks of two or three.” Spacing these piles out over the bookshelf, by placing some on the right on one shelf and some left or center on another, creates a sense of balance.

Next, decide how you want to organize the rest of your books. Forget library rules—there’s no need to organize by title or author, unless that’s your thing (if so, then run with it!). Try arranging books by jacket color to create a rainbow effect, or turning all the spines to the back for a more neutral-hued, bohemian look. Again, where you place your books matters. You can try to fill a complete row, or a few placed on the right of one shelf and left of another, or a combination of both. Feel free to rearrange as you see fit.

Go Horizontal (or Vertical!)

“It’s important to add in a variety of vertical and horizontal elements so each shelf feels balanced and equally weighted,” Melissa says. These elements don’t have to be just books. Decorative objects such as picture frames, vases, decorative bowls, jars, boxes, and other knick knacks add interest and let you truly personalize your space.

black and white books

Layer It

Some shelves are deeper than others. This is when layering comes into play. “Place taller items toward the back and smaller, shorter decor in the front,” Melissa advises. “Be sure to use items in an array of sizes—large, small, short, tall, wide, and narrow.” 

For example, bring smaller glass jewelry dishes to the front of a tall book stack or arrange a set of three vases in varied heights off to one side. The variety of sizing keeps things interesting while creating depth.

Give It Life!

We know by now that houseplants have a myriad of health benefits while bringing beauty (and cleaner air) into our rooms. A bookshelf is the perfect place for a plant… or several!

“A potted plant or vases with florals and fresh cuts of greenery will add an organic element to help break up the rigidity and harder surfaces of the decorative pieces,” Melissa says. Don’t keep all of them on one side or shelf, however. “Alternate organic elements throughout the bookshelf so it remains in balance.” No green thumb? Opt for cacti, succulents, or even a  convincing faux plant to bring life to your shelves.

Stand Back

As you work through your arrangement, use the “Stand Back and Squint” method often to check if everything is in balance. “This method is as simple as its name: just stand back and squint until the bookshelf blurs,” says Melissa. “This is my greatest design secret to ensure a surface or space is balanced.”

Here’s how it works: If you squint and everything seems to blur together, you have a nicely balanced bookcase. But if something stands out predominantly, it likely means you have too much of one element clustered in one spot. Adjust by making sure you’re alternating elements (by height, type, size, or material) then stand back and squint again until it all comes together and is just right.

Have Fun With It

Release the pressure and stress of your design project. Remember, you don’t have to maintain gallery-worthy bookshelves. We aren’t living in the grids of Instagram!

“Have fun with it,” Melissa says. “It’s more important to style your home with things that you love and actually use. Your home should be comfortable, functional, and uniquely you.” Although curating your decor, whether finding the perfect vase or that one vintage photo frame, may excite you, don’t stress if it doesn’t come out picture-perfect right away. You can collect and rearrange as you go, pending your changing styles and tastes.

“At the end of the day, you should feel empowered to style your shelves with the realistic decor, literature, and memories that make your home yours.”

Havenly designers can help plan your space from initial floor plan to those final styling tips — and it starts with our style quiz.

Words by Avery Johnson