Decorating Tips for Shelves and Bookcases

Transform bland bookcases and wall shelves into stunning displays with 18 top-shelf decorating tips from interior designers.

  • Put Your Passions on Display

    Not sure what to showcase on shelves? First, consider what you love. Your interests and hobbies should come through in your accessory choices, says Debbie Wiener, an interior designer in Silver Spring, Md., who helps homeowners create spaces reflective of their everyday lives. \"Kids' framed artwork, books, decorative plates, baseball cards or boomerang collections. Your home should look like you,\" Debbie says. Take stock of vacation mementos, crafts and items you're drawn to time and again when assembling accessories for a shelf arrangement. Design by Emily Henderson.

  • Group Like With Like

    Unite your shelf displays by grouping items by theme, color, shape, texture or material. \"Like things together give the biggest bang,\" says Megan Samuels, ASID, an interior designer in Manhattan Beach, Calif. \"It creates a really nice, curated feel to your treasures.\" A grouping of white pottery and other light-toned objects looks stunning on dark wood or brightly painted shelves, for example, while an assemblage of boxes, bowls or spheres adds instant emphasis that's lacking when they stand alone. Design by Sarah Richardson.

  • Make It Functional

    You can unify a shelf display by function, too. Mary Carol Garrity, author of Feather Your Nest: It's All in the Details and the owner of Nell Hill's, an accessories emporium in Atchison, Kan., likes to turn a shelf into a bar or a serving station. \"Take out the shelf above to create more room, then top a tray with pretty cut-crystal decanters and glassware,\" she suggests. Design by Emily Henderson.

  • Book Decor with Ceramic Knick Knacks

    Show Off Your Collections

    Whether you collect birdcages or buttons, sculpture or shells, transferware or teacups, any collection you love deserves pride of place in your home. Plus, there's power in numbers: \"Anything looks better as a collection,\" says Mary Carol. \"The different sizes, shapes and colors play off each other, and grouping a collection together gives it emphasis.\" Gather up your treasures around the house and mass them for a stunning display.

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    Go Big and Bold

    Several tiny tchotchkes on a shelf will only collect dust and look like jumbled clutter. Instead, choose bigger, bolder accessories that will stand out. Select tall vases (if there's no shelf above, fill them with giant flowering or fall branches for a dramatic display); giant balls of knotted rope, substantial pottery and large art books; collect whatever strikes your fancy, as long as you can see it from across the room. Give smaller items more visual presence by collecting them in a container: \"I love an old jar filled with vintage photos, seashells collected at the beach or even colorful crayons and marbles,\" says Megan. Design by Judith Balis.

  • Contemporary Orange Living Room

    Forget Symmetry and Be Odd

    Rather than a matching set of mirroring objects, go for asymmetrical arrangements of three, five or seven objects, setting them off-center to add a subtle element of surprise. \"Odd numbers are usually the most interesting,\" says designer Megan. Instead of symmetry, what you're aiming for is balance. \"Even if you have two matching items, like a pair of beautiful urns, put them on the diagonal,\" rather than directly opposite each other, she suggests. Design by Christopher Grubb.

  • Designer House Living Room shelf closeup

    Change the Shelf Height

    Another tip to aid in your asymmetry efforts: Unless your shelves are fixed in a built-in or other shelving unit, \"vary shelf heights so they don't all line up exactly,\" suggests Nancy Barsotti, ASID fellow and interior designer in New York City and Pittsburgh. You'll be able to use larger pieces and break out of the \"lined-up soldiers\" look that gets boring so quickly.

  • Vary Accessory Height

    A big shelf decorating don't is lining up items of the same height. Their uniform size can appear flat and boring. Instead, \"mix different heights by contrasting high and low to keep the eye traveling,\" says Mary Carol. When gathering pieces to decorate shelves, make sure you have a combination of short, medium and tall objects. Design by Erinn Valencich.

  • Stack Books

    One trick for boosting an item's stature, literally and figuratively, is risers. \"These come in handy for varying the height of the things in your shelf composition and help draw attention to a particular piece,\" she explains. Use books stacked on their sides as platforms, wood or lacquer boxes as pedestals and compotes, cake stands and other risers to help stagger heights and bring your accessory arrangement up to snuff. Design by Emily Henderson.

  • Add Sparkle and Shine

    Glass, crystal and silver objects make shelf arrangements literally shine. A mirror placed at the back or bottom of a shelf will double the visual effect of the objects placed in front or on top, says Nancy. Rather than hiding the family silver in a dining cabinet, Mary Carol urges to pull it out, shine it up and display it on open shelves: either as a collection or by using individual pieces paired with rougher objects for contrast and interest. \"I love the shine of silver next to a more primitive piece,\" she says.

  • Create Layers on Shelves

    In addition to height, consider depth when decorating shelves. \"Stand up trays, pretty plates and pieces of art to use as the backdrop for your arrangement (and) then work your way out from there,\" says Mary Carol. After you've placed the largest, tallest items as anchors at the back of the shelf, \"layer smaller, shorter objects in front of them,\" says Nancy. The resulting assemblage will invite viewers to linger a while, discovering new layers in the decorative diorama with each glance.

  • Keep It Spare and Simple

    While layering accessories works well in traditional or eclectic settings, a streamlined approach is fitting for contemporary and modern spaces. \"Follow the style of your home when accessorizing,\" says Nancy. If your decorating style leans toward rigorous minimalism or you simply favor an uncluttered look, your decorative shelves should reflect that. Says Megan: \"There's something so serene about three blocks of wood attached to a spartan white wall with a simple, carefully placed object on each.\"

  • Arrange Books by Color

    If you have a large collection of books, consider arranging them by color for instant bookshelf pizazz. The rainbow-hued display can be quite dramatic, although it can also make hunting down a specific tome a bit of a chore. \"Library sales are a great way to pick up groups of colored books inexpensively,\" Megan suggests. Try removing the dust jackets on your hardbacks, too, especially for vintage books with interesting spines or luxe cover material.

  • Vary Book Displays

    \"Display some books up and down and others laid on their side,\" says Nancy. \"And group books by subject — mass all the photo books together, for instance — or by size, which instantly creates a sense of order.\" As for those tatty paperbacks, get rid of them or hide them in good-looking boxes or baskets tucked into your bookshelves. Design by Emily Henderson.

  • Bookshelf-Lined Walls

    Mix Art in With Books

    Don't relegate photos and art to walls only. Shelves are great display spots, too, and they make it a snap to regularly rotate new pieces into your home gallery. \"I love framed art placed casually among books, or even hung or leaned in front of a group of books,\" Megan says. Other ideas: Hang diminutive pieces on the wall behind open shelves or tack them onto the back of closed shelves so they become part of the vignette. Design by Luis Caicedo.

  • Fireplace with Consoles and Shelving

    Display Art in Creative Ways

    You can also create a shelf display of nothing but art or photos: Rather than a precise arrangement, lean your collection casually on the shelves, overlapping edges and mixing frame sizes, shapes and styles to keep the eye's interest. \"Juxtaposing ornate, antique frames with plainer frames works well\" in this context, Nancy says. Design by Robin Callan.

  • Look Up and Lock Down

    Don't forget the tops of bookshelves or kitchen cabinets when scouting spots to accessorize. Placing objects there can highlight tall ceilings or simply provide space to display big, dramatic pieces that won't fit on the shelves below. Another great way to add height to decorative shelves is with large posters or artwork. Hint: If you live in earthquake country or if your bookshelves rattle ominously when the kids run past, be sure to secure the shelves to the wall with L-brackets or hook-and-eye latches. Also, museum or earthquake putty (available in most hardware stores) is handy for ensuring that small objects stay put.

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    Let There Be Light

    As a finishing touch, illuminate your shelves to spotlight the arrangements you've created there. The options for shelf lighting abound: Add track lighting to the ceiling and focus a few spots on shelf displays; mount a picture light above a shelf or a series of picture lights above a series of shelves; affix small puck lights to the underside of one shelf to highlight the contents of the shelf below or discreetly tuck tiny up-lights behind a vase or other item to backlight the arrangement. Design by Luis Caicedo.

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