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How to Style Shelves Like an Expert

One aspect of decorating that makes my heart beat extra fast is when I have the opportunity to style shelves. Most people know me as a reader, so you can imagine my delight when I get to pair beloved books with fun decorative accents. My goal while decorating is to create a look that feels both relaxed and intentional. Styling adds personality and a sense of thoughtfulness to a home. I notice examples of styling everywhere I go — from Target to Home Goods to downtown boutiques.

Decorating doesn’t come naturally for everyone, though. I like to think it’s in my blood. (Fun fact: my grandmother decorated the home of Sandra Day O’Connor.) If you’re unsure of where to start, check out my simple five step plan to get your shelves looking incredible in no time.

style shelves

1. Let inspiration help determine your vision

Pinterest is an obvious (and great) source of inspiration. I also like to look at store catalogs, design books, interior designer blogs and magazines/online mags, such as Elle Decor, Lonny and Better Homes and Gardens. I knew very little about decorating when I got married and our first big furniture purchase (Sloane leaning shelves and desk from Crate & Barrel) overwhelmed me. I looked at the C&B catalog to see how they styled the shelves, and that’s where I stole got the idea of hanging art over the desk space.

Oh, and I totally copied someone else’s gorgeous shelves when drawing up plans for our den shelves (pictured below). There’s no shame in my game!

When it comes to creating a vision, think about what you want the shelves to be used for and what you’re hoping they’ll look like. Do you want them to look airy and bright? Crowded and colorful? Do you want to display mostly decorative accents, storage solutions, books or a mix of all three? My leaning bookshelves feature two storage pieces — a lidded box for stamps, return address labels, postcards and checks, and a magazine holder that holds magazines (shocker!) as well as a set of colored Sharpies and notecards. The desk and chair paired with my stationary accessories make this nook the perfect spot to pay bills and write letters. My den shelves, however, only display one small storage item — a little basket for playing cards. My top priorities when setting up the den shelves were displaying LOTS of books and my various brass decor items.

2. Gather all your items and start with the big pieces

 

It’s time to get all of your stuff together in one spot! Try going around your house and “shopping” the various rooms for items you could put on your shelves. Don’t forget to only grab items that work with the dimensions of your shelves.

Getting started can be the most overwhelming part. I recommend putting big items up first (including large storage pieces). Play around with left, right and center alignment. For my den shelves, I first put up the antelope bookends, armillary sphere, large framed picture and magnifying glass stand.

3. Add in books and smaller decorative objects

Next, add your books. There are lots of options here — stack them horizontally and vertically, lean them against something, group them by color… I recommend trying a little bit of everything! Then add in all of your smaller decorative objects. Try grouping like items together, such as a trio of bud vases or a pair of framed pictures. Make sure to put your most unique accents around eye level or slightly above.

4. Evaluate scale, finish, and texture

Scale refers to the height of an object in relation to another object (or person). See the four items in the very middle of my den shelves? They all vary in height, but I have two relatively large items and two relatively small.

Aim for a variety of finishes and textures throughout your shelves. On my leaning shelves I have a leather magazine bin, a textured box, a vintage fan, white textured birds, a pitcher, a plant, a metal oversized initial, a wooden bird, silver frame and porcelain bowls. It all works because it draws from a mostly neutral color palette.

You’ll notice from looking at inspiration photos that some people style shelves by stuffing them with books and items, while others have a lot of white space. I personally think SOME white space is necessary, because it gives your eyes a break.

I like how the white walls, white brackets and white shelves help keep the unit pictured below from being overwhelming. Notice there is a mix of tall and short items, plus a mix of finishes.

style shelves

5. Edit one more time!

Once you’re done, take a picture — then switch the placement of a few of your pieces. Take another picture and see which one you like better. Now take something off of the shelves, and take another picture. Go through the pictures and imagine you’re looking at them in a magazine. Which picture appeals to you the most? Sometimes simply moving (or removing) one thing will make a big difference.

I have a trio of miniature wooden bowling pins that I really wanted to display on our den shelves. I kept moving them from shelf to shelf, seeing how they looked. They’re adorable, but for some reason they didn’t look great on the shelves. Seeing the way they looked in a picture versus in person helped me make the decision to nix them completely.

Feature photo by Ryan Liebe, styled by Emily Henderson. All other pictures are from the author.

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