How to Style a Bookshelf

Close up of finished shelves

While we’re still in the process of turning our former dining room into a family hang-out space, I thought I’d share a few tips on how to style a bookshelf. I love our Ikea bookshelves and they’ll remain a part of the design for the new space. Over the last few years, I’ve styled and re-styled these shelves repeatedly looking for the right look and feel. But it wasn’t until this past November when I moved some overflow bar items to the bookshelf that it started to finally click.

This bookshelf fills the dead space to the right of our fireplace (a former blackhole); it houses a slew of books, my Domino magazine collection, 3 baskets of more hidden things, barware and mixers and a myriad of tchotchkes and keepsakes.

I decided to consult super stylist Emily Henderson. Not personally, but that would be amazing. However, I did consult her book Styled and followed her basic guidelines to style the shelves. For the first time they looked good, but they still weren’t quite right. What I needed was restraint. I had displayed too many things and needed to cull some groupings and omit other items altogether. I needed to be ruthless.

Messy pre-styled shelves

In order to be a fair critic, I took a photo of the shelves before I got to work.

What I learned:

1. Someone was rearranging the shelves! It turned out to be my husband trying to find the perfect spot for the Google WiFi extenders to maximize our WiFi coverage (so our 2 youngest, both college students, can distance learn from home due to COVID-19). He’s forgiven.

2. Where did all those books come from on bottom shelf wedged between baskets? Someone put something on the shelf “temporarily” and it stayed there. Mea culpa.

3. The robot vacuum under the shelves. Sadly, it is never used because shortly after buying it, our older dog decided it was a dangerous predator. Using said vacuum caused her to shake uncontrollably. So, there it sits, unused. Guilty, again.

4. Too many items placed on top of stacked books or boxes.

5. A candle collection on the top of the bookshelves that felt heavy and didn’t really say anything about us. Except maybe we’d been left unattended in the candlestick department.

6. The basket on the shelf under the barware was meant for bar mixers but quickly became a dumping ground for puzzles and zen water painting.

Guidelines I followed:

1. Clear the shelves and put everything together on on the floor.

2. Be honest about what you really, really love and want to display.

3. Shop your house (there’s no need for a spending spree). You may be surprised by the scope of possibilities already on-hand.

4. Play around with books in a similar color palette. Use bookends, art and boxes. Stacks of magazines work too.

5. Edit, edit, edit. Follow the advice of Coco Chanel regarding accessories, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take at least one thing off.” Her theory also applies to decorating.

6. Add artwork and signs.

7. Find a variety of items with different textures and heights.

8. Remember, less is more. You want the shelves to set a calm tone for the room and not overwhelm the eye.

9. Add collections if you have them. You want the room to “feel” like you!

Close up mask
Post-styled shelves
Post styling closeup

Here’s what changed: The candle collection previously housed on top of the bookshelves was put away. There were too many decorative items placed on stacks of books and magazines. The basket for mixers received actual mixers, extra bottles of liquor and an extra drink shaker (a collection of sorts) and a collection of pitchers was added to replace the random items scattered everywhere.

Clearing the shelves felt… well, cathartic. Now the shelves have an airy, put-together feel, that just fits.

Here’s the fast-forward version of how it came together.

Animation of shelf styling

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