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How to Style Your Bookshelves

Updated: May 23, 2023

As much as it pains me, I must acknowledge the fact that a shelf crammed with books can look cluttered and messy. It took me YEARS to realize that I can stuff as many of my beloved books as I like onto the shelves in my bedroom, where no one can see them but me, but the shelves in my living areas need to be carefully edited so my house doesn't look like a hoarder lives here.


When we first moved to our house, I fell into the trap of the Built In Black Hole. In other words, I took one look at these pretty built-in shelves and thought, "Wow, I have so much room for my books!" As you can see, I piled up a motley arrangement of random books, dishes and photos. There's nothing WRONG with books, dishes and photos, in general, but when I'd stand back and look at my wall, it just felt OFF. My things just didn't look as well as they could have when I displayed them this way.

I tried fussing with the layout of the books, tilting some on their sides and adding little accents like this teacup. But neither strategy did anything to improve that "messy" feeling the shelves were giving me.

"Maybe I just need a more homogenous look!" I thought naively, and off I went to swap out my modern novels for vintage books.

When my old favorites still didn't give me the look I was going for, I tried turning the spines to the back. Close, but no cigar.

If this was an art installation and there was nothing else around it, like an empty museum or gallery room, it would be lovely. But when I filled an entire wall like this, and all of my furniture surrounded it, the whole effect was still cluttered.

Finally I realized that what I was missing was WHITE SPACE. As much as I love to be surrounded by books, this particular wall was giving me anxiety, and what it really needed was some peaceful space around just a few lovely items.


I took everything down from all the shelves and started again. First I pulled out one of the shelves above the TV and reset the top shelf so it lined up with the top shelves on either side of it. Then I sorted out all of my books and kept only books in shades of blue, white and grey. I hunted around the house for accessories in blue, white and silver, then with everything spread out on the floor, I tried all sorts of combinations until I was happy with the results.


As soon as I swapped out the books in and around my cute bicycle bookends, I had an epiphany. My stuff looks nicer when it has space to breathe! These lovely coppery vintage bookends were a gift from my son, and while I always thought they were cute, they look like a work of art or a museum-worthy sculpture when they're the only thing on the shelf! I really appreciate them so much more now.


I've always loved the shapes and designs of vintage items, but anything I had previously set on my bookshelves would get lost among the crazy quilt of colors, sizes and textures.

Imagine what this shelf would look like if I had just set one blue jar on it, and filled the rest of the space with other items. The jar would be lost. Repeating the blue jar three times gives it emphasis, and turns this practical item into a work of art. Framing the blue jars with two mismatched vintage ceramic crocks makes the jars a focal point, and the fact that the two crocks don't match each other keeps the display from becoming boring.


Books and frames are obviously rectangular, as are the shelves themselves. To keep your display from looking regimented (like a library instead of a collection of things that make you happy), add a few items with curves, like the gentle curve of this mug handle, and even the toile bunny printed on its side.

Green plants and flowers are essential as well to breathe life into your display. If you don't have enough sun to keep real plants happy, artificial blooms will do just fine. I have two real plants on this wall, plus a fake orchid, since I can't keep an orchid alive for love or money.


When I previously tried this trick on my old shelves, I wasn't happy with it and couldn't figure out why. Eventually I realized that my problem was I was trying too hard -- I just had too many books all in one spot.

This time around I set my regular novels vertically, but piled my coffee table books horizontally, and didn't try to do both too close together. This gives the shelves some interest (too much symmetry looks too controlled and lifeless), yet still allows each set of books to shine.


My goal in this room was to create something peaceful to look at, and leaning heavily on white items helped tone down that cluttered feeling.

The combination of these three old white apothecary jars against a white background allows the pretty vintage print to stand out, and highlights the shapes of the jars. The white picture frame, which happens to feature three sweet little boys circa 2005 against a white background, also ties the disparate items together, and makes the boys (who are now tall and bearded!) stand out as well.

Sure, I can't fit as many books on these shelves anymore, but I love how just by leaving some space on each shelf, my random items from all over the house now look like artwork.

I'm so much happier with this wall now, and I really appreciate each item that I've displayed. The whole effect is so calming, and yes, I did find space in other rooms for all the books and dishes I took down!

Have you tried styling your bookshelves? How did it go? Let me know in the comments ...


Apr 19, 2022

Great post, thanks for sharing on craft schooling Sunday!


Apr 15, 2022

Your bookcase is lovely. I love the way it turned out. Sticking with a color scheme is materful. You did an excellent job. I recently did something very similar and it just make the entire room feel better. Thank you for sharing at #omhgww. Pinned and tweeted if buttons are available. See you next week.


Apr 14, 2022

P.S. I've featured this post at the Thursday Favorite Things link party today. :)


Apr 13, 2022

I love your tips. I agree, there are places in my house that I love having shelves full of books, but other places I want to feel more calm and less cluttered. It looks beautiful!


Apr 12, 2022

I'm a book lover as well. Both arrangements appeal to me but if I'm honest with myself, your curated shelves look more attractive. Thanks for sharing with us at Creatively Crafty :)

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