Shelf Styling Ideas

Are you wondering where to start when decorating open-shelving in your home? Re-styling existing shelves is a creative way to revitalize any room – whether it is simply changing books around, adding or removing objects, or completely transforming a bookcase.

Designing open shelving can be a daunting task when you first begin as it is similar to what one experiences when facing a blank canvas. It is also a lot like piecing together a creative puzzle where everything falls into place when you simply just start. Although styling shelving can seem straightforward, there are design tips you can implement that will help you to be able to confidently add visual appeal to any shelf – no matter your style.

1.  Work from a Blank Canvas

No matter the size of shelving you are working with or the location in your home, be sure to empty the shelves to start with a clean slate. It is the best way to keep the process simple and organized. Begin by laying out all of the items you feel would work in your shelving design. Take a mental inventory of what you are dealing with and start by grouping objects that you feel would work well together. Note the height, width, pattern, and textures in individual pieces as you experiment with grouping them.

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Styling Arched Shelving Framing Fireplace
Image courtesy of Pure Salt Interiors

2.  Choose a Theme

It is helpful to choose a guidepost or theme when it comes to styling in your home. Whether you are choosing display items that evoke a calming vibe with a neutral palette of whites and creams or looking to create a dynamic design with vibrant patterns and color – a theme sets the parameters to help chaperone you towards your goal.

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3.  Switch Up Size & Scale

Once you have pulled an assortment of objects for your shelves it is time to think about how their size and scale will work together. The most visually pleasing shelves have a combination of large, medium, and small pieces that play off each other and create an interesting sense of variety. To achieve this mix, start by placing your largest objects first and then layer in medium and smaller pieces. This process makes it easier once you start styling, and it helps you to see the common thread in your pieces and consider what you may want to add to your collection.

You want to avoid filling an entire shelf with objects. Rather, carefully place your favorite pieces – and be sure to give them some breathing room.

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4.  Keep Things Balanced & Group Strategically

Much of shelving design is intuitive and it helps to take a step back and view the progress you are making as you add specific items.

The lead stylist of Studio McGee consistently views her work from different angles – “I think about shelves individually when they are on either side of the fireplace, and then I step back to look at them as a whole. I want them to complete each other but also be able to stand on their own. It’s all about balance.” – Kristine Metcalf, stylist

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Earthy & Organic Shelving Arrangements
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A Large Shelving Unit with Well-Placed Decorative Pieces
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5.  Group in Three’s

Grouping in three’s is a golden rule of design as odd numbers are more appealing and effective than even-numbered groupings. Although 3 is often viewed as the magic number, 5,7, or 9 works as well. Try grouping similar items such as candles, vases, or books. Varying the heights of these objects adds visual interest.

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Image courtesy of Jean Stoffer Design

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Open Shelving Designed by Pure Salt Interiors
Image courtesy of Pure Salt Interiors

6.  Ground the Look with Substantial Pieces

Studio McGee suggests starting by using your largest items first to create focal points to style around. Vases, baskets, plants, bowls, art, or other large decor items are perfect for adding substance and visual weight to a built-in. They typically like to stagger these items so that they do not stack on top of each other and are not right next to each other, which helps create balance.

Stylist secret: It helps to place all of your similar objects at the same time. For example, style all of your vases, then your baskets, etc. 

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Shelving Decor that Coordinates with the Color Palette of the Room
Image Courtesy of Kelsey Leigh Design

7.  Inject Sentiment

Poignant pieces add depth and soul to your styling and recall fond memories and special places. Sentimental pieces add character that makes the styling of the shelves in your home – truly your own.

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Simple & Elegant Shelving Design
Image Courtesy of Whittney Parkinson

8.  Break up Textures and Tones

Blending textures and colors are not always the easiest tasks as you want to make sure you don’t have too much of the same thing in one area. Avoid an entire shelf of art, ceramics, or vintage finds and instead spread things out.

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A Shelving Display in Neutral Tones
Image courtesy of Mindy Gayer

9.  Bottom to Top

When decorating shelving, it is important to locate the largest and bulkiest items on the bottom shelf of the unit. Stack lighter items as you go to each higher shelf. This provides a grounded and balanced feel to both the shelf and the room. It also makes sure your unit is not top-heavy.

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