Consider this your guide to enhancing and curating your own shelves.
Living room with fireplace, couch and chair seating
Credit: John Merkl

Built-in bookcases are often the anchors of a room. Unlike furniture that can be moved in and out of a space, these as-is elements are an integral, immobile part of your home—plus, they lend character to and set the tone for the feel of the room. "Built-in shelves are a huge design element," says Kimberly Handler, interior designer and owner for Kimberly Handler Designs. "They should stand out and reflect your style." Just as important? "They should also be functional and serve a purpose that fits your lifestyle," she adds. Ahead, Handler breaks down everything you need to know about your own built-ins, from upgrading outdated shelves to styling them.

Starting from scratch? Consider your shelves' height.

When building your built-in bookcases from the ground up, carefully consider how big you want them to be. The two major details to nail down before you determine their final height? Identify how you plan to use the bookcase and measure the total distance between the room's floor and ceiling. If the shelves are mostly for holding decorative pieces in a room with a vaulted ceiling, you could make the bookcase taller than 80 inches knowing that you'll need to use a step ladder when you're ready to redecorate (which won't happen often). However, if you're going to fill the shelves with books, movies, and board games in a basement playroom, you'll want shelves that are easily accessible. In that case, bookshelves that are 72 to 80 inches tall will make them most functional.

Consider function over time.

Will your built-ins serve as a type of media center? Gaming devices and entertainment components require deeper shelves than books or décor, so you'll need to measure accordingly. Better yet, "opt for adjustable shelving, as your needs will change overtime," Handler adds. "Families may need to store big toys in a built-in bookcase when their kids are small. Later, shelves can be closer together for Lego displays. And eventually Mom will get to use the space to swap out art pieces." If you're sticking with stationary shelves, Handler suggests that 24 inches is the maximum space you want between shelves unless you're planning to put something very specific on each level.

Build bookcases into blank nooks and crannies.

"You can tuck a built-in bookcase almost anywhere," Handler says. "Any nook or indent in the wall is an opportunity to make it more functional with a built-in." Consider outfitting the space under a staircase with shelves or repurpose an old closet into a recessed built-in. "Recently, I helped a family transform a walk-in closet into an office with built-in shelves," Handler says. "The space is much more functional for them, and it's also a stylish addition to their home."

Revamp old built-ins with paint.

The best and worst thing about a built-in bookcase is that it will be a major part of the room's design forever. And if yours are outdated, they can make the entire space feel drab. To remedy this pain point, Handler recommends painting them to better reflect your home's current style. "In my own home, our formal living room had big built-ins. We wanted to make it a family room we could use every day, that also looked nicely pulled together," Handler says. "We updated the built-ins with a high-gloss blue finish and green panels. It makes it feel more like a piece of art than a built-in bookshelf."

In a child's room, Handler suggests going bold with your color choice. "The more color the better," she says. "Children's rooms are a great place to play with bright shades. Pair neutral walls with red shelves and a desk for a look that's as high-energy as your kid."

Consider mixing mediums.

Another easy update? Back the shelves with grass cloth, wallpaper, or vintage mirrors. Handler used several of these techniques to repurpose shelves in a library and turn them into a dry bar. "The room had traditional built-in bookcases and paneled walls. We lacquered the whole thing and backed the shelves with glass cloth on top and antique mirrors on the bottom," Handler says. "Creating a dry bar area makes it more functional for the homeowners and brings in more texture and interest."

Comments (1)

Martha Stewart Member
August 2, 2020
No pictures of various design ideas. And no shelf depth indicated. So--- this article is not Everything You Should Know. Please do another article with ideas shown with dimensions and pictures.