Curate your shelves with objects, colors, and plants you love.

By Megan Boettcher
February 25, 2020
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Whether you're accessorizing a new bookcase, trying to refresh the look of your classic built-ins, or decorating a set of floating shelves, your goal is likely to curate an organized, visually beautiful bookshelf that reflects who you (and your family!) are. Rebecca Zoet, designer and owner of This New Old House, has several no-fail tips for doing so. As for her very best piece of advice? "Make it personal. My tips will serve as a guide to get you started—but the look should reflect your style," she says. Ahead, everything you need to know about styling your home's bookcases, from beginning with a clean slate and choosing lush décor (live plants are encouraged) to grouping objects in threes.

stylish bookcase in living room
Credit: Getty / Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

Start with a Clean Slate

"If you have existing items on the shelf, clear everything off," Zoet says, noting that it's important to start from scratch. Before you add them back onto the shelf, consider what they'd look like mixed with items found in other areas of your home (culling from your collection is so much more cost-effective than purchasing a variety of new pieces). Once you determine what you're keeping (or re-mixing), group similar items, such as frames, books, baskets, items of interest, and greenery so you can see what you have available. It's important to include a variety of shapes, heights, and textures. When you group items, it helps you identify what's missing from the mix; that makes it easy to go back in and round everything out with more.

Choose Cohesive Frames

When you're grouping frames or photos, Zoet recommends a using the same style of frame to unify this category. "You want the pictures to stand out and be the unique pop of interest—not the frame," she says.

Be Selective with Books

Books are, obviously, the focal point here, but your bookcase shouldn't look like a jam-packed library shelf. Create visual interest by stacking a few or even displaying an open book. Know you'll be reaching for your favorite hardcover frequently? Zoet recommends placing books in the middle, so they're easy to access.

Work in a Few Baskets

Decorative catch-alls and baskets add plenty of texture. "This is also a great way to add hidden storage to your shelves," Zoet notes. Place a few metal or woven baskets on the bottom shelf, so "you can tuck away extra pillows or blankets."

Add Plenty of Personality

The best way to bring personality into your setup? Display the things that speak to who you are. "This could include items that you have collected on trips, family heirlooms, or signs and letters with a special meaning," Zoet says. If you're looking to shop, visit local artisans, antique stores, or flea markets for one-of-a-kind pieces that resonate with you.

Go Green

"I love to tuck a natural element in to my shelf styling. Little pops of greenery add life and texture to your shelf," Zoet says. Don't have a green thumb? Succulents are easy to care for—and look great alongside your novels.

Stay Within a Color Palette

Working within a set color scheme unifies your shelves and connects them to the rest of the room's décor landscape. Zoet suggests adhering to a neutral palette and then working in "small pops of color to tie in the other shades in the room." For example, if the draperies or throw pillows are blue, complement the look with a few blue accessories on your bookshelves. Employing a neutral color palette on the bookcase also allows you to easily swap out a few colorful pieces seasonally—or as your tastes change.

Decide What Goes Where

When you've gathered your items, it's time to decide where to put everything. Zoet advises keeping the top of the bookcase simple and light, since you don't want the shelves to feel top-heavy. "Use the middle shelves for book storage and decorative displays," she adds. If you have a special piece that you want to use as a focal point, start by placing it in the middle of the bookcase and build around it with supporting accessories. Save the bottom shelves for baskets for hidden storage (perfect for toys or throw blankets).

As for her best object arranging tips? "Be sure to vary the height and shape of items on the bookshelves. You can always add height to objects by stacking books under them or setting them on a small cake stand," Zoet says. She also recommends grouping items in threes (or other odd numbers). "Keep shifting things around and rearranging until you feel good about your design," she notes. "Design rules or no design rules, if it makes you happy—you nailed it!"

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