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How to Style Shelves: 5 Tips for Built-Ins and Open Shelving

Styling shelves isn’t rocket science – but it isn’t for the faint of heart, either. We’ve found that people either really enjoy this process… or feel completely lost. If you’re in that second camp, let us help! Learn to style shelves, built-ins and bookcases like a pro with five practical steps for getting started.

Before you start, know this – styling beautifully balanced shelves does require just a little perfectionism and patience. Don’t be intimidated! Just be willing to play around with everything until it looks right.

Ready to get started? Here are five rules of thumb that work well for us.

Styled built-ins

1. Gather a Variety of Items

Before you begin, empty your shelves and give yourself a clean slate. Then, shop your home and gather your decor items together. Look for pretty pottery, baskets, candles, hardback books, sculptural pieces, plants, art, frames and knick-knacks. Look for items of different colors, shapes, and sizes.

Don’t have a lot to work with? Check the sale section of Target, swing by Home Goods, or stop into your local thrift store or used bookstore. You don’t have to spend a fortune to style a beautiful shelf. You just have to intentionally pick a variety of items you like to look at!

2. Group Your Items

Once you’ve gathered your items, begin grouping similar colors or similar items together. Have a handful of seagrass items? Group them. Have knick-knacks of the same general height? Group them. Don’t worry about styling and arranging these on your shelves just yet – just group them into piles on the floor or on a nearby table. This allows you to see exactly you’re working with.

If you’re using books, we recommend grouping them into a few stacks of 2-5 books each. Try putting books together that have a similar size and coordinating colors. Put your largest book on the bottom and work your way up to the smallest. Don’t forget to peek behind the book jacket – many books are more beautiful without it!

Open shelving

3. Keep It Simple & Don’t Overdo It

If you think styling shelves is intimidating, it could be that you’re trying to do too much. You don’t have to totally fill a shelf to make it feel complete! More likely, it’ll look too overwhelming if you try. 😉

The key is to add just enough interest. Instead of trying to fill your shelves to the brim with a random assortment of items, consider how to thoughtfully arrange a handful of items.

Similarly, don’t go too crazy with color. We recommend either using a neutral palette or selecting a few colors that work well together.

Styled built-in shelves

4. Arrange Similar Items On Diagonals and Zig-Zags

There’s no one-size-fits-all formula you can use to style shelves. Why? Because shelves vary in size! Some shelves look best with two groups of items, while others only need one large item. It all depends on what canvas you’ve got. However, there’s one rule of thumb that we’ve found particularly helpful when styling shelves: think about how to create a visual zig-zag.

You may find it helpful to start with your largest (or your favorite!) items. Put some anchor pieces down and then work around them.

Using the built-ins above as an example. notice how the larger brown items on the top right, middle left, and bottom right shelves create a zig-zag. Meanwhile, the stacks of books on the middle right shelf and bottom left shelf are placed on a diagonal. This brings balance to these built-in shelves.

On the kitchen shelves below, notice how we placed the bright-colored fruits on a diagonal, rather than next to each other. Voila! Balance.

Kitchen shelf

5. Arrange Contrasting Items Next to Each Other

The key to well-styled shelves is good contrast. To achieve this, play around with different shapes and heights, If everything on a shelf is the same color, same height, and same shape, it won’t look right.

Notice how on the kitchen shelves above, we contrasted the angles on the top left with the round cloche and peaches to its right. On the shelf below, we placed a smaller bowl next to a larger ginger jar.

You don’t need to overthink this – just put large items next to smaller ones, taller items next to shorter ones, solid items next to clearer ones, etc.

Take the shelf below as an example. As you look at it from left to right, your eyes move up and down.

Styled shelf

Bottom Line

If styling shelves is all new to you, be patient with yourself! Play around until it looks balanced. Step back to examine your shelves from time to time. Take photos. Ask your perfectionist friend for help. And happy styling!

If you found this post helpful, check out some of our other tutorials:

Fireplace Limewash Tutorial

– Fall Front Porch

– Thanksgiving Tablescape

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