Whether you’ve just bought a home bestowed with built-ins or you’ve recently purchased a free-standing bookshelf, the question of how to style your newly acquired real estate likely looms large. Adding to the complexity is that bookcases are no longer purely literary devices. While you can certainly style them by the book—by which we mean books—many homeowners are opting to liberate bookshelves from their library connotations. These days, bookshelves can be styled with everything from vases to baskets to plates. When styled thoughtfully, bookshelves can do more than just decorate a room—they energize a room. A general shelf-help rule? Always integrate an element of the unexpected. What constitutes the unexpected? We’re here to help with six bookshelf arrangements and ideas that hit the bulls-eye—in some cases, no books required!

Design by Studio Gild / Photo Credit: Aimee Mazzenga

Adopt Artful Architecture

Even before you approach the topic of how to style a bookcase in a bedroom or living room, there’s the question of what bookshelf to employ for the task. Those with built-ins will want to skip ahead, but for those with the freedom to build a mise en scène from scratch, consider the opportunity to spring for a bookshelf with architectural clout. Bookshelves with geometric details like iron overlays can lend as much interior intrigue as the decor they’re designed to hold. Especially if you’re not looking to pack your shelves with volumes, consider an artful bookshelf to lend dimension to your shelves’ contents. 

Design by Studio Gild / Photo Credit: Mike Schwartz Photography

Back with Wallpaper

A common conundrum in childrens’ rooms? Too much shelving for too little library. How do you style a bookcase without books? One remedy is to back your bookshelves with wallpaper. Opt for a busily-printed paper to retarget focus from your shelves’ scant contents. Paint could be utilized in a similar fashion (a technique many designers are fond of employing with built-ins that may feel underwhelming for whatever reason). In a child’s room, a color gradient could also be used to energize a built-in or stand-along bookshelf. Start with a dark color at the bottom and work your way up toward lighter territory.

Design by Sherwood Kypreos / Photo Credit: Chris Patey

Go Lower than Standard

A bookshelf needn’t always be a towering totem. In fact, opting for a lower bookcase can produce an eye-catching result. As for how to style bookshelves that are lower than average? Resist the temptation to pack them full of tomes. Doing so will visually weigh them down. Instead, rely primarily on sculpture, vases, and small stacks of paperbacks to keep them feeling unencumbered. Choosing decor or books that are the same color as your wall color can also create visual space without requiring you to cut back on decor overall.

Design by Pappas Miron / Photo Credit: David A. Land Photography

Stud with Sconces

Wondering how to style large bookshelves so they look less imposing? One designer sleight-of-hand is to bullet them with sconces. When topped in a pretty pleated shade, sconces can temper massive bookshelves’ bulk. Come nightfall, they can also provide a functional lighting source to read by. You’ll see designers soliciting sconces for libraries and offices quite often, but don’t hesitate to put the technique into play into a bedroom or living room. Sconces are ideal for de-formalizing built-ins in either. 

Design by Kate Marker Interiors / Instagram / Photo by Stoffer Photography Interiors

Adorn in Art

Especially if you’re trying to camouflage built-in idiosyncrasies like different-width shelves, layering framed art atop your bookshelf can strike a stylistic chord. When installing art on your shelves, dial back visual noise where you can. Painting your shelving the same color as your walls can mellow things out, as can opting for simply-styled shelves outfitted with only books. Don’t feel boxed in by square art, either. Oval-framed portraits can be a beautiful way to break up quadrilateral tyranny.

Design by Redmond Aldrich Design / Photo Credit: Matthew Millman

Level Up with a Ladder

Sometimes the reality of styling bookshelves is that you need them for the sole purpose of stowing books. If a bookshelf brimming with books seems less than novel to you, try rigging up a ladder to add an element of interest. In addition to drawing your eye upwards (thereby making those ceilings seem higher), a ladder is an excellent way to add architectural interest to built-in shelves. In an all-white millwork zone, a wood ladder can also help break up the visual monotony.

Design by KitchenLab Interiors / Photo Credit: Michael Alan Kaskel

How to Style a Bookcase with Books

Always allow some negative space

Put simply, you want to give your books some breathing room. Jamming them spine-to-spine can give your bookshelf a fortress-like appearance. 

Vary the way you stack volumes

Piggybacking off the tip above, alternating between stacking your books horizontally and vertically can create negative visual space when you style a bookcase.

Design by Pappas Miron / Photo Credit: David A. Land

Consider volumes and series

If every book spine is different on a shelf it can feel a bit chaotic visually. Creating blocks of books with similar spines can provide a resting spot for the eye. Lit tip: periodicals often have white spines that work perfectly for this task. 

Back your shelves

Nothing sedates the visual clutter of bookshelves by painting both your bookshelf’s facade and recesses the same color or complementary colors

Shop Bookshelves >>

Lead image design by Redmond Aldrich Design / Photo Credit: Matthew Millman


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January 13, 2022

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