Five Simple Tips for Decorating Shelves and Bookcases

February 05, 2021

Simple tips for decorating shelves and bookcases

There are a few easy formulas to keep in mind when you're styling bookcases and shelves. 

I'm DONE with the basement entertainment center build and I can't wait to show you! 

Now it's time to decorate the shelves -- which is the most fun but also the hardest. Fun but difficult -- is that a thing? Ha! 

I can build all day and I love it...but I sometimes struggle with the decor part.

It will take me a few hours to get it right, and once I do it will stay the same for years. The thought of rearranging things that already look good seriously stresses me out. 😆

I have a few tried and true tips for decorating bookcases and shelves that always help! They're easy to follow and make for decor that is really pleasing to the eye. 

Tip #1: Decorate in odd numbers

It's often said that things in threes are most appealing to our eyes. Actually, odd numbers in general are more pleasing. 

I add plenty of even numbers, but the "rule of threes" always seems to work even better: 

Green bookcases with sconces and brass hardware

Vintage vogue bookcases cherry blossom wallpaper

If you have a lot of space you can group things in threes as a little vignette and then add a singular item next to it. 

Mix and match -- the groupings don't have to be the same item!

Tip #2: Give your eye a place to "rest" 

My style has changed over the years and is much simpler and less cluttered (you'll see that later in this post), so I've learned that singular items can be just as lovely. 

It is OK to leave some empty space -- not every shelf needs to be completely filled!:

Simple wide DIY bookcases by fireplace

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Our short family room bookcases don't have a lot of space, so I tried to keep the decor simple: 
Cyberspace blue by Sherwin Williams

On bigger bookcases, I like to balance out the odd numbered groupings with a few that just have one statement. (See an example of that below.)

Using a longer or bigger item by itself allows the eye to rest -- especially on a large wall of bookshelves or in a room that already has a lot going on visually. 

Tip #3: Flip flop and repeat like items

I like to flip flop decorative accents of the same color scheme or texture when I can. 

So if I'm using plants, I'll place one on the left, then put more greenery on the opposite side on a shelf or two down.

Same goes for textural items like baskets or rattan pieces. 

When you're using a lot of individual items, this trick subtly ties everything together!: 
Half wall turned bookcase

This also goes for shapes -- I like to flip and repeat round and square items like frames or artwork.

I flip flop the number of items used on each shelf as well. (This goes back to giving your eyes a place to rest.)

I use groups of items in one spot, and then balance that out with a singular decorative object in another:
wood and gray DIY bookcases

This trick keeps your bookshelf decor from feeling too cluttered. 

Tip #4: Mix decor of different heights

This is a big one! It's so key to a beautifully decorated shelf. Everything at one height can get a little boring. 

Mixing taller and shorter items allows your eye to travel up and down. 

Mix smaller pieces and taller items to add some variation in height. Vases, candle holders and tall picture frames work well for this: 
gray built in bookcases with decor

This also allows for layering of items. I like to incorporate  
Wood floating shelves above toilet

Our pretty DIY floating shelves in the bathroom incorporate all of these tips in one spot! 

The flip flop, the threes, the different heights are all happening. :)

Tip #5: Use books! 

You'd be surprised at how upset people get when you don't fill bookcases with...books. ;) People are passionate about them! 

In our last house I used a LOT of books on the bookcases initially:
Sitting room library with bookcases

 I later toned it down just a bit -- it was feeling busy. I pared down the decor and the books: 
White DIY bookcases with smokey blue backs

If you have a bunch of books and want to display them, do it! When I see pictures of shelves full of books it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. In our home I prefer a little less. 

  • Change it up -- stack books or line them up next to each other. 
  • Thrift stores are a great place to find beautiful books!
  • I like to take the covers off of our hardcover books -- I love the pretty spines and beautiful title fonts. 
  • Books are a very personal thing! You may not want some books on display for whatever reason. I also turn some books around so you just see the pages.
That's the beauty of decorating your home -- you get to make it work for YOUR home. If it makes you happy -- do it! 

I shared some of these shelf styling tips years ago when I first decorated those dining room turned library bookcases I built. These incorporate some of what I've talked about! 

I repeated many items -- this one points out metal accessories I repeated throughout:

decorating bookcases

I repeated the green items too:

DIY bookcases made with cabinets

I even thought about which way to go with the books. I tried to switch back and forth -- starting on the right, then left, right, etc.:

tips on how to decorate bookshelves

Otherwise parts of the bookcases started to look “heavier” than others.

And I also thought about what to center on the shelves and what not to:

White bookcases with blue background

The top and bottom items are all centered, and two of the shorter shelves in the middle are as well, on each end.

Decor tip: Paint the backs of your bookcases or add wallpaper to add a pop of color!

Sometimes accessorizing falls right in to place, sometimes it’s agonizing. :) If decorating shelves feels like the latter for you, use these tips as your guide. 

I hope my bookshelf styling can provide some inspiration as you work on your own spaces!

I gathered some of my favorite bookcase decor I've used around our houses -- check out some of my favorite decor accessories here

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  1. Gorgeous! You are so talented and that room looks incredible!

  2. You have done SUCH a good job! The styling looks stunning.

    You should be so proud of yourself!

  3. That is a very nice bookshelf.I love it :)

  4. Wowza! What a project! So beautiful; I wish I had only a part of your talent. You can be so proud of yourself. Love it!

  5. Your bookshelf looks great! I will have to weed out my bookshelves so there is room for accessories!

  6. These bookshelves look great! Definitely worth all the effort:)

  7. I absolutely love these shelves. I am thinking hard how i can pursuade my husband to let me have some in our living room... lol!

  8. I just reorganized my built ins, and this post would have been so helpful! Some rearranging may be in my future...

  9. Okay, Sarah, I have to admit I am going to be copying a little of your inspiration! You see we have a wall of bookcases... which is starting to look a little heavy and lopsided. Talk about timing!! and... I just so happen to have some lovely antique italian terra cotta pots... empty! Thank you once again for all your inspiration!!
    Now to get pinning!!

  10. Sarah, you are an expert to me. Everything you decorate really looks great!

  11. Love it!!!!! It looks so great...nicely done.

    ~ jillian

  12. So helpful! This is a project that everyone I know struggles with. So many options!

    I think you've struck the perfect balance, stocking the shelves with both functional items like books, and purely decorative items. Nice work. Enjoy!

  13. The built ins are beautiful! Thanks for sharing all your hard work.

    I may be showing my age here, but the little fat birds remind me of the opening to the Partridge Family. So maybe they're little partridges???

  14. Looks great! I have built-ins on either side of my fireplace and I'm totally gonna copy some of your ideas for them! I've always felt they looked a little "off" but they're so big and overwhelming... Your ideas are great! Thanks so much for sharing!

  15. What a great tutorial! I love how you broke everything down like that. I think we all can take for granted things like pretty bookcases but it really does take a lot of work. Great thrift store finds too!

  16. It looks good. :) We have similar styling techniques, and I really like some of the pieces you acquired like those quail birds. The lights above are also a nice touch too.

  17. Gorgeous, I love how your bookcases look. Fabulous job and great tutorial. Hugs, Marty

  18. What a great bookshelf! I can't say any of mine are well accessorized at this point. I'll have to watch out for things to add to it though.

  19. the breakdown (and arrows) definitely helps - thanks! looks beautiful!

  20. They look amazing, beautiful job! Thanks for all of the great tips! :)

  21. The whole thing looks really beautiful and it sounds like a (long) labor of love. I especially like that you didn't use brand new things throughout. The thrift shop finds adds provenance.(sp?) LOVE the brass things. So bookish!

  22. I absolutely loved your posts about building the bookshelves, it's very inspirational to me as I'm knee deep in my own whole-house reno. However, you've said many times that this room is to be your library (which is an awesome concept), and the arrangement you have going on the shelves just...doesn't say library to me. When I was scrolling down the post to see the pics I was so excited, and then my very first reaction was "where are all the books?"

    I hope this is constructive and not purely negative, it just looks like a decorated bookshelf to me as it is.

  23. I love how it turned out! Still green with envy over those lights!!! I too use some of our paperbacks, I just put them in baskets so just the tops show.

  24. Love how it all came together! I scored those EXACT same globe bookends from an estate sale not too long ago - LOVE them!

  25. I love how your bookcase turned out! We have been considering one on the back wall of our formal living room/turned study. I had not thought of putting lights up. What a great idea. Love it and the way you decorated it!

  26. You, my friend, are an expert bookshelf styler! ;-) My mother-in-law is the same way -- she gets it right every time. She has built-ins a lot like these in the family room, and I always love the way she styles them for the Holidays. I cannot WAIT to see what you are going to do for Christmas!

  27. Thank you so much for writing this how to! I'm design challenged and right in the middle of trying to revamp my built-in shelves so this was a tremendous help. They look so beautiful - just like you did have a whole lot of people working a lot of hours on them.

  28. They are stunning! I like how everything stands out against the dark back creates a cool mood!

  29. Thanks so much for sharing this! They look beautiful and you have inspired me to go to work on mine! I'm taking my laptop and referencing your pictures as I work on mine! They are gorgeous! Have a great weekend.

  30. Everytime I read your blog, I go home and re-do a part of our home that weekend. Hubby says it looks so nice. He never said it looked bad before, but now he actually compliments me. After 34 yrs and several homes together, that's a great feeling! And you can imagine how much I have to "shop the house with"! You inspire me to use things in new and different ways and I love that! Thanks!

  31. Your whole room looks terrific. What a treat to have a library/reading room. A eye goes to the outlets or light switch because of the color (white pops from the blue). Would your bookcases look even more beautiful if the switch plates were painted to match the wall color? Thanks for sharing the whole process.

  32. Gorgeous! I love getting to the point in decorating for my rooms and my clients, when accessorizing begins. So rewarding..especially when things that are dear to you are displayed :-)

  33. You're library looks stunning, don't change a thing... I used to have a copy of "The Secret Language of Birthdays," and found it to be eerily accurate. Love, love, love your decor!!!

  34. I think if I were you, I would just sit on the floor in there and stare at those shelves. They look fantastic! I am so enjoying seeing your library come together!

  35. Your library shelves look great. Everything is veryneat and uncluttered looking and I love the globes. I wouldn;t have the heart to change the globe bookends because I think they are brilliant as is--very "libraryish" and vintage.

    Rita at

  36. DO you have anywhere on your blog a tutorial on how you installed the lights at the top of your bookcase? They are so cool!

  37. I love your bookcase! It's very elegant and classic a t the same time. Thanks for sharing your talent! mknobleatuniontwpschooldotorg

  38. I am still amazed that you actually built that yourselves, and it is pretty the way you have arranged everything. Just lovely.

  39. Shame on stink eye for taking your globe! Love the brass cranes/birds and the globes and of course, the shade of blue you chose for the bookcase & rug. The hammered metal light looks good, too. I didn't notice the hammered part when I read your 'light' post. ;o)

  40. This came out fabulous. Can you tell me what color blue you used and who makes it? Thanks for sharing!

  41. I would love to be inspired by this book! I am so inspired by your blog!! Thank you for sharing your talents!! Christy (cbeyers at yahoo dot com)

  42. That looks great! Thanks for the pointers/letting us know the thought that you put into it. It's very helpful.


  43. Love your shelves and love how this room has turned out!


  44. Love the bookcases. Maybe I've been under a rock but I've never seen lighting done that way before. Keep the fun ideas coming!

  45. Sarah you did an amazing job styling your bookcases. I LOVE a well styled bookcase. I could stare at pictures of them forever! I'm pinning yours. =)

    ~ Catie

  46. Great tips!!! Love your shelves dear!

  47. It looks very pretty. Where do you keep the rest of your books? I'm guessing there are shelves in some other rooms. What made you decide to have just a few books in the library and mostly decorative stuff?

  48. Thank you so much for this post, it's so detailed :)
    Great pointers and tips!

  49. LOVE your library and the way you decorated the shelves. It's perfect! Beautiful, Sarah!

  50. Check out my super cute gold accent pieces! Perfect for shelves!

  51. The bookcases really lighten and brighten this space! And my mom had those globe bookends years ago. :) ah, nostalgia.

  52. I realize this post is from a few years ago but I'm dying to know what blue color you used in the back of the shelves. It is beautiful!!

  53. What kind of wood top do you use for your built in book cases? We are going to follow your idea of using upper cabinets to make our sideboard and are stuck on what top to use.

    1. I shared exactly what I use and how I do that here:


If you have a specific question I will do my best to answer you back here!

You can find our paint colors and links to items at the "Our Home" tab at the top of my site.

THANKS so much for reading!