Interior Storage

How to Decorate Shelves in 6 Simple Steps

Get your shelves ready for a #shelfie by following these steps. 
Savannah Sher Avatar
how to decorate shelves


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Shelves and bookcases are the perfect place to display treasured objects while adding visual interest to a space. If not properly appointed, however, shelves can simply collect clutter and make a room look messy. Styling shelves is trickier than it looks, and it’s easy to become discouraged when your bookcases don’t look like the ones you see on social media. By following these steps, you’ll ensure that your shelves look great and show off your personal style. These shelf decorating ideas will give you inspiration for your next design project.


Before starting any design project, it’s important to assess the space and establish the fixed elements you’re working with. Take measurements of the shelves and note down the width, height, and depth. Consider whether you want to keep the shelves in their current configuration or to raise or lower them to vary the height of each shelf. When considering how to decorate a bookshelf, remember that the most visually appealing shelves feature a mix of colors, sizes, and textures as well as a juxtaposition between new and vintage items. Shop the items you already own before heading to the store for modern shelf decor.

how to decorate shelves

STEP 1: Clear off the shelves for a fresh start.

If the shelves are full, clear them off completely to create a blank canvas. This would be a good time to dust and thoroughly clean the shelves so they’re ready for their makeover. At this point, you may also consider painting the shelving unit or the wall behind the shelves to make the entire arrangement pop. While a neutral palette is perennially appealing, black shelves bring depth to a space while colorful shelves are visually arresting.

Related: 10 Ways to Redecorate Without Spending a Dime

STEP 2: Consider color and texture.

Now that your shelves are clean and empty, it’s time to start gathering your shelf decorations. Determine a basic color scheme for the shelf that fits with the rest of the room. When dealing with colorful objects, consider placing items in similar shades together. Alternatively, if you have a couple of pieces in the same bold color, place them in opposing corners. Those aiming for a neutral color palette could consider placing books with their spines facing inwards so that only the pages are showing, though it may frustrate some bibliophiles.

Another way to add visually interesting decor for shelves is by ensuring there are a combination of textures represented on the shelves. Include natural, textured items like shells, woven baskets, and wooden accessories as well as smooth, shiny items like those made from glass or metal in shades of gold, silver, or bronze depending on the space’s color scheme.

STEP 3: Place large items first.

Start with the largest items, because they not only take up the most space but also often make the most significant visual impact. Since these items pack the biggest punch, it’s important to choose ones that you love. Second-tier pieces can be stored out of sight. Try placing similar items—like picture frames or large pieces of pottery—diagonally from one another. This creates a visually pleasing tableau that subtly encourages viewers to take in the entire shelf. Put your favorite pieces at eye level so that they’re easy to see. When placing items that you use regularly, ensure they’re easily accessible.

how to decorate shelves

STEP 4: Fill in with smaller items.

Once the larger items have been placed, fill in the gaps using smaller decorative objects. While symmetry is often used as a design principle, asymmetry tends to work better when working with smaller objects. Generally speaking, items grouped in odd numbers look better than those grouped in even numbers. Place three or five like items together rather than two or four. Alternately, scatter visually similar objects—like those made of the same type of material—throughout the shelving unit for a more dynamic look.

Related: How to Decorate With Farmhouse Beads

STEP 5: Add layers to create height and depth.

One of the most important techniques when decorating a shelf is layering. Ensure that there are a mix of tall, medium, and short items for the best results. Books, when stacked horizontally, provide additional height, allowing you to display smaller items on top of them. Boxes and other containers can similarly act as risers.

Rather than lining up all the items on the same visual plane, create depth by using thin, flat items like picture frames or decorative plates to provide a backdrop for smaller items to be placed in front of them to be seen in the foreground.

Related: 13 Eye-Popping Ways to Decorate with Pampas Grass at Home

STEP 6: Adjust item placement to balance visual weight and colors.

Once you’ve made a first attempt at placing all of the shelf decorations, it’s time to step back and assess how it looks. Try taking a photo of the arrangement in order to provide a different point of view. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect right away; decorating shelves often takes some tweaking. If things are looking cluttered, create some blank space by removing one or more items from the shelf.

Once you’ve decided on an arrangement, consider illuminating the shelf using track lights or spotlights. Continue to curate the shelves over time, gradually adding new pieces you love.

how to decorate shelves

The Best Items to Display on Shelves

  • Books not only show off your interests but also provide height when stacked.
  • Plants bring life to the space and add a pop of color and texture. Try to place plants where they can easily be reached so that they can be watered regularly.
  • Family photos add a unique, personal element, ensuring your shelves don’t look generic. Avoid adding too many family photos to a shelving unit because the effect can end up looking dated.
  • Vases add height and provide a vessel for showing off flowers or greenery. They can also act as decorative bookends.
  • Art can add a bold pop of color and display your personal style. Second-hand pieces from a thrift store can look just as good as something purchased from a gallery.
  • Collections of any kind look great when grouped together, especially if the items vary in size. Collections can also be scattered throughout a shelving unit for a more eclectic look. 
  • Personal touches like family heirlooms and travel souvenirs will make your bookcase stand out and invoke happy memories. 
  • Baskets not only add texture when they’re woven from a natural material like rattan or wicker but also serve as a practical catch-all for objects that may not be as visually appealing.
  • Sculptures in either ceramic or metal add unique shapes to the shelf.
  • Decorative accessories in interesting colors or textures can act as bookends or simply provide visual interest.
  • Magazine holders come in a wide range of colors and patterns and act as functional storage for important files.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully after reading this article, you’ll have a better feel for how to decorate bookshelves. These shelf decorating ideas should ensure your shelves look stylish, intentional, and unique.