Six Tips to Perfectly Style Your Bookcase Shelves
You just had a beautiful built-in created in your home, now how do you perfectly style your bookcase to capture the great look you want and carry your personality into the corners of your bookcase? To find out, we interview Hannah Lewick and MacKenzie Cain of Habitar Designer. Here are their 6 tips to style beautiful shelves.
1. Start by clearing the shelves and stepping back
It is the obvious first step. It’s best to start with a blank slate, get everything down and then look at your shelves and imagine what you would like them to be. Do you want them open, more filled, casual, sophisticated? Most likely you’ll want them to match your home and your lifestyle. If you’re a big reader, you might imagine a few books on your shelves to reflect that part of your life. If your house is minimalist and contemporary, it’s likely you’ll reflect that on your shelves.
When you take everything down, put it on a nearby table to get you ready for step two.
2. It’s time to collect your life
It’s time to walk through the rest of your house, including closets and storage boxes, to collect items that might make it onto the shelves. Set the items out on a table so you can see them together but give them enough space so you can see how they look on their own.
Take some time — even a few days — to let what you have gathered sink in. It’s time to let your unconscious do a little of the work. With time, some items may begin to stick out. They may grow in beauty or significance to you. Remember, you’re not the same person you were three years ago. Give yourself some time to help your shelves reflect who you are today. When you’ve let your feelings percolate long enough for you, move to step three.
3. Sort through your items to reflect your look
Start removing items that don’t speak to you and take in what remains. Are patterns emerging? Are there beautiful large books, lots of family photos, art objects?
If you’ve decided on a contemporary look, start pulling out the items that don’t fit in. Some of them may have a lot of emotional significance. If there are photo frames that don’t work, the frames are easily replaced. But if a childhood toy doesn’t fit in, this just might not be the right set of shelves for it.
You’ve thought about how full your shelves should be, so pare down, leaving yourself plenty to work with if possible. If you don’t have enough to fill your shelves, not to worry, we’ll discuss how to fill in later. If you have too much, in particular many small items, we have a solution for that too.
4. Group and adjust your items – the creativity begins.
Pull groups of three or four items together. This is where you become the artist putting together items that relate to each other well. There’s a world of possibilities and there are no simple rules, except to try things and see if they feel right to you. It’s all about experimenting.
Do three like objects of different sizes work together? Do three different objects of similar heights work? Can vases act as bookends? The possibilities are endless. You can get inspiration by looking at photos, but in the end it’s your stuff and your instincts that make the shelves unique to you.
Trust yourself and play. It’s a process of trial and error. The more patient you are, the more you enjoy it, the more you trust that you will come upon what you will really like, that happier you will be with your shelves. It’s an act of love to take your treasures and shape them into eye pleasing arrangements.
While working on your groupings, you can also adjust the items. You can remove book jackets to make books look more formal or add artificial plants to vases.
5. Place your items on your shelves
Decorating your shelves is a matter of trial and error. Expect to put things up and take them down, to overfill and underfill, and to have things just not look right for a while. No one can just walk up and dress a set of shelves without working at it.
Start with the largest heaviest items. These can be large art or décor pieces, large books and large cohesive groupings, for instance, three family photos that must go together or a group of books. Spread them out and try to achieve a balance with them. They will be the backbone of the design, but may still move.
Fill in smaller groupings on your shelves to be 2/3rds filled or less. The less you have on your shelves the more their negative space will create a gallery feel. More negative space creates more interest in what is there. Keeping your shelves under 2/3rds full allows for spacing between groups, so shelves will feel less cluttered.
As you select groupings to try out, keep in mind their size and depth. Just as you found themes and variations for your groupings, it’s now time to use your groupings with their various sizes, colors, and depths on your shelves, stepping back to see how they work between shelves.
As you fill your shelves, work all of them together. Fill each shelf at about the same rate so you can step back and see how they feel as a whole. From this perspective you may begin to see pleasing patterns that suit you such as symmetry or asymmetry, lightness at the top, variations on a theme.
Don’t rush and keep playing. Most good designs require the unconscious to do its work. If you have the time, sleep on it. Giving yourself some time to absorb your work will guide you on making change or not. You may also have a ‘eureka’ moment that makes all the difference.
6. To fill in, buy more than you need and return the rest.
Buying more than you need and returning what you don’t use is standard operating procedure in the design world. In a process based on trial and error, you can’t know if a piece works until you see it in place. So don’t be shy.
Just be sure items are returnable before you purchase and be careful with their wrappings so they’re dropped off in perfect shape.
More tips and tricks
Casual vs. Formal
Casual styling, say for a family room, has a lot more freedom with color and personal items than formal styling. Colorful books, photos, tchotchkes are all fair game. In a formal living space with sophistication as the goal, there’s usually more editing. The color palette is more limited and neutral. Items are less whimsical and quirky.
Books are not required on bookshelves, but a few almost always make it there. If you have a good amount of books, balance them across all your shelves.
Books can stack vertically AND horizontally. It creates differentiation in height, and horizontal books serve as bookends, reducing clutter. They can also serve as a base to lift and object in order to play with its height.
Jackets are not required, but hardbacks are. Paperbacks never have the same allure. For a more formal look, remove the covers.
Favorite coffee table books can be stood up and displayed as you would a picture frame.
Boxes and Baskets
Some functional or small items (we said we’d have a tip for this!) are just not attractive enough to display. Boxes and baskets placed on the bottom shelf offer a polished storage solution to organize clutter and ground your bookcase.
Plants can bring visual interest and warmth to a design. The pots are as important as the plants themselves. Casual designs accommodate a number of plants and leafy plants well, while more formal designs tend to feature fewer or none at all. Remember to keep live plants on lower shelves to make watering easier.
Whether it takes you 3 hours or 3 days to get your shelves the way you want them, it will be worth the effort. Remember, your shelves are the backdrop, what you put on your shelves are stars.
If you need professional guidance, don’t hesitate to have a designer lead you through the process. If you’re in Chicago, Habitar Design is one of Chicago’s leading interior designers and we will be happy to help.
Embracing a specific style and following a limited color palette creates a coordinated, sophisticated look.
Boxes on the bottom shelf offer a polished storage solution, and can be color coordinated to flow with the rest of your design.
Books are multipurpose – they can be stacked vertically, horizontally, used as bookends, and to elevate other items. Note how they add color and each grouping have a unique shape
Leaving more negative space highlights the few objects that are placed, creating a gallery feel.
Personal photos and décor pieces stand out in a colorful casual design.