Lessons in Design :: Bookshelf Styling
Wednesday, May 23, 2012 by {darlene}

In today’s Lesson in Design, I want to share with you some Bookshelf Styling looks that I really think are successful. 

And you know how I love to break things down to the nitty-gritty. This post is filled with examples and explanations that will teach you ways to create your OWN gorgeous bookshelf. If you can hang in there until the end, I saved the best for last.

Well then, read on to see the details that can make or break your Bookshelf Display:

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1. Bookshelves were meant for Books

I might as well start off with a big “opinion” on the matter. This post series is called Lessons in Design, but I NEVER want to come across as sharing “Design Rules that thou shalt not break.” So, if you disagree with this notion, then YOU should definitely decorate your home for YOU, not by MY rules.

Disclaimer out of the way.

Truth is: I really, really believe that bookshelves are most beautiful when they are {mostly} filled with books. Look at these photos of Bookshelves filled with mostly, but not all, – ahem – Books!

{images: 1. design by Ashley Whittaker via 2. Coburn Architecture via 3. via sasinteriors 4. Thomas O’Brian via}

There are countless examples of a lovely bookshelves, styled with {mostly} items other than books. So this is definitely an option. But consider packing your bookshelves with things to read and learn, not things to dust.

Rules are made for breaking though. Just sayin.

{images: 1. HGTV 2. via }

2. Pack in those Books

This is no place to be shy.

Not enough books? Well, it is finally time to start that collection you have always wanted, hit the used bookstore, AND, why not supplement your collections with flea market finds, encyclopedia finds, and rummage sales. And, you might be surprised – if you announce to all of your friends and family that you would like to take a bunch of books off their hands – you will have full shelves before the week is out.

{images 1. BHG 2. Martha Stewart Living via 3. the art of doing stuff}

Here is an example of a bookshelf that is too sparsely decorated. If your bookshelves look like this… all in due time! But, maybe you should post on your Facebook status: “Collecting free used books, will pick up!”

{image: MLinteriors – who happens to do gorgeous designs and has a client who doesn’t own books}

3. Incorporate Art and Sculpture

Now that you have a library collection, with a world of imagination at your fingertips, it is time to make things interesting.

The following bookshelf displays are still MOSTLY books, but beautiful art and sculpture has been creatively integrated. They help to add interest, and can fill in any gaps you may have.

Consider putting art on top of books and beside them to act like bookstands. Also, consider using art/sculpture that will fully fill in a gap left by the books. See how that technique is used in the pictures below:

{images: 1.via 7thhouseontheleft 2. design by Ashley Whittaker House Beautiful 3. Sean Scherer}

4.  Think horizontally AND vertically

Stack books horizontally and vertically to add interest to book-packed shelves. You can see great examples of this in the pictures above, and in this one as well:

{image: design Mark Sikes via Habitually Chic}

5.  Use magazines!

Why stop at books? Magazines look amazing when packed, en masse, on your bookshelf:


{images: 1. via the neotraditionalist 2. FrogGoesToMarket 3. LonnyMag via }

6. Think outside of the box

Hang a picture on the OUTSIDE of your bookshelves. One of the easiest ways to classy-up your bookshelf display:

{images: 1. via 2. Jan Showers 3. LonnyMag 4. House and Home}

And if you made it this far…

7. Keep it Tidy!

Tidy. Symmetrical. Crisp. and Artistic.  Take note how all of the bookshelves below – and those above that are peaceful and pleasing – are all TIDY. The books are up and down and tight, and they are placed symmetrically.

May I introduce you to My Personal Favorite Bookshelf Displays {Coincidence that 2 out of 3 have Chanel on their shelves???}:

Um. In the photo above, I want those books as badly as the bookshelf display!

{images: 1. via the neotraditionalist 2. House Beautiful via 3. Habitually Chic }

With these steps, I hope you have the confidence and knowledge to create gorgeous bookshelf displays. That is, if you like books….


{for more bookshelf and display inspiration, hop on over to my Pinterest board: Inspiration Display}


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  • I love all the bookcases you have featured…I was told once that I should pare down my bookcases…too busy…I have done so, but then again…I love the more is more look!! Great post!

  • My husband and I are retired college teachers. When we “downsized,” we gave nearly 3000 books to the college library and we still have lots of books. And love them. I do like to work in decorative objects and prints/photos on the bookshelves but we need room for our books. I’d rather reach for a book than my kindle though I do have both. Agree with Darlene — symmetry and balance really do present a more peaceful arrangement. A little wabisabi imperfection is no problem at our house — my husband rarely puts books back where they belong, just stacks them on top of other books. he calls it ‘the layered look.’

  • Great read and visuals. Books are my shoes… not sure if it’s being a designer thing, but it’s the first thing I look for when I enter someone’s home. Books are the window to our souls. And I for one agree with Cheryl, Wabi sabi rules!

  • Great post girl! I love it. I would never think to put art on the outside of the bookshelf. I will have to keep that one in mind. And great idea about the facebook status! I may have to try that one out.

    Sharing this with the world : )

  • Darlene,
    All the examples you shared are quite lovely. And I enjoy bookshelves in other folks homes. And you’ll probably want to remind me that the post started off with “bookshelves are for books” … but, I’m allergic to “things” that can grow in aging paper … so we read books then pass them on to others. Of course I have a pair of built-in bookcases flanking my fireplace; currently bright white and totally empty. Nothing I’ve tried works; collections minus books just look like my living room is a Home Goods store. Any crazy “thinking out of the bookcase” suggestions?

    • great question. It sounds like newer books for you! The decaying of aging paper should not happen for quite some time. Also, keeping your house de-humidified is essential!!
      You might consider an “out of the box” display of straw hats, or collectible copper kitchen ware, or ironstone.
      Either way, dust will cometh! Good luck, Robin. Excellent question!

    • Maybe you should consider having glass doors installed thar work in the space? This would contain the issue and you could just make someone else open the doors to dust for you. But dust won’t collect much anyway if they are properly closed in.

    • Darlene,

      Thank you so much for the original post and your response to my comment. I truly felt I was the only woman in North American, no maybe the world, who didn’t care for her built in bookcases … but after your response saying “new books for you” I went back through your examples and style points and your insights are the first to break through my bookcase resistance … anyway, I realized that I needed to pack those books in (once I bought them) and not have just a few on the shelf and lots of objects. In the past I always ended up with the look of a display case and I didn’t like it, so I immediately emptied it and left it bare (what an energy drain on a room). So anyway, I gathered every hard bound book (including cook books) in our house and stuffed them into a few shelves, stood back, and yes … I could see what a difference it will make once I’m able to buy enough new books, hopefully on clearance! So at least I now have a direction if not a plan for those bookcases and given that this occupies an entire wall it will make a huge difference to the feel of the room. Thank you. Robin

  • Fantastic post! Thank you. I can’t wait to style our bookshelves!!

  • Love each and every example! So helpful, really hard to do your own but this
    Will definitely serve me well! Thank You

  • Chica, I was up until 2:30 Monday night reworking the bookshelf beast in our family room. I totally agree with you on the mostly books approach. Even with emptying all the stuff on our TV wall, I still didn’t have enough books to fill the shelves. :( I’ll keep working on it.

  • Fantastic timing, Darlene…I have boxes and boxes of books to unpack today. This post makes me more excited about the task. You’ve inspired as usual. I’m glad to hear you advocate books…they’re some of my favorite objects to use while decorating my house. It’s like having friends everywhere. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on how to sort books, although I know it depends on the design. Do you like to sort by size or color? I love the idea of sorting alphabetically, but visually it’s never worked for me.

  • PS-I’m also glad to hear you suggest symmetry. I feel like it tends to get a bad rap these days, but I love symmetrical arrangements!

  • I’m going to have to go over this and think on it awhile. We have a lot of books. A LOT of books. I have eight children and home school the oldest six. We’ve been home schooling 13 years with a literature-rich program so that just for school alone we buy about 50 books a year (not including textbooks). So we have a ton of books.

    To make it more difficult, most of them are reread ALL THE TIME because they all love to read. IOW, those bajillion books are constantly being taken off the shelves, so they need to be accessible: no art in the way, no stacks to make the bottom book hard to get to, etc.

    I have my work cut out for me on this one, I’m afraid!

  • As a mom that homeschooled her 4 kids,we could never have enough bookshelves for all our books. I love to move my books around and display various photos,art, and just plain interesting objects mixed in with them. Recently sorted the books in my bedroom by color and have been enjoying that. I’ve managed to pass my book love along to my offspring – they claim the only thing they’ll fight over someday when I’m gone is who gets which books. Guess I’ll have to divide them up before then! Love all you beautiful pictures of bookcase ideas. Thanks for posting.

  • Love, love, love books and bookshelves and you did it up right! Thanks for the pictures and tips . . . I have a gorgeous, old cabinet bookshelf I’m going to give a makeover to now!

  • I am so glad that I found your blog…loved your suggestion that bookshelves are for books!!! I have felt so long after looking at other blogs, etc, that the books should go and only decorative items be placed there. I love my books, even my paperbacks, and I especially love my magazines…I was so happy to read that it is OK to have them on the shelves in plain view and not only in magazine holders!!! You do great work and I love your house….Darlene

  • Oh dear, I know I’m supposed to be looking at the shelves but I really want that white foofy chair in the ninth picture!

  • Hi i am kavin, its my first time to commenting anyplace, when i read
    this paragraph i thought i could also make comment due to this good post.

  • Here is another idea for those with large areas of bookshelves, who are concerned about a cluttery look – if you have sets of books, you can make wrap around covers in a solid color that will blend in with your room. I have a set of Harvard classics, rather small books, that I wrapped in tan wrapping paper and arranged in various horizontal stacks around the bookcase area.

  • It’s good to see someone thinking it through.

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