12 Bookshelf Decorating Do's and Don'ts

A well-styled bookshelf can make a room, infusing a space with interest and personality through thoughtfully displayed books, art, and keepsakes. While it may seem simple in theory, achieving an artfully composed bookshelf is in fact no easy feat, so we turned to the experts at Nashville, Tennessee-based Providence Interiors for advice. Whether you’re settling into a new space or looking to refresh an environment through rearranging, these shelf styling do’s and don’ts will help you create beautiful bookshelves that bring a room to life.

Do start by taking everything off the shelves. When you’re ready to start building them back, use only the things that you love.

Do pay attention to color. Arrange books according to color, and consider removing dust jackets from hardcovers to create a clean, harmonious look. If books are in sets, keep them together to achieve cohesion.

Do vary placement of books. Fill some shelves with books completely, making a full length of books from left to right. On other shelves, turn some books at an angle, stack them, and break up a row by introducing a sculptural piece, vase, or box placed on top of a stack of three books.

Do group elements together. For example, stack or shelve a number of books together, or display a collection of bottles on a tray. This will create visual impact and keep shelves from looking cluttered.

Do use unexpected items for bookends. A child’s piece of pottery made in art class, a unique trophy, or a sturdy natural element like cut geode or cut agate are all excellent options.

Do prop framed artwork or a unique mirror in the back of shelves with unique focal points such as a handmade bowl or a souvenir from a trip in front.

Do use tricks to keep the eye moving up and down. Vary heights to create visual interest, and leave empty space to draw the eye along.

Don’t obsess over symmetry. However, keeping shelves balanced by paying attention to the visual weight of items is important.

Don’t spread many little things across a shelf. This will end up looking busy. Instead, if you have small things you wish to display, group them together or put them inside a glass box or on a tray.

Don’t paint the back of the bookshelf in a highly contrasted or bold color unless you really want a bold look—and even then, be sure to use a color repeated from somewhere else in the room. Dark colors on casework can create a cohesive and dramatic look for bookshelves, but they need to tie into something else in the space.

Don’t use paperback books on your bookshelves in living spaces. Stick to hardcovers in the more public rooms.

Don’t overdo it. Less is more when it comes to bookshelf styling. Apply Coco Chanel’s advice to look in the mirror and take one thing off before leaving the house to your shelf by turning a critical eye to the space and eliminating one element.

TSG Tip 215 from Providence Interiors in Nashville, Tennessee. Image of The Scout Guide Design & Brand Director Erika Jack’s bookshelves in Charlottesville, Virginia.