Styling Your Shelves

Lately I have had several opportunities to stage a homeowner’s shelving. Each time I complete this little exercise it makes me think, “why this way?” It’s kind of like cooking without a recipe – I perform the task, adjusting as I go, but it happens more by feel than by instruction. So here’s my recipe for shelving (do’s are at the end).

First of all, here are some mistakes we all tend to make:

  • continually add and never subtract (especially photos)
  • don’t consider color
  • use everything we have
  • don’t vary the type or size of objects enough – like using all books or all framed photos


Fireplace before

Above is the shelving before we styled.

This lovely home has glass shelving above the fireplace and the homeowner has great accessories so I just tweaked what is already here. This is an example, though, of too many of the same item – photos. Having too many of anything reduces the importance of each item and the shelving as a unit is less interesting. So … mix it up! Use something unexpected – plates or bowls from the kitchen – table top items from your coffee table – jars of small items (buttons, corks, candy). Here is the shelving after some minor, minor changes.

Fireplace after

Really, the only changes were grouping the frames, adding some of the homeowner’s beautiful silver, varying the sizes of frames and coordinating the color. What would really make this little vignette wonderful … a contrasting color on the back wall. Ooh La La!

Here’s another example:

painted cabinet before

This is a bit of a cheat because my wonderful homeowners painted the cabinets before they listed their house. But, you get the idea!

painted cabinet after

 So, the Do’s for styling a shelf:

  • Vary the types of objects
  • Vary the sizes and shapes of objects
  • Create groupings
  • Vary the number of objects on adjacent shelves (put one large object on the shelf under a pair of objects)
  • Limit the number of colors and coordinate colors with the overall room palette
  • Consider the negative space
  • Resist the need to use open shelving for storage only – store the rest behind doors or in drawers.
  • Don’t add new photos – replace old ones
  • Vary the texture of your items (dull & shiny, rough & smooth)


My most practical advice: find a picture of shelving you love and copy!


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