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How to Style Shelves – The Ultimate Guide

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You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to make your house feel new. Shelves have the power to change the feel and atmosphere of a room. So here is everything you need to know about how to style shelves. Using this simple 5-step process, you’ll have the nicest shelves on the block!

Floating wood shelves with black shiplap behind and white dishes arranged on them.

Shelves. Something all our homes have in common is the fact that we have at least a couple shelving units.

How someone styles them can transform a whole space, and make it look completely different.

A lot of shelves are filled with books upon books, others have seasonal decor peppered on them.

Honestly, at times, it just becomes a ‘catch all’ of random items that didn’t have another place to go.

A huge myth is believing that you need to spend a lot of money in order to make your house feel new.

But that isn’t the case at all!

I believe that shelves have the power to change the feel and atmosphere of a room. Small changes can really do that!

All it takes is updating the shelving and moving trinkets or other items that you already have around the house to make that transformation.

Yes, it really is that simple!

For some, styling a shelf can feel daunting and overwhelming, so on today’s post, I will be providing you with tools and tips to give you the confidence and ideas to change your space up and give it new life!

Shelving 101

Each type of shelf has a different purpose depending on the room and wall it is placed at. For example, a shelf in a kitchen may be used for ingredients and utensils.

The first step is to look at the shelf you want to spruce up and list the items on there that you believe “must stay.”

In order to decide which items should, think to yourself, “What do I use on a regular basis?”

Write that down or just keep those specific items there to get rid of the clutter.

So, for example, it would be which ingredients you gravitate towards when you’re cooking, and which utensils you use the most.

Really think about what you use the space for.

If you want to completely start over, look at where the shelf is in your room.

  • Is it in the back where it easily collects clutter?
  • Is it the first thing you see when you enter?
  • Or is it above your working desk?

That can help determine the type of decor and items you place on there that can be both functional and decorative.

I will walk through how you can style your shelves in different rooms, but here are some shelving tips that apply to any room.

How Can I Decorate My Shelves?

  1. Think through the color scheme you want for the shelf and collect a handful of pieces you might want on it. Try to tie it in with other colors you already have incorporated in the room.
  2. Start with the big piece items that you need on the shelf (practical) and spread it out to make it look cohesive.
  3. Add in the decorations, again, start with the big pieces and then add in the smaller ones. Balance it out with what you have already placed that are your “must haves.”
  4. Add greenery in empty spaces to give it some life (greenery truly does work for any space – there are no limits to it).

RELATED: HOW TO STYLE SHELVES IN 5 EASY STEPS

What is Your Style and What Are Your Inspirations?

Commonly, the reason people feel intimidated with decorating is because they don’t have a lot of decor to begin with.

Well, I’m here to tell you that you really don’t need a lot to make a shelf beautiful.

I always have to remind myself that less is more.

Let the select pieces that you place on there stand out and tell a story. 

Shop around your house:

  • Go through the different rooms and find items you love and would like to see more often.
  • Use books you have tucked in a drawer, picture frames and of course, greenery!
  • Find pieces that have been sitting in the basement or garage.
  • Look through some of your old boxes and you might even find some special momentos you’ve forgotten about.
  • Some people even find heirlooms or things they bought from garage sales years ago during this process! 

As you are going through pieces in your house, don’t forget that sometimes, all it takes for slightly dated decor is a quick DIY to make it feel new again!

Some of my personal favorite decorative items were transformed by a can of spray paint and it only took me 10 minutes to do. 

Farmhouse Shelf Decor Ideas

When you want to know how to style shelves with a farmhouse style, a good tip is to use all things vintage.

This style can be incorporated for windows, trinkets, lettered signs, lanterns, vases/glass.

Look through your Pinterest board (if you don’t have one, you should start!) and take note of the items that stand out to you from other people’s homes. 

What do you specifically like about it?

Is it the antique clock? Maybe it’s a piece of art you admire? Or even how a certain piece of decor reminds you of a sweet memory?

Bring those ideas into your home. It is typically easy to find or purchase pieces similar to it and make these items tell a story. 

How to Style Shelves – by Room

The Living Room 

Tell Your Story

A lot of the time, the only room your guests see in your house is the living area.

You can use this space to tell the story of your family, make that your theme.

If your family loves to travel, incorporate some decor with pieces from places you have visited.

Get those family photos out, both new and old.

Put them in frames and incorporate it in your decor.

It can make such a great conversation starter for friends and extended family members who come over.

Stretch Your Creativity

Don’t be afraid to play around and stretch your creativity. Shelving is nothing like painting a wall, it’s not permanent and you can always change it without an extra cost.

Have fun with the process!

It might take a few tries, moving things around to get the perfect shelf decor that you are envisioning.

However, it is always worth the extra time in the end! 

Some helpful tips:

  • Balance the shelf horizontally using similar sized pieces that go together
  • Utilize books or quaint decorative boxes to add height to smaller/shorter items
  • Put frames or art behind a smaller object to add dimension
  • Add different textures to highlight other pieces, differing textures can be really great to make the textures pop, and they usually complement each other
  • Add some small potted plants/succulents for some greenery in different parts of the shelf to fill in missing spots
  • Use baskets for storage if you need to. There are so many different variations and options to choose from, that should be able to fit whatever you need. 
  • Remember that less is more. Let your pieces tell a story, and don’t fill it up too much. Always try to avoid a space looking cluttered. Go back to your “must haves” if you need to!

Living Room Shelf Decorating

Books

I love books and often place them on my living room shelf.

I also use it to add height to smaller pieces of decor by having a small stack lay horizontal.

It adds a variation of dimension and different colors to the space.

If you haven’t, remove the dust jackets off your books; oftentimes, these surprise me with a gorgeous neutral hardbound cover I didn’t know it had!

Books also just have a timeless look and feel to it. You really can’t go wrong adding them in.

Ceramic Vases

Ceramic vases are also making a comeback in home decor and I am all for it!

They come in so many textures and shapes and you only need a few of varying sizes to make a corner of your shelf stand out. 

The Kitchen 

Incorporating Colors, Shapes, and Patterns

Look through your kitchen collection, specifically the dishes and show off some of your favorite ones by using it as decor.

Stack different shaped bowls, cups or plates together.

Play with the different patterns, shapes, and colors. 

Something I personally like to do is add different textures in the kitchen by having my wooden cutting boards stacked together.

The more variety of sizes, the better the look!

Move things around until you find the perfect matches. It’s not about looking for symmetry, it’s really like creating art out of everyday items. 

Kitchen Shelf Décor Ideas

Jars

Pull out your grains, coffee beans, flour and granola and put them in mason jar containers that can be sealed.

It may look simple, but it’s a great way of having everyday items that you use often become decorative pieces.

A good tip I’ve learned is to write the expiration dates and/or instructions on a piece of tape  to remember when you opened the item of food, and just stick it on the bottom of the jar! 

If you want to go the extra mile, you can even easily get a label maker (they go for less than $10 on Amazon) to have an even more uniformed and cohesive look for your pantry items.

They can also make sure that what you write doesn’t easily rub off! 

Use different sizes and heights of jars based on how much you typically need each item and that in itself can be another great way to mix up the look on a shelf. 

Dishes

If you have a fun set of decorative plates, you can use those to your advantage!

Don’t hide them away in a pie safe, let them breathe and be seen.

It’s an easy and fun way to add color and dimension.

It also frees up space in the cupboards for other items that are more of an eye-sore.

Not to mention the fact that you will probably use these plates and bowls more often if you have easier access to them! 

The Primary Bedroom

The bedroom, specifically the primary bedroom should be the ultimate escape, a “spa oasis” as I’d like to say.

After a full day at work, or after the kids are in bed, this is your getaway.

The bedroom should be a space to feel calm, it should be cozy!

How else are we all going to get a good night’s sleep without that?! 

Brainstorm and find the things that help you relax. Add those to your shelf!

Maybe it’s your favorite book, or a lavender scented candle that can be part of your nightly routine to light, just don’t forget to blow it out before you go to bed!

An alternative for that, especially for anyone who lives in an apartment is to use diffusers, or electricity-powered wax burners.

Having a lamp that can be dimmed is great too, especially as you start to settle into bed.

Primary Bedroom Shelf Decorating Ideas

Momentos

Find the things that bring you joy, as Marie Kondo would say.

Place special momentos that have greater monetary value, and ones that carry more memories.

You’ll always know where those items are, and they can be great statement pieces. 

Real Plants

Even if I am a fan of faux plants due to the easier upkeep, try to consider incorporating real plants in your room, to bring more oxygen into the space.

Again, add tending to them in your nightly routine to pull you away from looking at a screen. 

Peaceful Items

Everything on your shelf should be to aid your process of having a good night’s rest.

Pick out neutral colors, ones that are more peaceful, or that make you happy. 

The Kid’s Bedroom

Your child’s bedroom can be a great reflection of who they are, and giving them a sense of control in a space can be really good for them!

That can be reflected by how their shelves are styled. 

The items don’t need to be valuable, they probably shouldn’t!

However, it can be on the more practical side, like their favorite books, games, and toys that they’ve owned throughout the years.

It can make them a lot more special too! 

If there are toys that don’t fit in the boxes they have, or maybe even ones that easily get lost or broken, putting them up on the shelf can make things easier to find and free up space for the bulkier toys they have.

It can also just be a good way to put the toys away altogether!

If there are items that are an heirloom or more expensive, they can be placed on the top shelf, awaiting the day they are old enough to use it. 

The Office

Office space should spark one main thing: productivity.

I don’t know about you, but I am most successful working when things are clean and organized around me.

What I’ve noticed, though, is that the office often tends to be the “catch all” of all the things around the house. 

Office Shelf Décor

Boxes

An easy solution has been with the magic of boxes!

Boxes are so functional and there are many ways to make it look decorative and beautiful!

In my office, I have boxes stacked up on each other that have their own purpose, and based on what I need and go to the most. 

It’s a cheap and easy way to organize, especially items that you have a lot of, like pens, pencils, markers, and paper!

Say goodbye to the days of struggling to find where your extra supplies are hiding. 

Inspirational Art and Decor

The office is a place where you want to be inspired and get things done, hopefully in a timely manner.

What better way to do that than surround yourself with the things that motivate you, that keep you going. 

Have a letter board of your favorite quote.

Maybe it’s what a previous boss has taught you, or even words of wisdom from a book you’ve read.

Even incorporate a mood board of your goals, your aspirations, the things you want in life. 

Have pictures of your family, to remind yourself of what you’re working for or towards, that’s something that has been a constant motivator for me! 

Books

Now on to what to do with your books.

Divide them up and organize them into sections.

But, not just vertically, incorporate your art that encourages you to think deeper, layer up with storage bins, and boxes.

Now, when I use the term “boxes” I don’t mean the kind you pay 89 cents for at Home Depot, I mean boxes that add color and character to a space.

Most of mine are sturdy ones I’ve gotten through purchasing shoes, bags, and even food! 

Remember to keep things practical.

Do not allow clutter to take away your space to think, to spark new ideas, and to find solutions. 

How to Style Shelves – by Shelf Type

Floating Shelf Décor Ideas

Floating shelves are easy additions to transform a blank wall.

Have a theme, whether that’s different types of plants, which is always a great way to incorporate more color and brighten up a room.

Or, even a collection of purses that you would like to showcase in your bedroom or closet. 

Clusters

A fun trick you can do is to decorate in clusters, this can help avoid a cluttered look.

This can be done by dividing the shelving unit into several different sections.

Have spaces between those sections and create a visually moving ‘story.’

Have a pile of books with a potted plant, then have pictures of landscapes and art stacked in front of each other, then maybe the last section can be another plant and with a clock. 

Textures

The best way to utilize this type of shelving is to mix different textures, have ceramic next to something wooden, or candlesticks that have different curves, glass with different designs, even tapestries. 

Stacked Frames

Instead of hanging something on the wall, just stack the frames!

What you could do is stack different frames, with different types of art, calligraphy, photography, landscapes, dried flowers or plants…

What I’ve done framed used polaroids I’ve been taking for years.

I write dates and short captions on them so I will always remember where I was.

Now, I’ll always be able to move the frames around without the added hassle of having to fill a hole I made to place it there.

Wall Shelf Decorating Items

Wall shelves are actually a great way to fill an empty space.

Here are some shelf decorating ideas for walls:

Some living room wall shelf decor ideas are to use greenery, books, and pictures!

There’s something about books, specifically that adds warmth and character to a space.

If you don’t want the books to be as distracting, you can turn the spine with the titles to face the wall so it has a more neutral look to it and so it’s not so distracting.

You can also place candles or a paper weight on top to add more to a plain backdrop. 

These would be a great type of shelf to hang up items on, like vines with budding flowers during the springtime.

It’s an easy way to change things out for people who like to decorate their homes seasonally.

Or, just for anyone who enjoys a change of scenery here and there.

Because these shelves are typically smaller and more delicate, it’s mainly used for decor and not necessarily to store everyday items. 

Built-In Shelf Decor Options

If you ever find yourself in a spot where you’ve run out of storage space in your home, you may want to consider installing built-in shelving.

It is truly one of the most practical shelving spaces you can have in your home.

Oftentimes found in the foyer, or by the garage, this shelving area can have so many different functions. 

It can be a space to store your most worn shoes, coats, and handbags, and also a place for the kids to sit and wait as you prepare to go out for the day.

It is truly a great place for storage, unlike wall shelves.

This is an integral part of the house, and the key is to utilize it as much as possible.

In order to do that, have baskets to keep everything where it needs to be, and be really intentional with how you use every nook and cranny. 

Usually, if it’s a full wall built in, have the heavier items at the bottom, to avoid injuries and possible shelf breakage.

Work your way to the top, the lighter things are, and include more decor on your way up.

Have the things you need and use all the time be eye level, or an easy reach for you. 

Ladder Shelf Decor Concepts

If there is a specific spot in your home that’s looking a little bare, adding a ladder shelf could just be the answer you were looking for.

Just like the wall shelf, it’s main purpose is mostly decorative, because it’s not usually too sturdy.

You don’t want super delicate things on it. 

To make it sturdier, put some thicker books or baskets at the bottom to add weight.

Simplicity is key for this, use pottery, plants, a clock, candles, picture frames, but really be as minimal as possible.

Have some more fun with stacking vintage books and any other items in your home that may feel out of place, this could be a great way to present them.

And as always, adding touches of greenery never hurts!

This can even be in the form of paintings, not just faux/real plants. 

Now, in addition to all these tips and ideas, I figured I would share with you the 5 simple steps I take when designing or styling shelves in my home.

I hope they are a great resource for you next time you go to decorate your own shelves!

How to Style Shelves in 5 Simple Steps

For a printable copy of the materials and instructions, scroll down.

Step 1: Consider Shelf Constraints

To start off the shelf styling process, make note of your shelves’ specific characteristics that will determine what type of decor you can or will want to use to style them.

I usually think through the following:

  • Built-in or Floating
    • Built-ins may have doors or lights on them that will influence the type of decor you want to use.
  • Tall or Short
    • This helps you identify the “height” of decor you can place on the shelves.
  • Wide or Narrow
    • The wider they are, the larger groupings or more vignettes you can place on them.
  • Painted or Natural Wood
    • Colors of shelves may influence the color of decor you want to use.
  • Specific Room Function (i.e. a built-in desk or kitchen shelves)
    • You’ll want functional items for a room-specific set of shelves, like books at a desk or dishes in a kitchen. Although, I love books in a kitchen and dishes at a desk too… 😉

The picture below shows our built-ins as of today, so you’ll have to imagine with me what they’ll look like when they’re complete and ready to style.

Window seat and shelving units under construction.

As I’ve identified in red, I will be decorating 6 built-in, short, narrow, white shelves behind glass (the towers will have doors on them and the top half is glass) and 2 built-in, short, wide, white, ship-lapped, open desk shelves.

I got a really neat accordion light fixture that will be mounted top and center above the desk, so desk shelf #1 will have limited space on either side of the lamp.

Step 2: Find Inspiration

This is where Pinterest is your best friend! If you don’t have a Pinterest account, you could always search on Google Images, but the amazing thing about Pinterest is your ability to “Pin” or save your favorite pictures.

I would suggest you create a board for just your shelf styling inspiration – this will keep it separate from your other ideas so you don’t have to sort or search for them later.

Make your searches detailed and specific to the characteristics you noted in the first step. For example, I searched for “narrow built-in shelves” and “built-in farmhouse desk” for my current project.

Pin all of the ones you like, even if they are totally different styles!

You’ll be surprised what themes pop up when you go back and look through them all. I usually pin about 15 different inspirational photos.

Here are the ones I pinned for these built-ins:

Photo Source Links:
DWNLD |Finnerty Design
Bo Bedre | BHG
Lauren Rubin Architecture| Home Bunch via Ashley Winn Design
martinsbuka | laurenconrad
Tracy Lynn Studio, Zack Benson Photography | Avery Street Design
The Cofran Home | My Texas House

RELATED: HOW TO DECORATE YOUR COFFEE TABLE LIKE A DESIGNER

Step 3: Identify Themes & Vignettes

This is my favorite part because every time I do it I feel like I’m doing a little “self-discovery” regarding my design/decor style!

New themes or trends regarding what I like pop out every time I do a new project. It’s so much fun!

Take your 10-15 inspirational photos and compare them.

Make note of similarities that 5 or more have in common. For example, in my photos I noticed some sort of greenery in 5 of them, dark single objects in 5 of them, and horizontally stacked books in 8 of them.

Then go back and look through each photo individually and make note of the exact things you like about that photo and would like to recreate on your own shelves.

For example, I love the gold spheres behind the glass in the House Beautiful photo and I definitely want to do a succulent planter above the desk like in the Home Bunch photo (although mine will be faux succulents because I can’t keep plants alive…)

I also liked the three blue vase vignette in the DWNLD photo and the large grey vase in the Home Bunch Photo.

Knowing the themes you like and the vignettes you want to recreate makes it simple to gather and set up your decor in the next few steps.

Step 4: Gather Décor

The first thing you want to do is think about what décor pieces you already own that could help you achieve the look you want.

Thinking through mine, I know I own plenty of greenery and a gold sphere so I won’t need to buy those.

I don’t own three blue vases, but I do own three pieces of blue glass, so I will likely use those for my vignette.

You see, just because you love a vignette in one of your inspiration pictures doesn’t mean you can’t recreate that same look with SIMILAR items.

I may use my black wire chicken as a single black object in mine, but there aren’t any chickens in those inspiration photos – theirs are all vases, dishes or figurines. You get the idea? It’s the “look” you’re going for, not the exact vignette.

Here’s a photo example of how to decorate shelves like inspiration:

For things you don’t own or can’t imitate with a similar looking item you already have on hand, you can always purchase new decor.

Of course, my first go-to is a thrift store or garage sale. If those don’t work out, I suggest Hobby Lobby or Michael’s with their 40% off coupons, TJ Maxx, Target or Amazon.

Another vendor I’ve been loving lately is Decor Steals – they have a daily décor deal that is emailed to you each morning and I simply love their style. One of my favorite pieces from there is my chicken feeder plate rack (shown below.) 🙂

Styling Shelves

YOU WILL ALSO LOVE: HOW TO HANG A GALLERY WALL IN 3 EASY STEPS!

Step 5: Decorating & Styling Shelves

Now that you’ve identified your shelving constraints, found inspiration and decided on what you like, and gathered together the décor you have to work with, it’s time to actually decorate!

Don’t be scared, you can do it!!

Start with your efforts to recreate the vignettes you liked from your inspiration photos. Place those somewhere on your shelves and then move on to filling in the rest.

If you have a large grouping of things (like my wine glasses and champagne flutes shown above) try putting them all on one shelf together.

If you have lots of similar individual items (like greenery) try putting one on each shelf in a varying placement (like in the picture below.)

Styling Shelves

A lot of times I put all my decor out on the table and just add one piece at a time. I’ll get a whole shelf set, decide I want a piece of it on a different shelf, and shift things around.

Take your time and have fun doing it! Play with different vignettes. Try stacking things (like in the picture below) or propping things up behind.

Styling Shelves

It is also totally acceptable to exactly copy a shelf or vignette you loved in your inspiration photos.

I seriously just bought a bunch of succulents and a galvanized tray to duplicate the succulent planter from my inspiration photo!

This technique is also really effective when applied to decorating console tables or mantles too.

Styling shelves is an art that takes trial and adjustment, especially when you’re learning what style you like. It’s totally normal to style them, live with them for a week, and then decide you want to make an adjustment. I realistically “restyle” my shelves at least one a month… 😉

Remember, the most important thing is to style your house in a way that makes you feel at home!

Summary

Decorating your shelves isn’t an art form, it’s something that’s as simple as telling a story.

It’s an expression of who you are and what is important to you and your family.

It’s also a way to make your life not only easier but to bring even more functionality to each individual area and room.

Have fun with collecting pieces, showcase what’s special about you, and what you like to look at.

Don’t settle with keeping things boxed up, this is a way to utilize those things and incorporate the items in your home that are just collecting dust, even if it’s an old cheese grater you can’t use anymore, or a trinket dish that you didn’t know where to put.

It’s all about bringing meaning to your home, and you can do that simply through your shelves. 

Don’t be scared to venture outside your comfort zone, you might just surprise yourself!

If you’re looking for a way to spruce up your space or have a fresh start, I hope this has inspired you and helped in some way to give your home new life.  

As promised, here are the printable instructions:

How to Style Shelves

How to Style Shelves

Learn the easy way to style your open shelves like a designer!

Active Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Difficulty: Easy

Materials

  • Shelves
  • Décor of your choice!

Instructions

  1. Make note of your shelves' specific characteristics that will determine what type of décor you can or will want to use to style them.. Are they floating or built in? Tall or short? Wide or narrow? Painted or stained?
  2. Search Pinterest or Google for inspiration photos. Save 10-15 pictures of shelves that are styled in a way you like.
  3. Consider the themes or styles that show up in at least 5 of your inspiration photos. Are there "looks" you tend to like? Specific vignettes you want to recreate entirely?
  4. Gather the décor you own that can be used on your shelves and purchase any specific items you want to add to the group.
  5. Decorate and style! Use the ideas you got from step 2-3 to put together the décor you gathered in step 4. Take your time and have fun with it!

Notes

See the rest of this post for many more tips on styling shelves by room and type!

I also hope these simple steps for how to decorate shelves have been insightful and help make styling your shelves easier!

As always, I’d love your feedback and questions – please leave me a comment!

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