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Styling Shelves – How to Decorate Shelves in 5 Steps

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Use these 5 simple steps to get your shelves from boring to beautiful! Learn how to decorate shelves in this easy tutorial for styling shelves.

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

As many of you know, my husband is currently in the process of building us some fabulous built-ins in the front of our house – they are made up of two towers, two side tables, a window seat/bed, and a desk.

He has been hard at work building and painting this week, which of course means I’ve been hard at work doing some decor designing! ๐Ÿ˜‰

As I was sitting here going through my normal process for how to decorate shelves and thinking through my design for our styling shelves in our new built-ins, I realized there are probably tons of people out there without a clue as to how to even start styling shelves!

So 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!

5 Simple Steps
to Styling Shelves

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… ๐Ÿ˜‰

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


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 Decor

 The first thing you want to do is think about what decor 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 love 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 decor 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.) ๐Ÿ™‚

Styling Shelves


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 decor 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… ๐Ÿ˜‰

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

I 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!


White towels folded nicely on a wood shelf.



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