How to style a bookshelf and make it look pretty when you have a lot of books
Decorating a bookshelf can be difficult. I know, I’ve been there. And when you search for tips and tricks online, you get a whole lot of pretty pictures of shelves without books. (I know because I have an entire Pinterest board dedicated to shelf styling). They all give you great advice on how to style and decorate your built-in shelves, and they might even ad a stack of books in the mix. But I’ve found that it is so difficult to get guidance on how to actually style your bookshelf, yes, with books, and make it look good. If you are looking for an awesome post on shelf styling, you can take a look at this one.
None of us wants to place books in the old-fashioned rows on a shelf anymore, am I right? We want to make the shelves look designed and thought through. We want the shelves to add to the room’s interest, maybe even be a focal point, but we definitely do not want them to add clutter or be an eyesore in the room.
I’ve seen some gorgeous shelves where the books have been turned around (how do you find what you are looking for?) or shelves where beautiful hardcovers are lined up to perfection. But my books don’t look like that. I have hardcovers, softcovers, a whole mix of shapes and sizes and topics. My built-in shelves in the home office would never look as good if I had done that.
And this is why I am sharing my tips and tricks with you today on decorating bookshelves with books. I used them all when we renovated our home office at the end of last year, and I had to decorate my built-in bookshelves.
How to decorate shelves without looking cluttered
We’ll dive into the tips soon, but I also want to explain my process to you. Don’t worry; I’ll make it quick.
Clear some space in the room you are styling the shelves in. Place and organise all books and décor items you might want to use on the bookshelf nearby. Because you are styling a shelf with books, you will want to start with the books first. But include your more important or prominent décor items in this first step as well. Start placing items on the shelves, then take a step back to see how it looks. Then arrange and re-arrange until you are happy with the design. Once your bigger items and books have a home, start adding in your filler & décor items.
Some of the tips below will help you during the process above, like how and where to place books. While others, like making custom book covers, you’ll only do once you’ve decided on your layout.
Ok, so let us dive into the tips:
Tip #1: Place books horizontally and vertically
The traditional way to place books on a shelf is vertical. That’s how we grew up with them, right? But by using books in both ways, you create interest in the design. Now you have lines that run vertically and horizontally instead of the monotony of one or the other.
Using books horizontally helps lower shelves where you don’t want to look at the tops. It also gives you a base to place a décor item on, as I did with mine. You can even use both ways on the same shelf, where a horizontal stack becomes a bookend for some vertically placed books.
Tip #2: Group Your Books by size, Colour or Topic
Grouping by size is nice to use for stacks or well-organised rows. Grouping by colour creates pops of visual interest and calm. It also looks fantastic when you group a children’s bookshelf by the colour – just like a rainbow. And then putting books together by topic makes a lot of sense for how you’ll locate them on your shelf.
Grouping your books by size, colour or topic will also help make your space look less cluttered. You will also find that similar books (especially with a book series) are already similar in size and colour. Use them next to each other on the shelf – visually, they’ll read as a whole, and that is what you want.
Tip #3: Make your own book covers
To minimise the clutter on my kitchen recipe-book shelf, I made brown-paper book sleeves. They were easy to make and creates calm. While decorating the home office, I had a couple of books that just did not look right. So I made covers for them too!
Decide on the placement of your books first before determining which books need custom covers and how they should look.
In some cases, it was to get a similar look for different novels, and in those cases, I covered all the books. In some other locations, I would just make a cover for one or two books that did not suit the colour of my décor – and I had them match other books on the same shelf.
You can use plain white or coloured paper, but I also designed some printed covers to match a specific look. My favourites in our home office were the navy-blue sleeves I made with hand-lettered gold titles on the spines.
Tip #4: Group Thin books together in one cover
While making the book covers, I also looked at the thinner books on my shelf. Some of them don’t even have room on the spine for a title. Plus, a lot of thin books = chaos. I grouped some of them in one cover to solve the problem. They are similar in topic, like my card-making books or my road atlases. I added all the titles onto the new cover, so they are still easy to locate but look a lot better.
Tip #5: Use boxes, magazine racks or baskets for small books
As I mentioned above, a lot of smaller or thinner books on a shelf creates a messy look. Your best option is to group them and make them look like one object. Do you see the boxes on the shelves – they are all full of smaller books. Small dictionaries, birding books, bible study books and the like. Those small A5 books you use and need on the shelf, but you don’t need to put them on display. Boxes are great for these!
I’m planning to use cardboard magazine racks on my kids’ bookshelf when I get around to decorating it, but baskets work well too!
Tip #6: Repeat shelf layouts on your bookshelf
A genius way to create rhythm in your design is repetitive arrangements. If you look at my built-in unit as a whole, you will see that I created unique layouts in the middle section while mirroring or duplicating the arrangements on the shelves on the left and right. This anchors the design while creating rhythm for your eye to follow.
Whether you do this with décor items or books, the effect is pleasing. Different layouts for each shelf will look too busy and restless. But if you duplicate layouts, your eyes know what to expect, creating calm.
Tip #7: Uneven numbers and Visual Triangles are Your Friends
This is one tip that you can take home from every single bookshelf-styling post. Use triangles and use uneven numbers. This rule works; it has been tried, tested and proved time and time again. Even if you do not use uneven numbers on all your shelves, it should be a priority on most shelves.
You can create visual triangles on your bookshelf by using items to draw attention. I used boxes, gold accent items, taller items and plants to make my triangles. These are the items that stand out the most. They will draw attention, and when placed correctly, will create your oh-so-important triangles.
Tip #8: Add plants and Décor Items
The idea is not to take the attention away from your books – but adding other décor items with more organic shapes will enhance your shelf design. The décor filler items fill up otherwise empty spots and soften the hard lines of your books. Don’t go crazy and fill every shelf to the brim, but a couple of carefully placed vases, picture frames or seashells will do wonders for your design.
And then also add plants. I have a whole post on why it is essential to add plants and greenery to your home design. She same is true for shelves. I have faux (for the hard to reach spots) and real plants on there, and they add life!
Tip #9: Allow for some open spaces on your bookshelf
Your eyes need to rest somewhere. If a design makes your eyes travel around the whole time, it will make you restless. In some places, like a casino – they do this intentionally; but that is not the look you want in your home. So get some open spaces, if you have a big bookshelf as I do, even have some shelves without books.
Now go and Style Your Bookshelf Like a Pro
I know these 11 tips on how to decorate with books on a bookshelf will help you to figure it out. After I posted our home office reveal, I added even more books to these shelves, and it still looks gorgeous. If you follow the tips and principles above, you too can decorate your bookshelf, yes, with books, and make it look pretty!
Let me know down in the comments if you have any questions; I would love to hear from you. If you try out my methods, post them on social media and tag Windmill & Protea – I would love to see your designs.
Take care and stay safe!