10 Tips to Style a Bookcase like an Interior Designer {even if you aren’t one!}

I think there is somewhat of an art involved in arranging a bookcase.  Bookcases, particularly the built-in variety (which we are very lucky to have in our beach cottage) can add so much interest to a space.  But they can also be overwhelming, don’t you think? When you are working on an element that you know will be a focal point in your room, it is easy to be intimidated.  
On Saturday morning, my trusted sidekick and I decorated our living room built-in bookcase (you can see him peaking around the corner in the photo above) and I pulled out my camera to share with you my personal styling tips for those important but oft intimidating shelves!

Tip No. 1:  Mix it up:  Mix books with other objects and don’t be afraid to think outside the box: frames (you can frame things other than photos!), vases (which can hold things other than flowers), candles, shadow boxes, pretty dishes, vintage jam jars, a lovely lamp, a galvanized bucket full of seasonal flowers, etc. 

I included bits and pieces of found beach glass on our shelves, a collection of different sizes of bud vases (a favorite of mine), a framed invitation from our wedding, a pretty bottle of sea salt that previously sat on my kitchen counter, three aqua mixing bowls that were also kitchen items, etc. 

Tip No. 2:  Choose a variety of books that reflect the varied interest of family members, young and old. Our shelves now hold a mix of design books (me), history and sailing books (Mr. Marvelous), and vintage Thomas the Tank Engine books (Wynn).  

Tip No. 3:  Think vertically and horizontally.  Stack some books vertically and stack others horizontally.  Vertical books welcome other objects to serve as bookends, while horizontal stacks of books become platforms where smaller objects can be better noticed.  

Tip 3:  Have a unifying color scheme but add some contrast for visual interest.  For example, I used aqua and blue items (book jackets, bowls,  hydrangeas, an old blue canning jar, beach glass) on each of the five shelves I decorated. This draws the eye easily from one shelf to the next.  But to add a punch of color, I used pops of mustard yellow.

Tip 4:  Add Texture.  For example, my shelves now have a combination of linen photo mats, a mother of pearl picture frame, rocks from the beach, flowers and beach grass, a picture on canvas, etc.

Tip 5:  Add a mirror or two.  Nothing reflects light back into a room like a mirror.  You can buy small sized mirrors in pretty shapes at places like Target or Pottery Barn or even your local Goodwill store.

Tip 6:  Layer.  Notice in the photo below, I have layered two mirrors and a framed photo, which are in turn stacked on top of a set of old children’s books

Tip 7:  Mix your Metals.  If you include framed objects, use a combination of gold and silver tones.  It’s eclectic and wonderful, I promise.  If your collection seems to be missing something, add a pop of gold and you will have so much more dimension.

Tip 8:  Go ahead and hang something. In order to take advantage of otherwise dead space, I hung a framed cross-stitch on the back of one of our shelves (see photo above).

Tip 9:  Add a touch of Whimsy.  I set a child size vintage folding chair next to our bottom shelf.  The mustard yellow is just fun and quirky.  I found it at a local antique shop for about $10.  Other ideas to consider:  baby booties, a birdcage, an old fashioned dinner bell, maybe a small gumball machine or vintage candy jars . . . something fun that would make for a conversation starter.  I found a very, very old nail when tearing out some drop ceiling which we believe was likely original to our 1880s cottage-I plan to mount it in a shadow box with the name of the original owner (builder) and date the cottage was built. 

Tip 10:  Don’t forget the back of your bookcase.  The back of my bookcase (which is actually the living room wall) is white planks, which I love.  You might consider wallpaper, bead board, a bright paint color, or even mounted photos or book pages as wallpaper to dress up the backs of your shelves.

What do you think?  What tips would you add to the list?


  1. I love how you have everything displayed! And, great tips. Makes me want to revamp mine. Love the use of mirrors…will definitely be looking for some of those. Wynn is adorable! Cannot believe how much he has grown!!

  2. Your shelves look great, and I love posts with tips like this. There’s one thing that bothers me,though. Under the lovely hydrangeas, you have the larger book on top of the smaller book. That’s just not right! 🙂

    Isn’t it grand how God makes us all differently? Your cottage is lovely.


  3. Looks great, Erin.

    I hope Wynn doesn’t touch that glass frame on the bottom shelf.

    So glad that you are getting settled.



  4. So beautiful.What a blessed life you have.My dream is to move our own house and decorate it full time.I’m not a fan of single family homes and love cottages.But now I’m stuck with a professor (I’m doing my masters) who nitpicks every grammatical error and is making my term a living hell.Can’t wait to see more of how you decorate your cottage.

  5. Thanks for the great tutorial. I love the colors…perfect for a beach cottage! We built bookcases a couple of years ago so I googled, searched, etc. everything I could find on arranging shelves. I found a great photo showing a zigzag pattrn. For instance I have my grandmother’s black 1920’s typewriter on the bottom right of my shelves, so on the next shelf up I have a cool vintage black fan on the left, next shelf up an old black Brownie camera stacked on a couple of books on the right. Zigzag. 🙂 Now if I could just get the other side perfectly arranged. =P

  6. Anonymous-your zigzag pattern sounds so cool! I think I have seen something similar in house beautiful . . . love the idea of the typewriter too!

  7. Looking really good! i love when I find little vintage chairs for our little girl…I had to stop myself from buying more as I already have 4.

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