After my recent bathroom reveal and post on how to hang floating shelves, I received a few emails asking me how to decorate shelves. Although there are no hard and fast rules for styling shelves, there are some helpful guidelines to follow. Today, I’ll try and demystify shelf styling so that you can create shelves at home that are both functional and eye pleasing.
Principle 1: Create Visual Triangles
The picture below looks a bit weird, but stick with me on this one. There is a well known designer technique which involves creating a visual triangle in your styling. Triangles are eye pleasing and work well to balance out your “shelfscape”. Follow the blue and yellow lines below. I have white objects balanced on each shelf in a triangle pattern. The purple line shows the balance of the rattan and the green line show a loose triangle of silver objects. Did I consciously think to myself, “How can I make visual triangles on these shelves?” No. Not at all. I placed objects in a way that just looked pleasing to me and typically pleasing=visual triangles :).
Now it’s pop quiz time. Can you spot the visual triangles in the picture below?
How about in this picture? Hint: Connect the blue dishes in an imaginary line, then try connecting the white dishes with an imaginary line, and lastly the green. Do you see the “triangles”? They won’t all be perfect equilateral triangles, but you get the general idea of how to group and spread out your layers and colors.
Principle 2: Use a Simple Color Palette & Color the Back Wall
All of the shelves pictured in this post are styled with a color palette using four or less colors. Keeping everything on your shelves within the same color family will give them a “magazine-worthy” appearance. In the picture below pops of yellow are combined with black and white on a ramie colored wall.
Young House Love used shades of blue, yellow, green and white to create these gorgeously styled shelves. The dark blue wall complements the accents and really makes them pop!
Principle 3: Stack, Lean, Layer & Group
When you are styling each shelf, be sure to add a variety of balanced heights, layered textures, and groupings of objects. Stacked books make fantastic perches for meaningful objects. Frames layered in front of vases add interest.
Look at Emily Henderson’s perfectly styled shelves below. Notice that she has stacked books, perched items on top, leaned objects in front, and layered a variety of textures and colors. Her shelves are so good, let’s quickly explore how the other two principles apply here as well. Do you se the visual triangles? Connect the blue books on each shelf. Also notice how the lighter blue vase on the top shelf connects with the blue in the frame on the second shelf and the large blue vase on the last shelf. One more visual triangle for fun: look at the rooster’s gold touches, connect those to the gold stripes on the bowl, and lastly to the pile of gold chain on the books. Brilliant! Emily has also used a simple and soothing color palette.
On a bookshelf, try grouping books by size and color and stacking books both vertically and horizontally.
Adding framed artwork, photos, and other objects that hold meaning to you will make your shelves beautiful!
James Ransom Photography via Loft & Cottage
Principle 4: Make it Functional with Baskets
The laundry room below is absolutely gorgeous and the shelves couldn’t be simpler! Baskets hide the ugly and contain your clutter. I think they are a must for all functional open shelves!
If you are small on cabinet storage, this is a fantastic option for a dining room. Pick a simple color palette and layer your dishes in attractive groupings inside an Ikea Expedit bookcase. Use fabric or paper-covered magazine holders to hide your cookbooks and utilize baskets and trays to contain linens and silverware.
Here is another good example of an Ikea Expedit bookcase utilized well. Books are grouped by color and baskets hide away any clutter.
So if you want to style your shelves in an eye-pleasing fashion remember to 1. create visual triangles, 2. use a simple color palette, 3. stack, lean, layer and group your objects, and 4. use baskets to hide clutter!
Here is a little bonus for you since a few of you asked for a source list for my shelves. Below is a picture of where everything on my shelves came from. Most of the objects I already owned but a few were purchased to make it pretty yet functional!
How about you? Do you struggle to make your open shelving look attractive yet functional? Any tips to add?
Athena at Minerva's Garden says
Wow, Beth–these bookcase styling tips are so helpful–I pinned it, and will refer back to it as we are getting ready to build a couple of large bookcases for our living and dining rooms.
I have dark purple wall with two darkest purple shelves. It’s a big problem because i have a lot of boxes in a lot of shapes…also I have a few books and CDs and even more ornament with a lot of themes….I don’t know how to nest all that on just two shelves! can someone please help…also I’m a teenager so…
I enjoyed this post so much, I put a link to it from my blog! Thanks for the great ideas!
Beth @A to Z says
Alicia @ Sweet Ava Kate says
Hi Beth! I’ve completed my home office and would love if you checked out how I decorated the Expedit. I used your tips; I’d love to hear what you think, any suggestions would be appreciated! Have a great week!
Ami w/AliLilly says
OH BETH! Thank you so much for posting this! You have NO IDEA how badly I need help with this!! Thank you thank you! 🙂
Awesome ideas, love it all!! Where do you get your starfish, Beth?? Charming!
Angela Zieres says
This was a great post Beth! I was actually going to write a post about arranging shelves on my blog http://www.storyofapinkzebra.wordpress.com as it’s something I struggle with. I will be sure to reference your post when I write mine because you gave great information. I’ll be sure to follow your tips when re-doing my shelves too. Thanks!
You do a good job. Your blog is pretty, informative and very helpful. I have always had a natural eye for tabAPECapes and shelves but these tips will take me past those, “gee I just don’t know what’s wrong with this” moments I often get stuck in. Thank you.
This was awesome! I love stuff displayed on shelves, but until this week never had much open shelving to display on. I bought a 3 tiered shelf to hang in the living room and as I started filling I got this feeling that I don’t have enough stuff that works together to fill it. Your post has inspired me to go back through my stuff and see what I have that works together and that I can make this work. 🙂 Thanks so much for the help!!!
Wow, thanks for doing that. It was so informative and helpful! I needed this! Your shelves are beautiful! Thank you! 🙂
Alicia @ Sweet Ava Kate says
This post couldn’t have come at a better time! I have been working on decorating the shelves in our office, an Expedit. This is extremely helpful, thank you for the great visuals and tips! BTW… I just bought that mirror at Target the other day! Love it! Have a great weekend! 🙂
Miss Beth, oh my goodness! I have struggled with this for many years. And in an instant you have made it clear to me what I have been doing wrong. Thanks ever so much! Gonna go play now!
Beth @A to Z says
Oh good! I’m so glad to hear that it was helpful to you Cara!
I feel like I just took the best crash course in design! I never have a clue how to style a shelf, I just keep editing until I find what I like. I was so proud of myself, I picked up the triangles right away in your test picture! Love the four color principle too, lots of very good info, thank you so much for sharing this post! Pinning this next! -K
Beth @A to Z says
Thanks so much Karen!
Love the triangle tip. I never knew that! Where was this post when I was trying to decorate my family room shelves a couple weeks ago?! 🙂
pS> your pictures are all going to the far right off the page. Can only see 1/2 of them
Beth @A to Z says
Yes, I know. I was messing with my blog and totally screwed up the margins. My programmer is currently trying to un-do my mess!
I love all of those! I can’t wait to re-do my kitchen! Thanks for sharing! Have a great weekend!
Marty@A Stroll Thru Life says
Great post and such wonderful inspiration pics. I really enjoyed the tutorial. Hugs, Marty
Vidya @ Whats Ur Home Story says
The display looks fab. We recently hung floating shelves too, in our family room. I have the coral that I made (inspired form your post) on them too. 🙂