Styling a Shelf: 5 easy steps
Updated: Sep 19
Every time I need to style a large overwhelming shelf I find myself using this exact method to prevent from getting overwhelmed (yes, even I get overwhelmed when I'm styling shelves). It's my fool-proof five step method that breaks it all down step-by-step. If you are someone that sees those instagram perfect shelves and feel like you just don't know how to get there, then this post is for you!
Let's get into it! We'll start with a big empty OVERWHELMING shelf (except my shelf has a record player on it because I didn't want to deal with unplugging it- ha!). Where do we start?
1. Start with Books. They take up so much real estate and will help ground everything! Let books take up as much or as little space as you want- if you want you can fill up the entire shelf with books (like this) for a library look. But when I'm styling a shelf I use them a bit more sparingly, I like stacking books in multiple ways- horizontally and vertically. Add some books to each shelf and try varying up the way you stack them- bottom shelf- horizontal, 2nd shelf- vertical, 3rd shelf- horizontal, etc. You can always slide the books around later if you need to, but this is a great starting point!
If I have a shelf that's not as much of a focal (in this case my very top shelf is short and not where the eye is going to be drawn) I fill that space with multiple stacks of books so it's full, but not busy. There are also so many ways to think about the books- Does the color of the spine matter? Do you want to arrange your books in a rainbow? The options are endless, but for my shelf I wanted my color palette of white, blue, and gold to stand out so I turned my book spines inward. This is a bit controversial as it's completely impractical since you can no longer see the book title, but I like how clean and un-busy it makes my shelf.
2. Time to add some large items. These are really going to help further ground the shelf and fill up space. For this shelf I used a large vase, a brass urn, some boxes, and a few glass cloches. When you're shopping for styling items for your shelf keep your eyes peeled for things that would work to fill this "large item" category, I tend to want to grab smaller odds and ends, which are fine, but too many small items are going to make the shelf feel cluttered.
A large sculpture, a historical figure bust, a big brass sphere, a wooden dough bowl are all things that would work well in this category. If you are styling a shelf in a kitchen a cutting board or cake stand would be perfect too.
3. Add art. Now it's time to add in some art which should really help reflect the style you are going for as well as bringing in a ton of personality. In my shelf I actually used plates as "art" so feel free to think outside the box when it comes to art.
I fell in love with the color and design of these blue plates I found at an antique store last year. A painted canvas, a photograph, or even just a quick DIY watercolor, will start to really add life and personality to your styled shelf. If you need some quick and easy art ideas, this post has you covered.
4. Mix in some plants. Nothing adds life to your shelves more than plants. There have been many times I've styled a shelf and gotten frustrated feeling like it's missing something and it's always plants. Plants are going to bring it all to life and you don't need to go out and buy a bunch of potted plants. I mean you could and it would look amazing...
but I am not one to remember to water plants and usually feel super guilty when they die so I love to get cuttings from my yard and put them in a vase with some water. All three of these green "plants" are just clippings. They last for a few weeks and I have no guilt when they die, I can just toss them out and go cut some new ones.
5. Fill in with knick knacks. This step is last for a reason! When I started styling shelves my first instinct was to start by using all of my favorite knick knacks, but that is a one way trip to clutter-ville. If you wait and put these smaller items in last then you can guarantee that they will serve as lovely accents instead of trying to be the main focal, which they can't be because they are too small.
Sprinkle in one or two small accents per shelf and they are going to add that little extra oomph to your shelf. You're done! A bit of tweaking may be necessary and that's ok! Sometimes I like to take a photograph of my shelf- I can see things in a photo that my eye may not notice in person. Do I need an extra book on that stack to make it taller? Do I need to scooch that plant over to the right a little? Does the entire middle shelf look insane and I need to take everything off and start over? That's ok! Tweaking is absolutely the invisible 6th step of this process and it will only make the end result look better, I promise.
A few tips about the overall shelf arrangement:
Keep similar elements zigging and zagging instead of stacked on top of one another. Wouldn't this shelf look kind of crazy if all the plants were stacked right on top of one another? I arranged my plants in a diagonal moving up and over each shelf- it keeps the eye moving up. Also, notice how the glass cloches are on opposite sides of the shelves balancing each other out. Same goes for the large brass urn and the small brass vase.
I touched a bit on color palette before, but wanted to address it again. I think a shelf is really pleasing to the eye when a color palette is set. In mine you can see I've chosen to use whites/neutrals, brass, and blue. This helps everything feel like it goes together even though they are just objects I had lying around my house. They feel cohesive because of the color palette. I have seen amazing styled shelves without a color palette so it absolutely can be done and definitely works well in eclectic spaces. Remember, rules are always meant to be broken- I have a mahogany record player down there on the bottom shelf that doesn't coordinate with anything else because that's where it works in our home...so don't let my rules constrict you too much.
If it's something you love please find a place for it. I love to thrift and hunt down objects at Goodwill or garage sales, most of the time these objects don't have a lot of meaning or sentimental value. Which is ok, but if you have a piece that you absolutely love and want it displayed- please find a way to make it work! I worked in this little brass cricket that has a very special place in my families heart- my parents bought it when we moved to Arkansas when I was a child because we lived on a street called 'Old Cricket Road', his antennas have broken off and I'm just lucky he's brass because even if he was purple I would have found a way to work him in (ok, maybe I would have painted him).