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Design Ideas
How to Style Bookshelves 
A simple system to styling your bookshelves 
You’ve got the pretty things, now how do you put them on the shelves? Believe it or not, bookcase styling can be pretty stressful! The pros make it look easy, but we all know it’s not. In my years as a designer, I’ve reverse-engineered enough spaces to finally crack the bookcase styling code and answer... Keep Scrolling
Written & Styled by Sara Lynn Brennan
Photography by Valerie Marinello 

You’ve got the pretty things, now how do you put them on the shelves? Believe it or not, bookcase styling can be pretty stressful! The pros make it look easy, but we all know it’s not. In my years as a designer, I’ve reverse-engineered enough spaces to finally crack the bookcase styling code and answer the all-encompassing question, How to style bookshelves?

Let me share with you my system of how I style bookshelves and I’ll explain why it works:  

Group your decor items so that you can see what you have and what you still need to buy

Group Your Items

Honestly, the best thing you can do is sort your bookcase décor into three categories. I recommend you sort them by color/tone, if possible. So, for example, take anything with a wood tone and put it in one pile, white items (or insert any other color here) in another pile, and greenery in another pile. From here, you can now layout each item from largest to smallest. Assuming you have enough items, which you almost always don’t, you can proceed to the next step. 

If you are pretty confident you don’t have enough to fill your shelves, take a photo of what you do have so far and then hit the shops and buy items from these categories. Don’t add in any wild card elements, it will only make your life more difficult. It’s best if you can hit the jackpot at a big consignment or antique store or from somewhere like HomeGoods. When you can see everything all in the same cart at once, you can really build a strong color story for your shelves. It’s great to purchase flat trays or frames that you can place up against the back of the shelf for a layered look. Don’t be afraid to overbuy, especially if you can return, you will almost always use more than you think you will when styling bookshelves. 

Create a formula or pattern to follow when you’re pulling together your look. Use X and Z patterns to keep it simple and easy.

Build Your Formula

Notice I say, “build” your formula and not “follow” mine? Depending on the grouping of items you have, each bookcase will be styled differently, there is no ONE-WAY to style bookshelves, but I can offer you some advice. The concept is to style using diagonal lines to form “X’s” and “Z’s”. Let me explain, take the largest three items from one of your category groups and place them in a diagonal line on the shelves. For example, on the middle shelf, place the largest wood tone item you have. Then in the top left, place a smaller item of that same wood tone and below on the bottom right, another. Now you have a diagonal line of that particular tone.  

Now, on the top shelf, place the largest white (or whatever color you’re using) item you have in the middle. Then, on the right side of the middle shelf, place another white item and on the bottom left, add another. You will see the story begin to form before your eyes. Now start to sprinkle in your last category and layer and group elements together until it feels right.  Of course you will have to mess with it, nobody said this was easy, but you are now on the beginning of a successful bookshelf styling journey! If you have two bookcases or built-ins to style, it’s best to have the built-ins look more like “sisters” and not “twins”; you want them to coordinate and mirror each ether, but definitely not match. 

Editing your bookshelves and taking away items that just don’t work is key! Negative space is okay; let the décor breathe!


The most important skill we have as decorators and designers is our ability to effectively edit out items that don’t belong. This can be so very hard because we may have to edit out an item that we love or has sentimental value, but with bookcase styling, you must adopt the mentality of “if you love something, let it go” and I promise your sacrifices and efforts will not go unnoticed. Its much better to have negative space, where the décor is spaced out, than all crammed together! 

Play around with your décor and then take a break, walk away and leave it. You may find that you need to wait to find that one “thing” that will make the space perfect, but that’s the fun of it. When you do it right, you will know it has been a labor of love and you will not want to touch those perfectly styled bookshelves ever again! 

When your bookshelves are styled perfectly, you will feel happy when you look at them and they will just “feel” right.

Ready, Set, Begin!

The secret is out and now you know what it takes to master this ever-so-daunting task of styling your bookshelves! Once you begin to see your own “formula” come together, it will get easier and easier to do each time you try it. Feel free to follow my lead and check out my bookshelf styling in my Portfolio of work on my website where I’ve implemented this advice many times. Share your bookcase styling journey with me and tag me on Instagram, I’d love to see what you come up with on your styling adventures!!  

Sprinkle your style throughout your home with this simple approach to styling your bookshelves

Sara Lynn Brennan is an interior designer who specializes in Romantic Transitional Style; creating beautiful, natural, cozy and timeless homes for her luxury clients in Waxhaw, NC. Click here to see more of her lovely work.

Want more simply beautiful ideas? Check out this post on Decorating with a Vintage Book Collection. 

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