5 Tips to Help You Style Your Home's Built-Ins Like a Pro

Green built-in bookshelves behind couch.

House 9

In my experience, styling built-in shelving can be both an enjoyable activity and a stressful one. As someone who owns plenty of books and trinkets, I’ve always been eager to display my belongings, but simultaneously was fearful of my shelves looking too chaotic and cluttered.

Over time, though, having studied images of my favorite shelfies and experimenting with all types of configurations in my own space, I’ve learned that while shelf styling is somewhat of an art, there are many baseline techniques that anyone can implement in their own home. Here are five top tips below. 

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Add Texture and Height

Stack of books with decorative bowl on top.

Lauren Zillinger for Laura Metzler Photography

Though my built-ins largely feature books, I’ve also made a point to incorporate fun sculptural pieces, as well as baskets and boxes, to my displays. Such elements are an excellent way to add texture, pattern, and height to any shelf—and as a bonus, they often provide valuable storage.

If you find yourself confronted with empty vertical space, consider placing a tall bust sculpture, favorite vase, or candle holder next to a smaller piece in order to draw the eye upward.

02 of 05

Incorporate Personality

Wicker basket on bookshelf.

Lauren Zillinger for Laura Metzler Photography

You don’t want your shelves to solely feature items from chain or discount stores when you can showcase sentimental items or special vintage finds, too. Take your time compiling all of the pieces you wish to display—don’t simply fill up a shopping cart and call it a day. When you feature items that truly reflect you, you’re less likely to want to part with them and start brand new in just a matter of months.

Not sure where to begin? Start small. I personally love wicker, so I’ve enjoyed placing small thrifted baskets on my shelves. I also enjoy collecting matchbooks when I visit favorite restaurants, and I have several displayed in a little porcelain bowl. The setup is both functional and chic.

03 of 05

Space Out Collections

Built-in shelf with decorative objects.

Lauren Zillinger for Laura Metzler Photography

There’s no need to display like with like. If you have a set of three candlesticks, for example, place two together and set the third on another shelf. Your built-ins will begin to look like a store display if you keep everything too coordinated.

I’ve also split up bookends so that they sit on opposite shelves, and this creates a neat visual effect. You can even split items up entirely and use just one bookend from a set and place its companion in another room for a more artful look.

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Skip Symmetry

Decorated built-in bookshelf.

Lauren Zillinger for Laura Metzler Photography

There’s no need to lay out items in a symmetrical fashion, either. Vary placement of pieces to create interest, for example, if you set a vase on one shelf, you shouldn’t place another in the space directly above it. This strategy will help your overall display look nicely curated and chic rather than cookie cutter. 

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Hide the So-So Pieces

Objects that are purely utilitarian, such as glass vases from the florist or terracotta plant pots likely belong behind closed doors, not out in the open. Save your shelf space for items with a bit of spark—those that are conversation starters, reflect your interests and aesthetic, and will bring you joy every time you see them.

As noted earlier, it can take time to build up a collection of pieces you love, and it’s ok to go slow. Thrift stores are an excellent resource for sourcing objects with a bit of intrigue that won’t break the bank. Eventually, you’ll have too many display-worthy pieces to even consider decorating with so-so items.

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