Whenever I post a picture of my built-in shelves on Instagram, I’m peppered with comments and questions: how do I make my shelves look like this? What are some of my key styling tricks?
Well, I will note that bookshelf styling is not an overnight process, by any means. There was much trial and error involved in my own styling, which I didn’t even tackle until a month or so after I moved into my apartment, purely because it felt so daunting.
However, having since created a setup that I love, I’m eager to share some of my tried and true tips with others—and they’re actually quite simple.
Not to diss my favorite paperback titles, but hardcover books just display better. When purchasing coffee table books, I often go the used route, but I always ensure that I’m ordering hardcover editions with spines in excellent condition.
Hardcover books stack so nicely on a shelf and add instant sophistication to a space. Of course, don’t purchase books that mean nothing to you just because you see them in designers’ spaces or on Instagram. Opt for titles that reflect your interests, such as titles on a favorite city, region, sport, fashion designer, or artist.
Avoid displaying cookbooks in the living room—those solely belong on your kitchen shelves. You may make an exception for books on cocktails or bartending, but I prefer to stack such titles on my bar cart.
Don't Display Everything
If you’re someone who craves the well-read, library look, then feel free to ignore this tip. However, as much as I’m a bookworm—I do own hundreds of novels, after all—I prefer to keep them hidden inside the cabinets below my built-ins, as I find that displaying them all out in the open looks pretty overwhelming.
Since my space is small, I try to not keep my bookshelves stuffed to the brim. It’s truly a personal preference, and others certainly gravitate toward the “book wall” look, but I’ve found that to be too chaotic for my taste. Also, battered titles will do no favors in making your setup look more expensive.
Consider using a living room bookshelf or built-ins to make more of a styling statement, and then house all of your novels on their own bookshelf in a home office, den, or bedroom. This is a “best of both worlds” solution, if it’s something your space allows.
If you love to shop for small trinkets, this is your time. Accessories play a crucial role in making your bookshelves sing, and the sky’s the limit when it comes to choosing the types of pieces you’d like to display.
Anything from a burl wood box to a small woven basket to a ceramic bowl is fair game. Set these items atop a stack of books, or use them to fill empty space and make a statement of their own.
I enjoy shopping for such items at flea markets, on Etsy, or even via Poshmark to source trinkets that are a bit off the beaten path and truly reflect my style. Skip mass-produced tchotchkes that you’ll see at big box stores—these will cheapen your home and convey a lack of originality. Items that are unique always add a more luxurious touch.
Add Paper or Paint
Perhaps your actual built-ins or bookshelf could use a bit of a makeover. A pop of paint can work wonders. Apply a bold color to the back walls to add some edge, or you could go the wallpaper route if you prefer pattern.
Even the most basic IKEA bookshelf can look like a custom piece with the right amount of DIY care—that’s right, in many cases, you can take matters into your own hands if you have a free afternoon and some paint tools.
Artwork can do no wrong, it seems. Prop framed pieces on your shelves for instant glamour and personality. You can find beautiful brass frames at thrift stores or online for unbelievable prices, so there's no need to go the custom route.
Small canvases always look lovely on bookshelves as well. All in all, art helps add pops of color where needed and always has a story to tell.