How to Have “House Beautiful” Bookshelves

f731b6ad2f5938bcdc6c6ac3ecbe430aI’m laughing at the title of my blog post.  As if I know how to have “House Beautiful bookshelves.  The truth is, I’m a shelf-styling neophyte.  But having recently moved I found myself staring at 6 beautiful white shelves…which were completely bare.   I decided to get some assistance from my decorating friend Linda and my other decorating friend, Pinterest.  If you are looking at shelves in your own home that don’t look like they stepped out of House Beautiful, read on and learn along with me.

IS9x3idz8c2dlb1000000000When I bought my house these bookshelves didn’t even exist.  Instead there was this weird space between the fireplace and the wall (see it to the right of the fireplace…  note that these are pics of the home before I bought it…it looks a lot different now).  Not the first time I have shaken my head wondering what the heck the builder was thinking.  Really, what do you put in that space?  I was at a loss.  Then my friend Pat, who is a carpenter, suggested that he build some bookshelves in there and it made perfect sense.  It was like the space was meant for bookshelves all along.

Back to those six beautiful white shelves…what to do with them?  I started by pulling things from my house that I thought might work on the shelves…photos of my kids, a fake plant (I love fake plants, so low maintenance), a few candles, and an ampersand I bought at Pottery Barn for way too much money, especially considering what it is…a metal ampersand (don’t you like it though?).  I threw some things on the shelves, but nothing really happened until my friend Linda showed up.

The current iteration of the shelves.  A work-in-progress.

The current iteration of the shelves. A work-in-progress.

Linda scours HomeGoods, Marshalls and Target for all kinds of great decorative stuff that isn’t Pottery Barn expensive (she is a much smarter person than I am).  Linda came to my house last week with a car full of tchotchkes and proceeded to start putting things on the shelves.   She added a couple of round metal things (I have no idea what else to call them…see them on the top shelf?), a cool wooden box, some books, and a bowl of (fake) lemons for a splash of color.  It was fun to watch the shelves come together.  You need to play around with this a lot, it’s kind of like a puzzle.  The box started on the bottom shelf,  but later got moved to a top shelf…we kept shuffling things, standing back to look, shuffle again…I don’t think you should expect to do this on one go or even in one day.

After Linda left I moved some things around again…it’s kind of fun…change it up, step back, take a look, yes or no?  Move something else.  It is getting there, but I still consider it a work in progress.  I actually even went to my bedroom and swiped a print off the wall and added it to the shelves.  IMG_1797I like it there, but now instead of three coordinating prints above the bed I have two…another decorating dilemma that will have to wait until later.  Linda also showed me how easy it is to wrap books in paper.  I know, I know, some of you might think this is overkill, and that’s okay.  I am going to give you a couple of links to other blog posts that talk about the whole shelf arranging process, and one is definitely anti-covering books.  So if that just seems silly to you, and if you actually have a lot of books that you want to keep on your shelves and you actually want to be able to read the spines…I have some help for you too.  There is no one way to do this.

My takeaways from all of this:

  • think about “layering” your shelves…I realized my shelves were looking a bit too uniform…something on the left, something on the right…turns out I needed some things in the back and some things in the front too…layers.
  • change-up the heights…I’m not sure if either of the posts mention this specifically, but it is kind of a no-brainer, even for a decorating-challenged individual such as I…you do not want everything to be the same height.  Which leads me to my next point…
  • Mix up the books that you use on the shelves (whether you choose to cover themhow_to_arrange_books_on_shelves_like_a_decorator or not)…some should be vertical and some should be horizontal.  The horizontal ones can be used to elevate things that need more height (note the lemons on my shelves). 
  • You need to have some uniformity of color.  One way to do this is to just work with a limited range of colors (my shelves are primarily the blue/green of the walls, silver & white with a splash of yellow for interest).  If you are really trying to use your shelves for actual books, then at least group your books by color (see the pic to the left and blog post link below).  There needs to be some uniformity…it helps eliminate chaos and busyness…it makes it more pleasing to the eye if everything isn’t “all over the place” decoratively speaking.

So…there you have it.  Gather, layer, mix up heights, and have some kind of “plan” for the color.  I am not done with my shelves yet.  I even have an empty bottom shelf that I am unsure what to do with.  I would encourage you not to rush it and not to be overly wedded to any one piece…it may be better somewhere else in your house.  I had a really pretty silver candle from…yes, Pottery Barn, yes, too expensive, but it does smell divine…color-wise it was perfect, but no matter where I put it, I didn’t like it.  I finally took it off the shelves and moved it to the powder room.  Now the powder room smells divine and the shelves just look better without it.  I don’t know why, it just didn’t work.

sitting area

I’m sure someone loves this room, but I don’t.


One last word from someone who does not consider herself a “decorator” by any means (that’s why my friend Linda is helping me)…I think decorating is, first and foremost, about pleasing yourself.   There are no real rules (I am sure we have all seen rooms done by professional decorators that we absolutely hate…I know I have).  Do what pleases YOU.  If you like it, then that is what it is all about.

Do you have open shelves in your house?  Have you “styled” them, or are they functionally crammed with books?  What do you think about shelves with more tchotchkes than books?  Do you like my ampersand?  Any tips you would like to share?

More tips:  How to Style a Shelf Like a Boss

Save the Books: How to Style a Bookshelf for Actual Book Storage


About Lisa Van Dore

I have lived in Sherborn, Dover and most recently North Walpole, for a total of 15 years (and counting). Having recently been through the process of selling a home and buying (and renovating) a new one, I understand the conflicting emotions of excitement and anxiety inherent in the process, whether you are a seller or buyer, whether this is your first home purchase or your tenth. I have a BA from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Indiana University. My early career found me working as a CPA, and later as the controller of Crate & Barrel. More recently I spent seven years running my own personal training business. I understand the hard work and dedication necessary to build a business and a reputation...most of my personal training clients came to me by referral and my first client was still with me when I decided to leave personal training. This speaks to the level of effort I put forth for my clients, week after week. On a more personal note, I raced triathlon for seven years and more recently completed my first half marathon. In my free time I enjoy cooking, reading, Maine, hiking and, in the fall, following college teams are the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and Texas Christian University (Go Frogs!).
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4 Responses to How to Have “House Beautiful” Bookshelves

  1. Please forgive but I can’t help myself – you almost have it! Take the black square (picture. Book?) away from the ampersand and adjust that a little. Layer something in front of the wood box on the right of it or draping down from the top. And when you feel like it, a beautiful wallpaper or wrapping paper lining the back of the shelves would add such pizazz…a lattice or chevron or polka Dot!😁

  2. Thanks for linking up with my blog post! Good luck & happy decorating!

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