First, remove everything from your shelves just as you would remove clothing and accessories from a closet when organizing this area of your home. This step is necessary “for a blank canvas and a fresh start,” says Jennifer Hunter, a New York-based interior designer.
Put everything on the floor where you can see it and take a few minutes to identify your key pieces. “Take inventory of what you have and group by size: large, medium, small, and large,” says Brandi Wilkins, an interior designer in Frederick, Maryland. Books vary in size and height.”
It’s tempting to put everything on hold by relying solely on your intuition, but resist the urge to do so. DC Area designer Shannon Claire Smith takes a more formulaic approach, applying the rule of thirds when designing shelves. “Just like in the photograph, you want to divide each shelf into three sections: a left, a middle, and a right,” she says. Each shelf should contain accents that vary in height, but the arrangement of pieces shouldn’t be the same everywhere, says Smith, adding, “This creates a varied and collected look on a bookshelf.”
Wilkins agrees. “You want to balance the entire bookcase or built-in shelving without each individual shelf supporting the same weight in the same place,” she says. “This is how you create optical stability without being boring.”
How to paint a bookshelf like a pro
Leaving a little unused space on your shelves is okay, says Smith. “There’s no exact percentage you have to keep clear. It really just depends on what you have to work with.” Design your pieces so that any empty space appears intentionally. “Do you have a collection of similar candle holders or vases in the same color? Group them all together on one shelf… and leave the rest of the shelf empty,” says Smith. “It gives this collection a moment of its own.”
Pay attention to the placement of heavier, more substantial pieces. “Larger items, like horizontal boxes or baskets, tend to do well on the bottom shelf,” says Wilkins. Tall vases, sculptural objects, or crooked artworks look best when a “smaller but proportionate decorative object is offset in front of it and placed slightly overlapping,” she says.
When it comes to the centerpiece—the books—the designers say a mix of horizontal and vertical stacks works best. A horizontal array of three hardcovers, stacked from largest to smallest, may be suitable on its own, says Wilkins. She likes to place vertical book arrangements in the outer third of a shelf, supported with a decorative bookend.
And if you want to fill your entire shelf with books but don’t have enough on hand, Smith offers a solution: “Divide the books into groups of five to seven and place decorative objects or bookends between them to expand the shelf space and.” fill it out completely,” she says.
You should also avoid placing books in just one section of the bookshelf if you then don’t know what to display elsewhere. “Don’t fill three top shelves with books and then leave the bottom shelves empty and empty,” says Smith. At the same time, don’t let the process get too tedious; There are no hard and fast rules for arranging your books. “Ten different people will tell you 10 different ways to display your book collection,” says Smith. “Let these rooms be works in progress.”
Art and framed pictures are a great way to add depth, and they’re “a great way to introduce personality and heirlooms,” says Hunter.
Don’t be afraid to mix and match vintage pieces and decorative objects from big department stores. “The best combinations are old and new,” says Smith. “Mix patina, texture and color you use. Don’t worry about decorating in a specific color scheme or style, just fill each shelf with pieces you love.”
Smaller pieces of jewelry provide the ideal finishing touch. “Layer objects and smaller decorative items,” says Hunter, either on top of a stack of books or in front of larger works of art. Wilkins often fills empty shelves with small frames, decorative beads, bowls or boxes. This is also an excellent way to add storage space for items like vases and trays. “If I need a vase for some garden flowers, I just go to my closets and grab one,” says Smith. Just make sure you vary styling techniques from one shelf to another. “If you have four shelves, they shouldn’t all have a single horizontal stack of books in the middle or a single centered object,” says Wilkins.
Once you’ve got everything placed, Hunter says, “take a step back and see if everything looks cohesive and balanced. If not, make small adjustments until you are happy with it.”
Sarah Lyon is a freelance writer and stylist based in New York. Find her on Instagram: @sarahlyon9.