No part of a home holds quite as much power as an expertly decorated set of shelves. That's because a carefully curated display of your chosen objet speaks to your personality, and it's the perfect opportunity to showcase your individual style. Not only do the items upon them become a sort of shrine to your very favorite pieces, but an exhibit of your life for your guests to marvel at.
Whether it's a set of shelves nestled in a living room alcove, a floating trio on your bedroom wall, or a standalone mantelpiece above your fireplace, there are a few select items that interior designers always turn to for a beautifully balanced vignette that showcases your personal flair. And of course, the great thing about them is that they can all be tailored to your taste to complement your wider decor.
Keen to take your shelving to the next level? From statement books to decorative stoneware, here are six decor items interior designers agree that every shelf should have.
You don't have be decorating a designated bookcase just to use books on your shelves.As interior designer Helena Clunies Ross explains: 'We often incorporate stacks of well-arranged books; not only showcasing one’s literary tastes but also drawing attention to the colors and textures of the spines.'
Designers love decorating with books of any kind, but statement coffee table hardbacks or folio editions of your favorite novels make a particularly aesthetic addition to a shelf, whether placed vertically or stacked sideways.
'I think it’s wonderful to have a few of your favorite books on display, as a sentimental touchpoint in your interior design,' says Marie Michielssen, a head designer at Serax homeware. 'Choose a few books with attractive covers in colors that compliment your interior decor, along with a few of your most cherished for a balanced ensemble of aesthetics and personality. Either stack them high or leave them open on a beautiful page of choice.'
2. Bowls, boxes, or baskets
If you ask us, every set of shelves should have a vessel of some variety, be it a glass vase, a wooden bowl, or a woven seagrass basket. Not only can they serve a practical purpose as a catchall for all those miscellaneous bits and bobs that find their way onto your living room shelves, or for that next bunch of flowers you buy, but they introduce texture and visual appeal.
'We always try to combine nostalgia and innovation into our home, and I think in terms of interior styling, this can be achieved by positioning items of different textures and heights on shelves,' says Marie. 'I love to line up bowls of different heights along, and fill them with jewelry pieces or simply leave them empty as an intriguing object.'
As you might have guessed, a not-so-secret interior design trick comes into play here - the rule of three. This centers around the idea that grouping items in threes - or odd numbers more generally - creates a harmonious and balanced vignette. According to Marie, however, you need to make sure the larger piece doesn't simply overpower the objet next door. 'When sourcing taller items, look for pieces that still embody elegance, perhaps in a neutral tone, so that they remain discrete and don’t take center stage despite their size,' she says.
3. Ceramic jugs and vases
A stoneware mania has gripped us all in recent years, but we firmly believe the understated elegance of neutral ceramics remains a timeless design choice. As Marie notes: 'You can’t go wrong with a ceramic vase or jug, and they come in a myriad of finishes and colorways.'
As Marie goes on to explain, the artisanal feel of ceramics adds a certain rustic quality to your shelves that feels warm and homey. 'I love ceramic pieces as they offer small and refined details with a contrasting appearance and texture to the clay, making them much more interesting to look at,' she says. 'Go for ones that look - or are indeed - handmade, as they’ll embody so much more personality and bring an added layer of depth to the scene.' Serax's Beige Les Femmes vase is a great case in point.
For Helena, a fan of minimalism, handcrafted ceramic pots, vases, or urns form the foundational pieces for her designs. When it comes to tricks to make your open storage look better, she also has some great tips on shelf-styling. 'Our first approach focuses on the power of numbers, where we strategically curate large collections or groups of objects,' she says. 'The repetition of a single item creates a visually engaging rhythm and drama, emphasizing the significance of each component within the overall design.'
'The second approach celebrates minimalism, highlighting simplicity and form,' she continues. 'We pay close attention to the interplay of light and shadow to elevate the beauty of an item, leaving ample space for each to breathe.'
4. A piece of art work or a photo
The items on your shelves are the museum exhibit of your home, and no set is complete without a form of artwork. It doesn't necessarily have to be a painting, either - it could be a sculpture or ornament instead - but we love the look of a small framed painting to brighten up a shelf. Alcove shelving lends itself especially well to this as setting a painting or print back from the rest of the room gives it a real opportunity to shine.
'We love incorporating art into shelves,' says Ashley Macuga of Collected Interiors. 'Not only does it layer pattern and color, but it's an opportunity to incorporate your favorite artists into your space at a fraction of the cost of larger pieces. I love that many artists now offer prints of their best-selling pieces or “minis”, which are smaller pieces of their work. So, while I save up for the big pieces, I incorporate minis with retail-purchased frames into my styling.'
Of course, shelves make a great place for displaying photos, be it landscapes from a holiday or family pictures that capture a memorable moment. 'I love to incorporate framed family photos or little framed prints into my shelf styling,' says Marie. 'If you want to save yourself the hassle of hanging the frames, simply lean them against the wall behind. This also allows you to easily rearrange the items when you want to freshen up your shelving–scape.'
5. A plant
There's nothing like a houseplant to brighten up your space, and a splash of green on your shelves can go a long way. As Elisabeth Rogoff of Champalimaud Design says, 'Plants have the ability to freshen up a room and create a welcoming environment'.
When it comes to decorating with plants on your shelves, trailing houseplants are some of the best options since their cascading foliage makes a real spectacle as it tumbles down toward the floor. A personal favorite of mine is Devil’s Ivy. Characterized by its heart-shaped leaves, this tropical vine plant is a fast grower so it will fill gaps on a shelf in no time.
6. A personal heirloom
Last but not least, as we've highlighted here, your shelves should be an extension of your personality and thus include items that have sentimental meaning and value to you. With that in mind, it's a good idea to include a family heirloom or meaningful item on your shelves that's unique to you.
'Styling shelves is an opportunity to create a visual narrative of your interests and your personality,' says Helena. 'I believe that every shelf should reflect a story, and that story should begin with a few unique, one-of-a-kind pieces that speak to who you are. By selecting items that hold relevance and meaning to your life, and arranging them in such a way that draws focus to their individual significance, you curate a space that not only reflects your passion but also exudes an air of sophistication, elegance, and intentionality.'
Ready to give your shelves a designer-approved makeover? Set yourself the weekend project of restyling your most treasured decorative objet.
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Lilith Hudson is the News Editor at Livingetc, and an expert at decoding trends and reporting on them as they happen. Writing news, features, and explainers for our digital platform, she's the go-to person for all the latest micro-trends, interior hacks, and color inspiration you need in your home. Lilith discovered a love for lifestyle journalism during her BA in English and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham where she spent more time writing for her student magazine than she did studying. After graduating, she decided to take things a step further and now holds an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London, with previous experience at the Saturday Times Magazine, Evening Standard, DJ Mag, and The Simple Things Magazine. At weekends you'll find her renovating a tiny one-up, one-down annex next to her Dad's holiday cottage in the Derbyshire dales where she applies all the latest design ideas she's picked up through the week.
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