Decorating bookshelves – the best modern ideas for styling with books, art and decor

Design experts offer their best tips for decorating bookshelves to make them the stand-out feature of your space

a bookshelf with integrated lighting and stylish decor
(Image credit: Patricia Goijens. Design: DVV Architects)

Decorating bookshelves can be more difficult than it looks. From the best way to arrange paperbacks, adding art and curios to making the shelf always look fresh and inviting, there's plenty of experimenting to get shelf decor right. 

Whether you’re starting from scratch or seeking a quick refresh, our experts have outlined some of the very best modern display ideas for bookshelves, whether you want to arrange your hardbacks by theme, color, odd and even numbers or mix them with art, vases and other curios. 

If you're busy sprucing up your living room wall decor today, eke out some time to update your bookshelf too. With a little care and attention, it can become one of the most alluring parts of your space. 

8 ideas for decorating bookshelves in a modern way

1. Arrange books in a meaningful way 

A blue toned bookshelf with paperbacks arranged as per theme

(Image credit: David A. Photo credit Land/OTTO)

Unconventional compositions and orientations can give your bookshelf an edge. No matter how many books you have on display, the key is to make sure they come together to create an eye-catching vignette. Instead of simply placing them vertically, next to each other, consider a vertical and horizontal composition for added interest. 

To fit well onto your living room shelving, it's best to keep the large books lying down, and the smaller, thicker ones standing up. Alternatively, you could even decide on this arrangement based on the themes of the books. 

'When choosing how to put books together on a bookshelf, instead of grouping by color, group by theme,' says Rayman Boozer, an NYC designer and founder of Apartment48. 'Perhaps you'll put books together on a similar subject, or that remind you of a particular moment. The result is a bookcase that tells stories, rather than just looks aesthetically pleasing, and that's a far more meaningful way to live.'

If you refer to your books often, remember to have an organizational system that makes it easy to find what you're looking for. In those cases, it would be best to organize your collection alphabetically by author or by genre.

2. Mount art to your bookshelf

blue living room shelving

(Image credit: Albion Nord)

A decorating trend has been gaining popularity recently, contributing to an elegant living room look –the unconventional idea of hanging art on a shelf instead of the wall. This not only draws focus to the bookshelf but even gives the art an edge.

'I've noticed this idea for mounting artworks on the front of bookshelves in more and more homes recently, and I can see exactly why it works so well,' says Hugh Metcalf, deputy editor at Livingetc

'If you've got a large bookshelf with lots of shelves to style, there's only so much you can play around with the size of your decor within the shelves themselves,' he suggests. 'Using a larger piece of artwork fixed proudly of the shelving means you can introduce a completely different scale, as well as something that breaks up the regularity of the shelving's lines.' 

3. Keep editing and re-arranging 

A bookshelf in beige, with metallic gold touches in the room

(Image credit: Anson Smart)

Keep the display always looking attractive and fresh, even if you aren't buying new books every month. You can do this by regularly updating, rearranging, and editing your decor styling and book organization.  

'As for the books and objects not looking cluttered, it is a constant process of editing and removing what feels unnecessary to a space,' says interior designer Tamsin Johnson. 'I think a big guide for me to the display of pieces, large and small, is when they seem as if they have always been there. Again, when it "feels right".'

4. Arrange books in odd numbers

A bookshelf painted a deep green

(Image credit: MaryPatton. Photo credit Molly Culver)

Humans have a predisposition for symmetry, and when they see anything asymmetrical, it immediately sticks out. This concept works perfectly in decor when you want to make a statement. 

'When styling bookshelves, always arrange things in odd numbers,' says interior designer Mary Patton. 'Also, if you opt for a bold color such as green, do pick accessories that will also pop with that color.'

Set up a bookshelf in the living room corner and fill it up with one tall, one medium, and one round vase, kept alongside books. Or, get three objects of the same color but different textures. Another way is to stagger the objects and group them, so they look like they're overlapping each other. 

Plus, place the books off-center in the shelf. This too will generate curiosity and coax guests to take a look at your selection.

5. Create an eclectic display

A bookshelf in deep blue displaying books and action figures

(Image credit: Baliwala Edge)

If you have children at home, or even just have a more playful interior style, take inspiration from this design and use a bookshelf to mix colorful toys and action figures with books.

'The bookshelf is finished in Matt Colour Pu in two colors by ICA (brand), and is a part of the open study/pantry in the center of the home,' says Ali Baldiwala, founder of Baldiwala Edge. 'To not make the bookshelf look cluttered we kept all the design elements in an open style, and added eclectic pieces to give it a personality.'

This hallways design also uses a contrast color paint idea to make the shelving pop, adding even more character to the design. 

6. Opt for a symmetrical arrangement within cubbies

A white toned home office with a neat bookshelf on the side

(Image credit: Mel Bean. Photo credit Laurey Glenn)

The interesting thing to note about bookshelves is that they don't have to be full of books! Many of such units double as curio shelves that together with rich and thick volumes help create a visually beautiful vignette.

In this space, the accessories within the cubbies are arranged neatly, all centrally aligned, giving this home office an elegant look.

'This residence, also known as Hygee Haven, features a light color palette and curved shelving to display curated decor and books featuring a custom cabinet design,' says interior designer Mel Bean.

The color theme, which is muted, is continued within the shelves too, where neither the books nor the curios add any extra punch of hue. The overall look is coordinated and uniform.

7. Give your bookshelf a library-like effect with a ladder 

A bookshelf in black with a big wooden ladder

(Image credit: Urbanology Designs. Photo credit Matti Gresham)

When you think of libraries, you imagine tall shelves, stacked-to-the-brim units, the smell of old books, and of course ladders. 

A floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelf will not only give you a modern rustic living room vibe, it will also offer extra storage for items that usually float around the house. Paint it an eye-catching color and add a polished wood ladder which will double as a decor piece along with being a functional support to your indoor library. 

'In this built-in library, the black with green undertones painted in Deep River by Benjamin Moore makes the space seem moody and marvelous,' says  Ginger Curtis, founder of Urbanology Designs. 'The shade delivers a plaster look upon drying and has our hearts abuzz with design possibilities.'

8. Display books by color in a bookshelf 

A bookshelf with half open and half concealed storage

(Image credit: HUX London)

We love the idea of arranging books according to color, or even a rainbow pattern. Peeking through the fluted glass in this concealed bookshelf by HUX London, these books create a filtered color effect, adding a pop of hue to the room.

‘It can be difficult to find that off-the-shelf piece of furniture that fits perfectly in your space and opting for a bespoke piece will ensure it perfectly complements your interior scheme and makes the best possible use of the space available,' says Rebecca Northmore, design manager at HUX London. 'Choosing a combination of open and concealed shelving gives maximum versatility, allowing you to display your most favorite pieces of art, books, and treasured objects, whilst concealing those day-to-day items that you may need to have to hand.

'Fluted glass is a great solution for this, as it cleverly hides items from view but with a lightness and translucency that is less impactful than a solid door.’

How do you arrange items on a bookshelf?

A bookshelf arranged within an archway

(Image credit: Zulufish)

A great way to begin decorating your bookshelf is by choosing a nice background for it. You could go with paint or even wallpaper. Add books and smaller objects, alternating horizontal and vertical stacks to create an interesting look. While doing so, be conscious of over-stuffing. Too many items kept within a unit will look unsightly and give this living room storage an anxiety-inducing effect.

You can even arrange your volumes by color, theme, or authors. The latter is especially useful if you love going back to your collection or for referencing work. Complement the scheme with antique vases, ceramics, silver pieces, and marble objects. Consider adding art either within the shelves, or even embellishing it on the unit for a truly unique look.

Design Editor

Aditi Sharma Maheshwari is the Design Editor at Livingetc. She is an architecture and design journalist with over 10 years of experience. She's worked at some of the leading media houses in India such as Elle Decor, Houzz and Architectural Digest (Condé Nast). Till recently, she was a freelance writer for publications such as Architectural Digest US, House Beautiful, Stir World, Beautiful Homes India among others. In her spare time, she volunteers at animal shelters and other rescue organizations.