6 Golden Rules for How to Style a Bookcase That Interior Designers Swear by — Tiny Tricks That'll Elevate Shelves

If you're looking for help in how to style a bookcase, these ideas will help you create a gorgeous vignette in your home

Black bookshelves in an atmospheric living room
(Image credit: Design by PROjECT / Photo by Arturo Yepez)

Bookshelves literally hold many colorful narratives, but they also share their own about your interior and literary tastes, too. Learning how to style a bookcase can be the difference between cluttered piles of books and a neat home library that hints at who you are. 

Designing a bookshelf goes beyond arranging reads by color or stacking them by height. In fact, books may be the stars of the show, but they aren't the only important components in a well-styled shelf. Negative space and decorative objects all make an impact to the interior design, too.

Whether your cases haven't seen a refresh in years or you've recently equipped your room with a few new bookshelves, we've compiled some helpful guidance from designers on how to perfectly portray your reading collection with personalized flair. 

1. Select Items You Value and Cherish

Gray living area with table and bookshelves

(Image credit: Design by PROjECT / Photo by Arturo Yepez)

You've spent all that time sourcing the best bookshelves, there's no reason to fill them with junk. It's easy to let bookshelves accumulate clutter and objects you don't necessarily want sitting on them. To avoid this Aimee Wertepny of PROjECT. interiors says it's vital to 'choose accessories that you want to look at every day.' 

Don't let your bookcases become graveyards for unwanted decor or objects without a home. 'At its core, a home should tell the stories of its inhabitants and reflect their journeys through life in edited moments,' she says. Take time to edit and curate these areas with books and mementos that show a slice of your life.

2. Incorporate Decorative Objects Amongst Books

White bookcase with decor and books

(Image credit: Kinne Andersen)

Despite their name, bookcases aren't beholden to just your favorite reads. Shelving surfaces are the perfect spot to build out vignettes and tell a story with decor. You don't have to go far either. 

'Shop your house and add a small piece of an art (always a favorite) to layer resting on a stack of books or hung on the actual bookcase,' says interior stylist Frances Bailey. 'If your bookcase is metal and not wood, you can use a command strip to create this look. This also works with a small decorative mirror.' She also suggests shopping at flea markets and at online shops such as Chairish and Etsy for unique picks. 'This is a place to showcase your personality.'

3. Leave Breathing Room on the Shelves

Black bookshelves in an atmospheric living room

(Image credit: TK)

Truly styling a bookcase involves playing with space and proportions. Bookworms may be tempted to jam-pack the shelves with beloved reads, but to get the best of both worlds (aka a home library that's undeniably stylish), there needs to be a balance.

'Some empty space is crucial, so be sure to not overcrowd the shelves,' says interior designer Audrey Scheck. 'The end result should feel collected and calm.' Bailey agrees adding that books deserve 'breathing room.' One way of incorporating she says is to 'line up 10 to 12 books in the middle of a shelf allowing for space on either end.'

4. Gauge Your 'Clutter' Comfort Levels

Office space with taupe walls and bookshelves

(Image credit: Design by K Interiors / Photo by John Merkl)

Clutter is a relatively subjective term, and not every person views it the same way. If you're one to hold onto books, you're not alone. Bailey is a self-proclaimed reader and collector, but often takes to decluttering books by sending them to friends and does a shelf edit every few months to ensure her shelves aren't overwhelmed. Consider your own level of comfort when it comes to what's arranged in your home library. 

'What is cluttered to a minimalist won’t be cluttered for a maximalist, so know your style and when it feels cluttered to you then remove something,' she says. 'Also, step back and look at the shelves further back. Sometimes what looks good close up doesn’t look as great from a wider context.' 

5. Work with the Seasons

White and black living area with bold chandelier

(Image credit: Design by PROjECT / Photo by Arturo Yepez)

Bookcases are often viewed as static features in a room, but there is room for much more creativity when they shift with the seasons. Styling is 'temporary,' says Bailey, and the spines, dust jackets, and decor can show that.

'I tend to showcase natural items during the summer, like a beautiful conch shell I found at the beach or a small cup with feathers, but in the fall and winter, I tend to style more with art and objects,' she says. Choose a motif, color palette, shade of light, or theme from the season and run with the idea.

6. Maintain the Balance

Charcoal gray living room with bookshelves

(Image credit: Design by PROjECT / Photo by Arturo Yepez)

Balance on your bookshelves will help contribute to the overall sense that your room is tied together well. When it comes to balance in interior design, perfect equilibrium or exactly symmetrical shelves aren't necessary, but rather an overall sense of consistency when you look at the bookcase as a whole. This can be clumping items into vignettes throughout that'll 'keep the eye moving around the shelf,' says Audrey Scheck. 

She also recommends stacking 'books both vertically and horizontally and using them as a grounding object for other decorative objects.' And instead of looking at the surface level aesthetics of an object, 'think about the "weight,"' too. Scheck notes that this will ensure the 'weight is evenly distributed as your eye moves between shelves.' 

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Melissa Epifano Varley

Melissa Epifano Varley is a freelance writer and editor who has covered interiors for a variety of publications. Most recently, she served as the global editor-in-chief for Real Homes. She has also contributed to Forbes, Apartment Therapy, The Spruce, People, InStyle, and more. When it comes to design, she covers trends, advice, house tours, and how-tos. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in journalism and spends her free time writing, reading, and traveling.