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How to Decorate Shelves & Bookcases: Simple Formulas That Work!

In this post: Struggling with how to decorate a bookshelf? I’m sharing my simple tried and true formulas for adding bookshelf decor that works! Our home is pretty limited on closet and storage space, but we’ve got LOTS of built-in bookcases so I was basically forced to figure out how […]

In this post: Struggling with how to decorate a bookshelf? I’m sharing my simple tried and true formulas for adding bookshelf decor that works!

Our home is pretty limited on closet and storage space, but we’ve got LOTS of built-in bookcases so I was basically forced to figure out how to decorate shelves and bookcases to keep those rooms from looking bare and boring. And I’ve made it super easy for you to do too by sharing six simple formulas that you can use to jump-start your shelf decorating. So if you’ve got some bare shelves that have been bugging you, hopefully you’ll find the inspiration and know-how to finally decorate those babies up! Let’s head on into the family room first…   (post includes affiliate links – full disclosure statement available {here})

Simple formulas for how to decorate shelves and bookcases! SO easy!!

Scroll and tap/click to shop this space:

Most of you have been following my blog long enough that you’ve seen this space many times before but if you’re here for the first time, you can check out more pics of it and get a better idea of the layout of the two bookcases in the room {here}. Whoever designed this bookcase made it pretty easy on me because they broke the shelves up in a way that the shelving space on both the left and right sides is perfect for housing a single decorative accessory so for those it was one and done: 

So many great ideas of how to decorate shelves and bookcases!

The middle shelves aren’t quite as simple but I figured out a few no-fail formulas as takeaways for you to use:

Simple formulas for decorating your shelves - SO helpful!!

#1. Books + bookend next to filled bowl

Choose 5-8 books (you can bring some color into your space by choosing ones with spines in your favorite colors or by wrapping them in a favorite fabric or you can keep things neutral by turning the books around so the pages show instead of the spines) and add a decorative bookend. Two of my favorite online sources for unique bookends are Etsy {here} and Charish {here} (my elephant is from Charish). Place a bowl next to it (it doesn’t have to be wood – it can be metal, woven, etc.) and fill it with something decorative. These are a few of my favorites:


I threw in a bunch of {these faux cabbages} that I had laying around after using them on my fall fireplace mantel but you could also use decorative ceramic balls, faux flowers, shells…. just about anything!

#2. Leaning books + ball shaped accessory next to vase on books/box

Lean a few books (starting with one or two that are fairly tall) against the end of the bookcase and put some type of ball shaped accessory next to it such as my oyster shell ball (you can find a similar one {here}). The rope whatchamacallit on the bottom right of my bookcase would have worked well in that spot too! Next to it, place a either a shallow box or two stacked books and put a medium sized vase (mine was a HomeGoods find!) on top. 

#3. Tray or art print in middle + tall accessory on left + low accessory on right

Start with a sizable shallow round tray (mine was a thrift store find but {this one} is similar) or an art print or mirror (it doesn’t have to be round – square or rectangular would work fine too). Ideally you want something fairly tall but you can always cheat like I did and put a few books under it to add height. Add a tall accessory such as a plant on one side (this is my FAVORITE plant – it’s a type of snake plant and it survives even the worst neglect!) and an accessory that’s fairly low in height on the other. I used {this dried star pod} – it’s kinda weird but I kinda love it and have used it on my fireplace mantel too! I have another example of this formula on our other bookcase too – let’s head that way… 

Built-in bookcases flanking desk and window in middle - a great arrangement for a family room!

Can you guess which shelf it is? Yep, the middle shelf on the left – there’s a center art print (mine is similar to {this} Let’s Stay Home printable) with a small plant on one side (a succulent in {this small pot}) and a large accessory (like {this candelabra} that’s similar to mine) on the other:

Love the styling of the shelves in this large built-in bookcase - click through for lots of helpful tips and formulas for decorating your own shelves!

And there are two other simple formulas you can steal from this second bookcase:

SUPER helpful tips for decorating shelves and bookcases!!

#4.Tall, thin accessory + smaller accessory next to framed print

Start with a tall, thin accessory such as a vase (mine is a HomeGoods find!) and add a small accessory in front and a bit to the side. Place a framed photo, art print, or a mirror next to it. In choosing your accessories, the important thing is to have some variety in height (my vase is closer in height to my framed photo than I’d actually like – having a several inch difference is best!). 

#5. Large accessory next to decorative box + small accent piece on top

Start with a large accessory – it can be a sculpture like mine, a bust, a ceramic horse head…. pretty much anything! Then next to it, place either a horizontal stack of a few books or a decorative box (such as {this black & white striped box that I have}) and then add a small accent piece (such as {this small piece of coral} on top of the box. 

Now we’re going to head on into our home office but before we go did you notice that the top middle shelf = formula #1?! It’s definitely a formula that works because I didn’t even realize I had decorated two shelves the same basic way until writing up this post 🙂

Super helpful formulas for decorating bookshelves and built-in bookcases!

I’ve shown our home office on the blog and Instagram many times before but usually I’m sharing pics of our gallery wall that’s on the other side of the room. Today we’re turning the camera round to the big ole built-in bookcase:

Loving all of the tips on how to decorate bookcases and shelves! These are beauties!

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A chunk of the shelving space is already taken up by a TV and two speakers and the area above the desk has little wood cubbies that I filled with {these IKEA KVARNVIK boxes} but there was still plenty of shelving in need of some styling:

Super easy tips on how to decorate shelves and bookcases!

I came up with two more shelf styling formulas you can use as take-aways to style your own shelves: 

Seven simple formulas that make styling shelves and bookcases SUPER easy!

#6. Books + vase (or similar) as bookend + long, narrow basket

Start with a few upright books on the end of the shelf and then use a vase or other decorative accessory as a bookend. Anything that’s the right height and heavy enough to support the books will work so it’s a great spot for something unique and/or meaningful – for ex., I love horseback riding and have used my old saddle stirrups as bookends before. Here are a few things I love that would work:


Next to it, add a long, narrow basket that you can put books in, fill with something decorative, or use as storage for office supplies, etc. (mine has some of my zillion fabric samples in it). Having more variation in the height of everything (i.e. taller books and a shorter vase) than my shelf does would look better – do what I say, not what I do – ha!

#7. Upright books + horizontal books + small decorative object

This is one of my simplest shelf styling formulas and one I use all of the time (including on the shelf above the TV in this bookcase). You simply stand about 4-6 books upright on the end, then lay 1-2 books down right next to them and put a small decorative accessory on top. I LOVE white coral and have several pieces of it so am using that on top of the book but it can be anything including sentimental pieces like those big ole ceramic pieces that kids make in art class and you don’t know what to do with! Place whatever you want next to this little arrangement on the shelf – I layered a piece of plaid artwork that my youngest daughter made plus a brass pig that feeds my weird love for brass animals. 

Awesome tips on how to style your bookcase and shelving!

Tips & Ideas for What to Put on Your Shelves

I hope you guys found those formulas to be helpful – I’m a girl who likes to spell it all out! To wrap things up, I wanted to share a few final tips and suggestions to keep in mind when you’re decorating your shelves:

  • Odd numbers typically work best – you’ll notice that most of my formulas involve doing things in 3’s
  • Keep things interesting with lots of different textures (like chunky baskets, coral, etc.) and finishes (different metals, colors, etc.)
  • Don’t be afraid to leave some empty space! My large jug on the bottom shelf in our family room is all alone on a shelf that’s a couple feet long but it works!
  • Show your personality, interests, etc. Shelves are a great place to put family photos, keepsakes, or anything that makes you smile. They can be filled with books too but don’t have to be. Whenever I share a pic of our bookcases on Instagram, at least one person says “bookshelves should be for books”. Nope. They should be for whatever you want them to be – it’s your home so do what you love!  
  • Stagger the heights of your objects (but you guys already picked up this tip earlier, right?!)
  • If you don’t have enough light to keep plants alive on your shelves, go with faux! There are some great ones out there:
  • Dress up your bookcase by lining the back of your shelves with wallpaper! I used {this grasscloth wallpaper} on my shelves in the family room.

Phew… are you still with me?! Drop a comment and let me know if you have any questions or if I just confused the heck out of you! If you have questions about where anything on my shelves is from I have a FULL SOURCE LIST at the end of the post that details paint colors and where everything is from. Want moree inspiration for decorating your shelves? Check out the shelf styling tips and ideas that my friends from Project Design have to share! 

Mary Ann at Classic Casual Home

Cindy at Rough Luxe

Annie at Most Lovely Things

Sherry at Design Indulgence


Driven by Decor Source List

Family Room

Paint color: Walls & Trim in Benjamin Moore Cloud White | Furniture & Lighting: Slipcovered sectional (fabric is Basket Natural) – same manufacturer and similar style to {this sectional} | Acrylic coffee table | Desk chair | Chandelier (satin bronze) | Glass desk lamp base (large) | Desk lamp shade (medium, white) | Pillows & Throws: Gray and white floral lumbar pillow, Confetti pillow (cream with black dots) | Large chunky white pillow with fringe ends | Cream pillow with tassel ends | Gray & white plaid throw (similar) | Rug: Honeycomb ivory/grey wool rug | Shades: The Shade Store – Robert Allen Fabric in Perfect Stripe (Earth) | Coffee table accessories: Tray (28″ x 28″) | Brass cranes | Magnifying glass | Shallow shagreen box under glass vase – no longer available | Book: Elements of Style | Book: The Collected Home | Book: Emily Henderson Styled | Book: Dogs | Bookcases: Grasscloth lining the back of the bookcases | Right Bookcase (1st one shown in post): Tall white coral, gray woven lantern, glass vase with woven string and beads, gray horse statue, rope sphere, & white wood elephant – HomeGoods |  Brass bowl & Elephant bookends – thrifted | Scalloped wood bowl – not currently in stock but check back in later at {this post} for sources | Faux cabbages in wood bowl | Oyster shell ball – similar ones available {here} | Round brass tray was thrifted – similar one available {here} | Dried star pod | Gold lantern – no longer available but {this one} is similar | Left Bookcase:  Gold candelabra | Let’s Stay Home printable (similar) | Small white textured pot for succulent | Brass bowl – thrifted | Black and white decorative balls (in bowl) | Gold sculpture with black stand – no longer available | Pinstripe bone box | Small piece white coral, tall brass vase, Black & white squiggle vase, & large round shallow basket – HomeGoods | Glass jug | Wooden basket – thrifted

Home Office 

Paint color: Benjamin Moore Nightfall (Regal Select Matte finish) | Furniture & Lighting: Desk (which is actually a table) – no longer available | Chair – no longer available but {this one} is similar |Herringbone jute rug – no longer available but {this rug} is similar | Cowhide – {this cowhide} is similar | Semi-flush brass ceiling light |Drapes & Curtain Rod: – see {this post} for the detailed source list | Bookcase: Brass & pearl knobs | Perforated brass lantern, brass pagoda, white pot, & woven basket – HomeGoods | Black and white ginger jar – no longer available but there are some pretty options {here} | Brass pig and whale – thrifted but you can find lots of fun brass animals {here} | Gray burlap boxes & Pineapple decanter – no longer available| Blue and white pot – thrifted | Coral in upper cabinet – {this piece} is similar

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