Built-in shelving in living room
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How to Style Shelves

How to style shelves whether it be your living room built-ins, fireplace mantel, open shelving or any surface decorating. These tips will have you give you the confidence to decorate like a pro!

Built-in shelving in living room


Whenever it’s time to style shelves, I like to look around my house and also search through storage bins, collecting an inventory of items that I already own that might look good on the shelves. I gather pieces that I’m considering and set them aside.

I don’t get too worried about how it all will go together at this point. This is just the brainstorming and inventory taking phase. You might use everything you collected or you might have several pieces left unused at the end. That’s ok!

Here’s why creating a beautiful home is so important to your health and how it helped heal me.

Spring decor styling on built-in shelves

Clear everything off shelves

Next, take everything off of the shelves. Repair or remove any broken items that you no longer need.

Now is also a good time to remove any objects that bring up any negative emotions with it. Set these items aside to sell/donate later. Only use items that bring you joy. You don’t have to keep Aunt Susie’s favorite vase on your shelf just because she gave it to you.

Wipe down all of the shelving, removing any dust and debris.

Examine decor inventory pile

Next, take a look at all of the inventory in front of you. Pick out the largest pieces first. These will be your focal pieces. Focal pieces can range from a variety of things from artwork, large pottery. mirrors or architectural pieces.

Place the focal pieces on the shelves. It’s always best to have less pieces that are larger than lots of small décor items that end up looking overcrowded and unintentional.

bookshelves with decor

The exception is when you are displaying a collection of like items together, such as grouping of candlesticks, vintage bottles or cameras, etc to style shelves.

Summer shelf decor

Symmetry on shelving

Symmetry is always the easiest way style shelves. Use a large focal piece that goes in the center to act as an anchor. Then add in smaller objects to act as filler on each side. Create symmetry with the filler.

Wreath on mantel shelf

Alternate focal pieces

How to create a more curated shelf styling look is to use the alternating focal piece technique. Place at least one large piece on each shelf. Alternate shelves below and above the current shelf with opposite items on sides that are heavy and light, like a checkerboard. If you have a heavier feeling/large piece of decor on the left side, the next shelf above it will have another heavier piece on the right side of the shelf.

See how I styled my bookshelves in my French Country Master Bedroom Makeover.

 Fall decor on built-in shelving

This will help balance out the visual weight of the pieces otherwise the shelves will look lopsided in weight if all of the larger pieces are on the left sides of each shelf. Step back to assess and make sure you are balancing the visual weight of the space.

French country decor on built-in shelving with fireplace

Don’t worry about getting it all exactly right at this point. It’s part of the process to place things on the shelves only to need to rearrange them as you add more pieces and evaluate how the whole look is going.


Take a look at the inventory pile and pick out anything that is considered a container, whether it’s a box, vase, bowl, jar, tin, or basket. Start placing some of these items on the shelf near the focal pieces.

navy blue bookshelf with plants

Plants bring life

Have any plants? Real plants give off the best overall feeling but faux plants also work great to bring the natural element and life to the shelves. For shelf styling, use 1-2 plants or greenery such as branches or flower cuttings (from your yard) displayed in one of the containers.

Fall decor on built-in shelving

Fillers and Group Numbers

Now that you have your focal piece, plants and containers on the shelves, it’s time to play around with the smaller filler items.

Styling in pairs is great for symmetry. Styling in numbers of 3 or 5 is a good rule for groupings. Or a larger number of similar items together to create a collection.

Summer decor on shelves

Group items on shelves in a triangle format with the tallest piece in the middle and smaller pieces to each side. For example, a large mirror in middle with a candlestick on opposite sides of mirror will create symmetry and a natural triangle shape of the grouping as a whole. This is visually pleasing to the eyes.

French country decor on built-in shelving

mix textures

If the area is feeling dull, try switching some things out for items with differing texture instead of all of the same texture. Styling a mix of basket weave, shiny glass (think frames or vases), wood, metal and paper on the shelves creates interest and depth.

Decor on Ikea Hemnes

include nature

Always include an element of nature in styling; it helps soften the area and makes it feel alive, whether faux or real (Shells, rocks, plants, flowers, driftwood, etc.)

Spring decor on built-in shelving

repeat colors & Finishes

How many colors can you use when styling shelves? Pick a color theme of no more than 3 colors and combine with unlimited neutrals of white/cream/black/metals/wood/glass. Repeat the color theme up to 2-3x pieces per color.

Repeat color, texture, finishes (wood/glass/metal) 2-3 times, to create a cohesive feel.

Summer decor on Ikea Hemnes

versatile books

Use books for adding height, color and texture. Books placed on their backs can create height to display an accessory piece on top of.

Exposing the colorful bindings can contribute to the overall effect. Or turn them around for a more neutral look with just the texture and light colored pages showing.

School style mantel shelf

Empty space 

Remember to leave some space. Negative space done right, is pleasing to the eye. If styling with negative space on one of the shelves, repeat on other shelves in checkerboard opposite spots.

 Bookshelves styled with decor

no budget for decor?

What happens if you find that you don’t really own a lot of home décor and your shelves are still looking bare? What if you don’t really have the budget to buy a lot? I’m in the process of writing a blog post about all of the ways I use everyday items as decor, which has saved me so much money! I’ll update this post to link to that one once it’s ready.

You can check out this post, if you want to learn more about how I decided and proved that I could have a beautiful home on ANY budget.

Flowers, candlesticks and pears  

Sell and donate

Don’t forget that you can sell the items you no longer want/need on your local online buy/sell/trade groups. Use that money to help fund new décor that you love and will serve your space best.

Donate everything else you no longer want or need in your home from your inventory pile.

Look at it from a different view point

Be patient as you decorate your shelves. It might take a few tries to get it to feel right. Take time to play around with the items. Take a picture with your phone to view it from the screen; this can help you see what’s missing or feels too heavy.

woman hanging a piece of art

Ask a friend

There’s no shame in asking a friend for input too! Sometimes having a pair of fresh eyes can really help!

Often we can get stuck only seeing an item or space in the way we’ve always used it. Someone else’s perspective can help you think outside the box.

Remember, have fun and you’ll continue to get better at it!

shelf styling secrets guide

Phew! That’s a lot of info to take in! Don’t worry, I’ve created a FREE digital Shelf Styling Secrets Guide for you to download and print off as your cheat sheet!

As a BONUS, it also includes ALL of my resources to using every day items as decor too! This is perfect when you have the desire to make something pretty but not the budget to buy all new decor.



 More shelf styling ideas through the seasons

Check out my Valentine’s Day shelf decor for more ideas.

Decor on shelf

4th of July decor on shelf.

Fall decor on mantel

Mantle shelf with halloween decor

Fall decor on mantel shelf

Mantle shelf with decor

Summer shelf decor on Ikea Hemnes

Wood sign with french country decor

Entry way

Spring decor on shelves

Built-in shelves with autumn decor

Built-in shelves with autumn decor

Christmas decor on shelves



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