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How to Style a Bookshelf for Normal People. Part 1

Pottery Barn

Pottery Barn

You actually did get more birthday presents than this Elaine, but they didn’t match the shelving unit so I had them destroyed.  
( September 25, 2012)

This is a tough one.  I struggle with this too.  How do you make built ins, shelves, bookcases look artfully arranged without looking “arranged”.  It’s like that scenario where you spend 4 hours trying to look really good and when you arrive at said destination– “Oh this old thing?  I just threw it on.” It’s the unwritten rule that unless it is for a grade, interview, etc…no one wants to look like they tried too hard.

So when I look at magazine pictures of bookshelves they all look so amazing and haphazard all at once.

Like this:

Pottery Barn

Pottery Barn

But really?  Who has bins of…are those parchments?…lying around and books that all happen to match?

Hence the title of this post—How to Style a Bookshelf for Normal People.

You need to remember a few rules.  Let’s keep it basic.  Simple.  When we have it mastered we will move on to “How to Style a Bookshelf for Extraordinay People Who Happen to Own Books that All Match…or Bins of Parchments”.


This is Bookshelves 101.  This is not 201, 301, or even the dreaded 501.


  • First take a before picture of the situation.
  • Then ask yourself do you like everything IN the bookshelf?  If you do not remove those items.
  • Is there a reoccurring element? Lots of picture frames? Baskets? Vases? A collection of…clay dinosaurs that your kids made?  What else is similar?  Do you like having this in the bookshelf?  Do you WANT to look at it?
  • This is the key:  THERE MUST BE A THEME.  That’s the secret.


Books and Black Photo Boxes (multiple) and Pictures in Silver Frames.

Books and Square Baskets (multiple) and collection of Solid Color Ceramic Vases.

Books and Something Matching and Something Similar.

Books and Vases and Urns in similar colors (white, cream, blue).

Books and Small Framed Kids Artwork (multiple) and Wooden Boxes.

Books and Category and Category

  • Now take everything out of bookshelves and group items into your 3 categories.

Books and BLACK boxes and consistent SILVER picture frames.

Books and Matching Color and Something with Similar Colors (Pick 2 or 3 TOPS)

NOW Look at these Pictures:

Theme is Cream and White with Vessels.  Only colors are Cream/Brown, White, Grey/Blue and a little Black.


Can you figure out the Theme?


These are JUST Books.  That is the Theme.  Every shelf is full and about the same height.  Visual Consistency.

I think you got this.


  • Now with whatever you have culled into THREE CATEGORIES of items you like and WANT to see…start putting things in.

Build each shelf the same height as the one above/next to/below.  Again look at the pictures.

If you are having trouble–stick it in the best you can and take another picture and compare.  Any better?

It’s a start.  THINK ABOUT HOW YOU CAN IMPROVE THIS.  Can you spray paint all the picture frames so they match?  Can you go to the store and buy matching….black boxes?  Can you take off the book jackets?  Can you arrange the books by color?  Do you need more books for this to work?

Make a list.  Buy the spray paint.  Look for orange whatevers.  Pick something new if you don’t have any reoccurring anything…Globes, parchments..?

Part 2 Coming Next…Help with Arranging or 201.



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