Bookshelves… Everyone’s got ’em, and they run the gamut from heirloom antique pieces to built-ins to DIY workhorses. Of course, you can stack every shelf with books. But this basic home furnishing component can be a little — or a lot — more than just a warehous for favorite pages. Transform those ledges into your best bookshelf, and a major décor asset.
Assess your bookshelf situation
Things to consider before you get started:
- Placement: Where is the bookshelf in the room? Is there furniture or décor nearby that you want to match in terms of color or style?
- Features: Is the bookshelf an investment piece that requires simple staging? Or are you working with an inexpensive shelf that allows room for playful touches?
- Shelves: If they are adjustable, do you prefer traditional even spacing or varied levels?
- Contents: Will books be the primary occupants of the shelves? Do you have specific items, such as figurines, framed photos or plants, to feature? Will the shelves hold speakers or other tech, and have you considered cord placement and plug access?
Once you’ve established your haves and needs, you’re ready create something unique and personalized.
Here are five of our favorite strategies.
Begin Your Best Bookshelf by Brightening the Back
Peel-and-stick decals or wallpaper add color and personality to your shelves. Choose a pattern that complements nearby artwork, such as florals — or add a pop of pattern to an otherwise solid-color design scheme.
*In our example, the backing paper is a subtle show-stopper. The brightest element of the design, it reinforces the floral theme while also introducing new colors and stronger shades.*
Before you order, measure twice. If shelves are removable, consider ordering one sheet to paper the entire back. If you want to install separate segments of peel-and-stick paper, measure each back area separately and be sure to order product that will fit the largest segment. If you are new to this type of DIY, add a minimum of 2-3 extra inches in your calculations for edge-trimming (and the occasional error!). Here’s how to attach the paper when your order arrives (for best results, be sure to read all package instructions as well as our tips):
You will need:
- a damp sponge
- tape measure and/or steel ruler
- straight edge (or use the steel ruler)
- scissors and/or hobby (razor) knife
- plastic smoother (optional but helpful)
Measure and mark the back of the wallpaper, then cut pieces to size — either one long strip or shelf-by-shelf pieces. If you have multiple pieces, make sure to align the design and number the pieces if the pattern requires. Test every piece to make sure you’ve cut correctly before moving on.
If using a collection of decals, such as flowers or quotes, that will not entirely fill the back-of-shelf areas, put a rolled piece of masking tape on the back of each piece and test arrangements. Make a light pencil mark at the top and side of each placement once determined, and take a photo of the arrangement with your phone for reference before removing.
Remove all test pieces and gently wipe down the back wall of the bookshelf with a damp sponge to remove dust and dirt. Allow to dry.
Peel about 6” of the backing away from the paper. Align across the top, gently pulling more backing away as you press the paper onto the bookshelf back. Continue down to the bottom of the piece. (This technique also applies to smaller decals. Peel only a portion of the decal and work slowly from top to bottom.)Then, working from top to bottom, use the plastic smoother or your hands to press away any bubbles or wrinkles. If necessary, use the hobby knife to trim away any overlap left at the bottom or sides.
Repeat with remaining pieces of wallpaper or decals.
Books Are Beautiful
Will books play a major role in your display, or will they be mostly ornamental? Order and placement of books must first be functional, then beautiful. If you’re going to need some or all titles for reference or pleasure reading, place them vertically, spines-out in alphabetical or thematic order as needed. If the titles are there mostly for show, horizontal placement and color or size-guided arrangements add style pizzazz and can be used to create a variety of levels for other display objects.
*In our example, we show a way books can be “smart art” as they are stacked to display an eclectic golden pineapple jar. Traditional vertical rows can be equally lovely.*
Book covers can be works of art in their own right. A great coffee table book announces a particular interest of folks who live in your home, a dream destination or another theme.
A stack of magazines is always inviting to overnight guests. Pile ’em into a basket or bin and you’ve got fun reads with flair.
Show your love for a particular author or genre with an array of titles, perhaps anchored with bookends that reinforce the theme.
Ir you’re a serious word-nerd, you can make a statement by stacking books, spines out, so that their titles make a sentence or tell a story. Need inspiration? From Willa Cather to David Sedaris, here are some title stacking ideas to get you started.
Kind of Hilarious (though some of these novels are serious):
- Make Room! Make Room!
- No One is Here Except All of Us
- Gather Yourselves Together
- Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls
- Until Tuesday
Pretty Darn Dark
- You Must Set Forth at Dawn
- My Antonia
- Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye
- Journey to the End of the Night
- Tell No One
- You’ll Get Through This
Clock, Vase & Candlestick
A clock gives a dash of timely information to your bookshelf design. A classic mantel clock can sit dramatically on top of your bookshelf, and can add architectural flavor to a basic, square unit. Small wall clocks look equally lovely leaned against a central shelf (especially handy if you’re in a rental and want to display your clock without putting hook-holes in walls).
Empty or filled, vessels have decorative value. You’ve probably been gifted — or even made — a vase, candlestick or pitcher you’d like to display. A bookshelf is a perfect spot. Votives and candlesticks look great in small groups, with or without tapers. Combine them with a coordinating vase, perhaps boasting floral sprigs. Consider filling clear vases with your favorite collections (restaurant matchbooks, shells, marbles) — storage and display in one compact space.
*In our example, two planters hold blossoms and succulents that echo the colors and shapes of the flowers in the artwork and backing paper. Large wooden candlesticks balance color with neutrals white, while subtly grounding the display with their weighty, hand-turned feel.
Pretty prints are not for walls alone. Bring creative flair to your bookshelf design with a wrapped canvas, framed print or box sign sporting a funny or meaningful phrase. Photographs are a lovely personal touch — show those special images to their best advantage in creative or custom frames.
Select figurines and one-of-a-kind pieces (found or made by you) with care — remember: everything that sits on an open shelf eventually needs dusting!
*In our example, a photograph gets top shelf pride-of-place and the bright personality of the child in the picture is celebrated with the dynamic, chevron-pattern frame.*
Compliments for Complements
Think of your bookshelf as a furniture-sized canvas: You can compose a useful and beautiful display of carefully chosen selections from your treasure of collectibles, favorite books and art, and home function needs. The trick is in the picking: Stay true to your initial analysis of the space, your style and organizational needs. The true beauty will be in the intentionality of your design.
*In our example, the bookshelf functions first as a display space and decorative furniture piece in a white-and-rose motif room. The floral canvas on the bookshelf complements the frame blossoms hung on the wall to the right. The faceted white vase is a nod to the trio of artful framed mirrors on the left side of the bookshelf.*
Your bookshelf design may begin with a very different set of wants and needs. Here are some useful points of view to try:
- Embrace your own individual design concept, be it boho-eclectic, rustic and handmade, or modern and geometric. Write the words down on a piece of paper. Collect all your bookshelf elements, keeping this concept in the front of your mind.
- Commit fully to a color (or color scheme). Make a brainstorm list of why this color scheme excites you and what elements might work best to celebrate the hue.
- Choose a “star” element or two. This could be books, a framed quote, or a piece of art. Align all other choses to support your star(s). As you arrange each shelf, ask yourself whether your “star” will be happy nearby!
With time and thoughtful planning, a bookshelf can become your favorite furniture piece to decorate and design — and a wonderful representation of your unique personal style.