How to Decorate a Bookshelf Without Feeling Overwhelmed

March 19, 2024

Hi! I'm Nicole

Fearless DIY. Sharing building project tutorials and interior design tips. Let’s build something beautiful together. For more projects, design tips and behind the scenes, follow me @designtobuild.nicole

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Overwhelm and intimidation. These are the 2 emotions that often arise for people when they’re attempting to decorate a bookshelf. Are you one of these people? All you can see are the empty shelves with no clear direction on how to fill them.

While there is an art to shelf decorating, it doesn’t have to be something you dread.

My easy-to-follow tips will help guide you and take away the guess work. Making decorating a bookshelf a seamless and fun project.


Before diving in, it’s important to keep in mind, one key thing…Don’t overthink it! Bookshelves tell a story. Your story. So you really can’t mess them up. Bookcase decor is a great way to portray your design style, along with who you are and where you’ve been.

A few years back, I ripped out the corner cabinet in my living room and filled the space with floating shelves. (Here’s my easy-to-follow DIY floating shelves tutorial).

This updated change left me with 5 shelves to fill. Rather than spend a fortune on all new items for my new shelves, it was much more cost-effective to shop my own home.

You would be surprised how much you can come up with using this method. Just wanted to give that quick tip, before we jump into the post. If you’ve recently added new built-in bookcases, there’s no need to break the bank with all new pieces of decor.

How to Decorate a Bookshelf

Start With a Blank Slate

When decorating shelves, I like to start with a blank slate. Starting with empty shelves helps the eye to see the space clearly. Focusing on one shelf at a time.

Trying to just move things around doesn’t give you a full view of the space. The eye easily becomes distracted by the other items throughout the bookshelf.

So, first things first, empty the entire bookshelf before adding even one decor item.

Empty floating shelves in a living room

Decorate a Bookshelf: Choose a Color Palette

Now that the built-in bookshelves are empty, we’re ready to choose a color scheme.

Picking 2 to 4 colors that go well together makes everything look nice and cohesive. It’s more pleasing to the eye because it feels more organized and balanced.

Consider this your base for adding items to your shelves. I chose white, green, gold and brown tones for my built-in shelves.

DIY floating shelves with a seating area for decorate a bookshelf post.

Start With the Big Stuff

Now, grab your big items. This could be things like decorative baskets or a large vase. Think of these big pieces as your starting points. A focal point that creates visual interest.

When placing these items, think of your shelves as a grid. Depending on the length of your shelves, this grid may be cut into sections of 2 or 3.

My floating shelves are 61 inches long. With lots of space to fill, they can be cut into a grid of 3’s. This means, I could have 2 groupings on one shelf and 3 groupings on the next shelf. Alternating each shelf.

Keep in mind empty space is ok. And actually very calming to the eye. No need to clutter the space. Negative space is a must when it comes to decorating shelves.

Arched bookshelf in a living room

Image Source: @tarynfalconerhome

​Books Aren’t Just for Reading

Books aren’t just for reading. They’re perfect for decorating your shelves, too.

By choosing books with covers and spines that match your color scheme, you can add a pop of color and personality to your space.

Stacking books horizontally can also create risers for other items, like small plants or decorative objects. A great way to give your shelf different levels and make it more interesting to look at.

Horizontal stacks of books serve a double purpose: they decorate your space and help show off other decor pieces by lifting them up so they catch the eye. It’s a clever trick to make the most of your shelf space and keep things looking neat and organized.

Bookshelves painted blue with stained wood backdrop.

Design Credit: @puresaltinteriors  Image Credit: @vlentine

Here’s a great article all about adding coffee table books as decor

Decorate a Bookshelf: Add Some Artwork

Adding artwork to your bookshelf is like giving it a special touch that makes it stand out. Artwork can be anything from paintings and drawings to family photos you love.

When you put art on your shelves, it shows off your style and adds color and life to the space. It’s like turning your bookshelf into a mini art gallery in your own home. You can lean a few pieces against the back of the shelf or stand them up between books.

Changing the art now and then keeps your shelf looking fresh and new.

Shelf with vase and picture.

If you have young kids or grandkids, you may want to frame some of their fun artwork. A great way to add in a variety of picture frames. Not to mention, great conversation starters too.

Another great idea is to layer artwork. Place a smaller framed art piece in front of a larger and taller art piece. The different heights adds depth and visual interest.

Be Sure to Add in Some Greenery

Whether you add live or faux plants, it’s always a good idea to add in greenery. Plants bring a fresh, lively touch to your bookshelf, adding color and texture that can make the space feel more welcoming.

Live plants have the added benefit of purifying the air, while faux plants offer beauty without the need for maintenance.

Strategically placing green plants among your books and decor can create a natural flow that draws the eye and brings a piece of the outdoors inside.

Plus, the pop of green can break up the monotony of books and decorative items, giving your shelf a balanced and vibrant look.

Faux plant on top of stacked books for decorate a bookshelf post.

Add Smaller Decor and Accessories

Now’s the time to step back and see where you need to add some fillers. Keeping in mind that negative space is a good thing.

Do two pieces grouped together need a smaller 3rd piece added? Remember it’s pleasing to the eye to group things in threes.

Adding smaller decor and accessories can bring balance and interest to your shelf. Look for spots that might feel a bit empty or unbalanced and consider adding a small vase, a decorative box, or a tiny sculpture.

These smaller items can complete a group, making the overall look feel intentional and curated. Just make sure not to overcrowd. The aim is to enhance the arrangement without taking away from the beauty of the negative space that helps each item stand out.

Bookshelves over countertops.

Image Credit: @ann_marie_co

Focus on Groups of 3 & Balance

When placing your items, try to group them in threes. The Rule of Three is such an integral part of decorating and actually has a science behind it…

When we see a group of three items, our eyes move around more, making us look at each item longer. It feels balanced but not too perfect, which is more interesting to our brains.

Balance is an important part of decorating too. When items are balanced nicely, your eye can move smoothly across the shelf, making everything look organized and peaceful.

An example of a well balanced bookshelf is:

  • A large substantial piece (like a vase) on the RIGHT side of the top shelf
  • Then on the next shelf, another large decor item on the LEFT side of the shelf
  • On the next shelf the larger item would once again be on the right side
  • And so on and so forth working your way down the shelves.

2 bookshelves, built-in, flanking a fireplace for decorate a bookshelf.

Image Credit: @ann_marie_co

Don’t Be Afraid to Mix Textures

Mixing textures on your bookshelf adds depth and interest, making the display more engaging to the eye.

Think about combining smooth, shiny objects like ceramic vases with rough, rustic elements like woven baskets or wooden carvings. This contrast in textures can make your shelf come alive, creating a sensory experience that invites people to take a closer look.

Soft, fluffy faux fur throws or velvety plants can soften the look, while metal accents or glass pieces add a touch of sleekness.

By carefully selecting items with different textures, you can create a layered effect that enriches the overall aesthetic of your bookshelf.

Cabinet with glass doors and shelving showing through.

Image Credit: @ann_marie_co

Decorate a Bookshelf: Variety of Heights

Adding items of different heights makes your bookshelf more interesting. Think about mixing tall things, like big vases or frames, with shorter items, like small books or bowls.

This way, your eyes move up and down, checking out everything on the shelf. It stops the shelf from looking boring because everything looks different.

You can even stack books to lift up smaller items so everything can be seen. It’s like making sure everyone in a group photo can be seen, not just the tall people in the back. This trick gives your bookshelf a neat and stylish appearance.

Design Credit: @puresaltinteriors  Image Credit: @vlentine

Decorate a Bookshelf: The Bottom Shelf

Placing heavier and larger items on the bottom of your bookshelf is a great way to ground the space. It creates a visually pleasing progression from heavy to light as the eye moves upward.

Underneath my floating shelves, I store two round jute knitted poufs. I love that these not only add texture and are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. But they are also functional too. We pull these poufs out whenever we have lots of people over.

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Decorative shelves with accent pieces on them.

Some other heavier and larger ideas for the bottom shelf could include:

  • Larger books
  • Decorative boxes
  • Large baskets
  • Large vases

Decorate a Bookshelf: Accent Lighting

You can never go wrong adding accent lighting to any space.

Accent lighting can dramatically change the mood and highlight your favorite pieces. Creating a cozy, inviting atmosphere in the room, accent lighting draws attention to the details of your bookcase display.

It’s like putting a spotlight on the parts you love the most. Plus, the warm glow from these lights can make your space feel more welcoming and inviting.

These puck lights are a great way to add soft lighting throughout your entire bookshelf. Or add a simple accent lamp on one or two shelves. 

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Shelf with accent light, bowl and decorative beads for decorate a bookshelf.

As always, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me. I love helping you achieve the look you want for your home.

Let’s go beyond the design to build something beautiful together!

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