Simple Formulas for Styling Bookshelf Decor


Does decorating a bookshelf leave you stumped? Do you want to display your art, greenery, decor and books on your shelves, but have no idea how to style them? Here you’ll find 5 no-fail formulas for nailing your bookshelf styling game!

When we moved into our new home, I became the proud new owner of built-in bookshelves! Yay!! I have always wanted built-ins, so I was so excited to decorated them. But when it came time to actually decorate them, I was at a loss.

Hale Navy Living Room with White Built-In Bookcases

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A few months back, I wrote a general decorating post on “How to Decorate Shelves.” And while it’s super helpful with bookcase decor ideas, like what to put on your bookshelves: books, greenery, interesting objects, & more. But once I had collected all of my objects, I needed to know how to arrange them on the shelves.

First off, I realized that I need more decor for my bookshelves. Ha! I sold or donated most of our books in my decluttering efforts in our old house. My kids have a huge bookshelf filled with books, but my husband and I only had a tiny shelving unit in our previous home.

Feminine Home Office with white built-ins


So, I don’t have a ton of books to put on shelves in the first place! That excited me, though, because I wanted to use them mostly for decor anyway. I do love books, though, and have purchased a few gorgeous coffee table books about design & decorating that are not only interesting to me, but are beautiful in my home.

How to Decorate Shelves and Bookcases with Simple Formulas that Work!
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General Styling Tips for Bookshelf Decor Ideas

I started by collecting all of the decor I could find in varying shapes and sizes. Everything like plants, art, decorative objects – anything that I found that I thought would look good on a shelf. I realized I was very short on decor items, so I bought some at World Market.

Your bookcase decor needs will depend on the size of your shelves. For example, I have short and long shelves, so can’t use super tall decor items. But if you have taller shelves, you can go for height!

Stick to a color palette. Everything looks more cohesive when you sprinkle the same colors throughout your shelves. For me, I knew I needed to use pink, because I have pink in my rug and the curtains I ordered. I also have a lot of turquoise, obviously. So, these were a given.

White built-in bookshelves with pink and blue decor | How to Decorate a Bookshelf

Use varying heights to add interest. And add height by laying books horizontally, then adding something on top of it.

Shop thrift stores for small items for your shelf styling and get some vintage books while you’re there. (I need to go on a thrifting spree for some new-to-me items.)

White built-in bookshelves with pink and blue decor | How to Decorate a Bookshelf

The Rule of Three. Always work in odd numbers, if you can! Groups of 1, 3 and 5 are much more pleasing to the eye than even numbers. You can see above how I used this “rule of 3” or odd numbers to decorate the open shelves in my home office.

Formulas for Shelf Decorating

As I searched Pinterest and Instagram for how to arrange these items on my shelves, I found several patterns or formulas I could use that looked good!

Formula #1: Two or three books stacked horizontally with a small decorative object on top.

How to Decorate Open Shelves with Simple Formulas

I’ve used this formula in several places around my house, not just on my bookshelves. But it’s a great way to display those nicer hardback books in your book collection. It looks good on a shelf by itself or with other groupings of other items.

Formula #2: Tray or box + a tall vase + shorter greenery

This formula is easy to accomplish with just a few items that most of us have around the house. I also layered two printables (from Lauren at Blesser House’s free printable library) behind the vase and greenery to give some more interest up there. I think the tray would also look really good filled with decorative spheres or greenery balls.

These free botanical printables are very popular, and you might like them, too!

Formula #3: Large art or decor item + another art or decor item layered in front + another large decor item to the side.

I’ve broken down this super basic formula into two parts, because it breaks the “rule of 3” about decorating with odd numbers. Essentially you’re just using two pieces of decor or art, but when you pair it with another 1 large item on the shelf, it makes it a “rule of 3”.

White built-in bookshelves with styling formulas

Here’s another example of formula #3:

White built-in bookshelves with styling formulas

Formula #3b: Large art or decor item + another art or decor item layered in front.

BUT, I will still use this layered art/decor formula by itself sometimes when a corner of a bookshelf is missing something and 3 items just don’t look right. It’s the one time I feel it’s ok to break that “odd numbers trump all” decor rule, because sometimes 3 pieces feel cluttered and 2 items look just right.

White built-in bookshelves with greenery, art and books!

Formula #4. Group of vertical books + vase or book end

One of the easiest ways to display your books is by grouping them together with a book end or vase to hold them up. I really like pushing them up against the side of the bookshelf, then just using one book end. But I will also put them in the middle of the shelf like I did in my living room.

White built-in bookshelves with beautiful decor: greenery, art & books - using easy style formulas

Formula #5: One large decor item + tall decor item + shorter decor item

Using varying heights, and the rule of three, this decor styling formula is a classic and easy way to decorate your shelves. It almost always works in every situation. And I’ve used it for years as I’ve decorated tops of tables and open shelves.

I’m sure I could search to find even more formulas for you to use in your shelf decorating, but I think these basic patterns and “rules” will take you a long way in your endeavors.

Simple Formulas for Decorating Bookshelves

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  1. Hi Laura. I’m using your beautiful bookshelf styling as a guide to complete mine this summer. Off the topic though, can you tell me what brand your leather recliner is? I love its style but can’t seem to find any online that I love. Thanks!!!

  2. Great post! Thank you for sharing. Bookshelves can look so untidy and boring if you are not a book lover. I’m off to redo mine!!

  3. Very pretty, and a very through explanation! Thank you!
    I’m like Marie: SO MANY BOOKS. My shelves end up less “pretty”, but as a family of 11 SERIOUS book lovers, they are still beautiful… to us. 😉 I do some decorating in front of my books, and I use these types of ideas on lots of other surfaces through my house. My oldest is working on buying a house, so a couple thousand books (not kidding) will be leaving soon! Yay! I think our house settles about 6 inches a year… allllll those books… 😁
    Off to take a look at my decor now…

    1. A couple thousand will be leaving? That is amazing! I love books, too, and grew up with tons of bookcases of books in our family of 8. But, we just don’t have that many because we didn’t have but one tiny bookshelf in our old house. Trust me, I used to work for a book publisher, so I had a LOT of books, but I just got rid of most of them. And honestly, don’t miss them! I think it’s a great idea to decorate in front of the books, or maybe save a little bit on a shelf for decor along with the books. And like you said, you can use these formulas on any flat surface in your home! 🙂 xo, Laura

  4. Your bookshelves are lovely – but where do you actually shelve all your books? Or don’t you read real books? We have shelves & shelves of books even though I have given away so many recently that we don’t think we will read again or can check out of the library. My husband reads a lot of books on a Kindle Fire. I don’t like to read electronic books – I love the feel of a real book. I intend to continue to purge our shelves but there will still be many we want to keep for life. Do you have any ideas for styling bookshelves with lots of books on them?

    1. Hi Marie, I shared in the post how we only had one small bookshelf in our old house, so I got rid of most of our books. 🙂 Mostly because we didn’t have the space for them! I love books and love having them around, but I realized when we had less space that I never re-read my books. So, once I’m done with a book, I donate it or give it to a friend. I’m also a big fan of the library and listen to audiobooks. So, we just don’t have many. And most of the books we DO have are in the closed cabinets in our living room, so we can use the open shelves for displays.

      I don’t have much experience styling bookshelves with actual books. But I would say that I’d probably fill up a shelf 1/2 or 3/4 of the way with books, and then add a little decor to each shelf or two, using the same formulas I’ve shared here! I hope that helps!!

      xo, Laura

      1. Great post! This is so helpful and timely for me, as we recently moved into a new house as well, and I am finally (after several weeks) to getting to the major decorating. I love styling shelves and have plenty of decor and vintage books, but sometimes I just need some inspiration and specifics to get me going! Thanks so much!

  5. Your built ins and crown molding are to die for!!! I love how you have styled your shelves. Great article, very helpful.

    1. Thank you, Melanie! I’m so glad it was helpful! And yes, so happy with our new home and all of the built-in trim work and features! xo, Laura

    1. Thank you, Laura! It’s been on my wish list for many years. Definitely look into building some of your own or moving into a house that already has them. I highly recommend! Ha! xo, Laura

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