My Best Shelf Styling Tips

Before I dive into today’s post, I’ve gotta give a shout out to that husband of mine. Today is his 33rd birthday! Thanks for everything you do for our family, Finn. I love you and there’s no one else I’d rather quarantine with than you!

Okay, now onto the topic of the day…my best shelf styling tips. As you saw in this blog post, I had a field day adding decor to our new office built-ins. Throughout that entire project, I kept thinking of the day when I could blast music, get out all of the items I’ve had in storage, and go to town styling away! Let me just say, it was an amazing day.My best shelf styling tips

But I know shelf styling can be intimidating for a lot of people. What do you display? How do you display it? How much is too much? How much is too little? Today, I’m going to break down my best shelf styling tips to help you with any surface in your home (dressers, built-ins, bookcases, etc.).

Shelf Styling Tips

Tips for shelf styling

First, there is no right or wrong way to style built-ins or a shelf. But if you want things to look cohesive and intentional, there are some steps to follow.

Clear It All OffClear off your built-ins

Whether you’re styling an area for the first time or you want to tweak your shelves, I think it’s important to start from scratch. Remove everything from the shelves and put the decor into piles. This is also a good time to give those shelves a good dusting! Starting with a blank slate is important so you don’t get stuck styling the shelves exactly the way they were before.

Gather Your ItemsGather all of your items before you start styling

Next, gather all of your stuff! I like to group my items into categories. Books, greenery, wood items, gold items, etc. That way, I have a clear sense of what I have and what I can display. You’ll probably need more than you think, so feel free to “steal” items from around the house.

Start With BooksGather all of your hardcover books together

I always like to add books when shelf styling and I prefer hardcover books. I recommend removing the book jackets because the natural spine looks a lot better than the jacket. I usually just recycle the jackets. Then, I sort my books by color, putting all similar colors together before I add them to the shelves.

Blue hardcover books on built-insFor my office built-ins, I stuck with white, black, and blue books to display. Turning books around to hide spinesI do have books with other spine colors, but for those, I put them at the top and have the spines facing the other way for a more natural look. I know some people are horrified by that thought (it’s crazy how polarizing that can be), but it works for me! Do what works for you…it’s your house!Start with books when shelf styling Once I know which ones I want to display, I add them around the built-ins, making sure they’re evenly scattered. I like to have some horizontal, some vertical, some touching the sides of the bookcases, and some floating in the middle. White hardcover booksHardcover books make for great accessories, so don’t be stingy with them. If you need to add to your book collection, I recommend hitting up a half-priced bookstore in your area or thrift store! You can find great titles at low prices for your shelf styling needs.

Ground SurfacesUse coffee table books to ground surfaces

Small items usually don’t look good floating all by themselves, so I like to add books to “ground” a space. Large coffee table books work really well for this. I used a couple on one shelf and placed a basket on top. Add a tray to your built-insTrays are also a wonderful idea (I have this one from Amazon)! You can group a few smaller items together on a tray and they look more intentional and less dinky.

Spread Out Colors/Textures/Metalswood items on built-ins

These are the first dark-colored built-ins I’ve ever styled and it was such a fun new challenge. I love how so many things pop off of the dark blue! I ended up keeping a few themes throughout the entire display…wood, gold, and cream/white. I made sure to spread these items out evenly so you could find elements of each category all over. My best shelf styling tips for home decor

See above…the wood, white, and gold elements are all spread evenly throughout the built-ins.

Include “Simple” Shelves

I think it’s important to have some shelves that aren’t too busy. If you put small items on every single shelf it can feel a bit cluttered. Have a few simple shelves. Books and plants on shelves

I have one cubby that just holds a big pothos plant and planter. Large Crate from Wausau, WI

Another has a large crate that I found at an antique store in Wausau, Wisconsin when we lived there. These big items break up all the visual clutter and keep the shelves from looking too messy.

Add Some HeightAdd height to your built-ins

Don’t neglect height when styling. Tall vases (like this one with champagne corks), candlesticks, and other taller accessories are great decor to add when shelf styling.

Group In ThreesGroup items in threes

The rule of threes is common in decorating. Items look better when grouped together like this. Group items together in threes

Keep it to threes or odd numbers for the best look.

Greenery Is A MustDon't forget greenery

I have three real plants and one faux plant on our office built-ins and they add lots of color to the space. For me, greenery is an absolute must! The plants add color, life, and happiness to any room (you can read about my indoor plants here). Once a week, I take the real ones off and water them in the bathtub. I let them dry fully before putting them back. That way there is no chance of dripping and harming the shelves.

Create Depth with LayersAdd a clock to the back of your built-ins when shelf styling

Once you have most of your decor in place, add some depth with layers. Lean frames at the back of the bookshelves, letter boards, even clocks work (here’s a link to this affordable one from Amazon)!

Sentimental Shelf IdeasBest shelf styling tips

When I revealed our office built-ins, I got so many comments about the sentimental items I have on our shelves. To me, that’s the most important part of decorating. Anyone can go to Target or HomeGoods and buy cute home decor, but it’s those quirky and personal items that really make your shelves stand out! Small elephant bookendI want someone to take a look at these and ask the story behind a particular piece because it’s so unique (like this elephant we got at a craft fair in Palm Springs). Your home should tell your story and what better way to do that than through accessories?! Here are some ideas to incorporate when you’re styling your own home. Add a basket of postcards to your shelf

  • Basket of Postcards: Finn and I love to travel, however, we’re not into random souvenirs. Instead, we always buy an ornament for our Christmas tree and a postcard. It’s super cheap and I write about the trip on the back of the card. I don’t mail it to myself or anything, but I plop it in a basket (this one is from HomeGoods) and I look through them every now and again to remember the fun places we’ve been together. I’ve heard from many of you who have started doing this and it makes me so happy! DIY Playbook HQ
  • Photo Booth Strips: Here’s another idea you see a lot around here…displaying photo booth strips! Finn and I always hop in a photo booth whenever we see one and I love collecting these precious memories. I have a small vase in our office to display them. You can also check out this blog post with more ideas for what to do with your photo booth strips.

  • Family Mementos: My great-grandmother was the most wonderful person and my mom is always telling me stories about her. I’ve inherited a lot of her precious items like the white pitcher and the small mug that she handpainted. She was such a talented woman and I adore these heirlooms. Hit up your parent’s or grandparent’s home and find a few special treasures that you can incorporate into your own home. Paired with modern accessories and other contemporary decor, these pieces will really stand out! Add framed pieces to your shelves
  • Framed “Art”: Again, this is another place where you can tell a story about your family, your relationship, and your past. This is a framed greeting card that I picked up in Quebec City on our trip last year. Scattered around the house, I also have framed lyrics from songs that are meaningful to us, framed letters, and other unique items. Think outside the box! You don’t always have to use a photo or random piece of art. Records are another fun thing to layer when shelf styling. I had a Chicago album that I leaned in the built-ins in our condo and I always got comments on it! Here’s a post with even more inexpensive art ideas. Typewriter
  • Flea Market Finds: You can’t beat one of a kind treasures! I found this typewriter at a flea market and we used it for our wedding card table (our wedding theme was love letters). I also have an old polaroid camera on the shelves, because I love photography, and a wood crate from Wausau, that everyone asks about! Search for cool accessories at flea markets, thrift stores, and antique shops that highlight your interests.
  • Polaroid Pictures: I keep a dough bowl of polaroid pictures in our living room (not on our office built-ins). These are always a hit and people love looking through them. Tips for shelf styling
  • Special Pieces: On the very top shelf, you’ll find this cookie jar full of our old love letters. (Fun fact: we actually used the cookie jar at our wedding for cookies! We had a cookie and milkshake bar for dessert.) Finn and I started dating in high school (before text messaging!) and we would write each other notes every day at school and pass them back and forth. We kept a good chunk of them and they’re all up in that glass jar! It’s fun to read through them every year or so, but also slightly embarrassing! Oh, the things we were worried about as kids.

Office Built-In SourcesTips for shelf styling in your home

Wall Color: Benjamin Moore “Ballet White” // Trim Color: Valspar “Simply White” // Built-In Color: Valspar “Chimney Smoke” // Drawer Hardware // Cabinet Hardware // Chandelier

From left to right; top to bottom: Vase (HomeGoods), Faux Plant (HomeGoods) // Painting (by my grandfather), White Pitcher (my great grandmother’s), Footed Planter // Frame (HomeGoods), Typewriter (Flea Market) // Wausau Box (Antique) // Wood Bowl & Vase (HomeGoods), Camera (Antique) // Candlesticks (Michaels), Gold Orb (HomeGoods) // Gold Frame, Capiz Frame (HomeGoods), Wood Ball (HomeGoods) // Vase (Lulu & Georgia) // Planter with Pothos Plant // Wood Box (HomeGoods), Elephant (Street Fair) // Basket (HomeGoods) // Jar // DIY Vase, Wood Vase (Target), White Vase (HomeGoods) // Glass Jar (Michaels), Planter, Clock // Letterboard, Vase (HomeGoods), Tray

Let the Shelf Styling BeginOur office built-ins

I hope you can take a look at all of the styled surfaces in your home and find ways to make them a bit more special and less generic. I’m telling ya…that’s what takes any home to the next level. It’s those thoughtful and sentimental touches!

Now, if you go home and work on your shelf styling today please tag me so I can see! I would love to follow along as you style away and use some of these takeaways in your own house.


The Year of Casey

Hey there!

I’m Casey Finn, the voice behind The DIY Playbook. I’m a Chicago gal teaching you how to design, DIY, and maintain your home…by yourself! Learn more about me right here.

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