Shelf Life | How to Style a Bookcase

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Shelf Life | How to Style a Bookcase

Photography courtesy of ab design elements

Take your shelves to new heights with tips on how to style a bookcase from interior designers.

What makes a house a home is personalization. Whether you’re a bookworm, art lover or have a collection of hand-crafted baskets you’ve collected while globetrotting, displaying your unique treasures is a way to put your personal stamp on your décor. We talked to interior designers to get their advice on how to style a bookcase.

“Bookcases and open shelving can be used for art display, books, frames and dishes. They can also be used to divide interior spaces, instead of a wall, offering display and storage for both sides of the divider,” Amy Klosterman, owner of ab design elements, says.


If you’re wondering how to style a bookcase that looks like it belongs in the lobby of a five-star hotel rather than in your old college dorm room, applying design principles helps create an aesthetically pleasing bookcase or shelving unit. 

No matter what you’re planning to display, the trick to having a polished look is thinking about balance and composition so there is a flow and cohesion to the space. Gather all the items you want to include so you can see what you’re working with and how they might go together in terms of colors, size and shapes. 

“If you’re using books, have some stacked horizontally and others placed vertically to give you different levels to start your styling,” Klosterman says. “For example, on a stack of horizontal books you can place a plant on top to add some interest.”


With décor items Klosterman suggests varying the heights of each item to ensure you’re using vertical space, as well as creating more visual interest. You’ll also want to vary the amount of items on each shelf. Placing a single large piece on a shelf next to a shelf with three smaller items will help keep the bookcase in balance and avoid an overcrowded look. 


According to designer Bonnie Lewis, owner of Bonnie Lewis Designs, wood continues to be the most popular shelving material, but the trend is shifting from painted white wood to natural medium to dark tones.

Painted cabinetry and using wallcoverings, accent colors and ribbed textures within the bookcase openings are being used more and more to add interest and depth. 


Today, bookcases are used for far more than housing books. In a recent project, Lewis centered her design for a multimedia room around a custom bookcase created to highlight the client’s extensive movie collection. 

While open kitchen shelving isn’t a new trend, it continues to gain in popularity as designs skew more towards modern and minimalism. In a recent client design, Klosterman used smoked glass and metal to conceal dishes, as well as to add interest through a mixed use of materials and sheen. 


People are also using bookcases to double as coffee bars or speakeasies. 

“In a current project we have a steel and glass bookcase that will serve as an enclosed coffee bar sitting within the long expanse of wood cabinetry in the kitchen—it will graphically break up the cabinetry and offer a focal point for the room,” Klosterman says. “At night, the glow from the lighting within, will provide ambient light for the kitchen.”

Today the only limit to what you want to showcase in your home and how you want to do it is your imagination. 

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