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How to Style Built-In Bookshelves

Built in bookshelves are a great way to elevate a blank wall while creating storage space. They’re an opportunity for you to organize your things with custom storage and display as well as showcase your style, interests, and personality. More than just a place to stash your things, built-in bookshelves add incredible style, charm, and architecture to a space. Want to learn how to style built-in bookshelves? Keep reading!

Create depth and dimension

When styling bookshelves, it’s important to create depth and dimension. Vary the heights, textures, materials, and objects in your lineup. Incorporate a wide variety of objects, such as vases, frames, books, plants, mementos, and quirky accessories. Don’t forget to include art and greenery! Visual depth creates visual interest, helping to draw the eyes and giving off a carefully-curated appeal. So remember: layer, layer, layer!

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Design by Jen Talbot Design

Incorporate overhead/accent lighting

Overhead or accent lighting is a thoughtful feature that will further spotlight your possessions as well as help to create a soft, comfortable ambiance. Incorporating brass sconces is also a great way to bring warmth and dimension to the space.

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light sconces, gold light sconces, brass sconces

Design by Saltbox Collective

Create an alcove for furniture

Using built in bookshelves to create an alcove for furniture like sofas and beds gives off a charming, architectural, and cozy feel. You can use built-ins to wrap around not only large pieces of furniture like beds and sofas, but you can also use them to create little nooks for vanities, reading benches, and office desks.

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built in around bed

Design by Eve Robinson & Associates

home office, home study, leather sofa

Design by mrs.paranjape

Balance is key

While many interior designers would advise against symmetry, balance is still important when designing any space. Consider the visual weight of each of your pieces and balance visually lighter objects with visually heavier objects. Make sure that one side of the bookshelf doesn’t look too heavy, otherwise visually your bookshelves will look lopsided. Style your bookshelves so that no area is too crowded or too sparse. Too crowded and your bookshelf will look cluttered; too sparse and it will draw no eyes.

home library, built in bookshelves
leather armchair, accent lights, accent sconces

Design by Jen Talbot Design

Use bookshelves to flank a doorway

Flanking a doorway with built-ins adds an architectural dimension to the space, and makes entryways look more inviting and a part of the home.

Create a library look

Built in bookshelves are a great option if you want to create a library feel in your space. Consider the color and size of your books, and place some lying flat horizontally and some standing upright vertically for variation. Add a ladder for a nice, personal touch.

bookcase with ladder, library ladder
library ladder

Design by Decor Aid

Shop your home

When styling bookshelves, it’s best to “shop your home” and find pieces that you can restyle and repurpose. Use what you already have instead of buying new decor. A good rule is to have a good mix of personal items that you already own, affordable decor from places like garage sales and Target, and only a few splurge items on pieces you truly love. It’s also best to be thrifty if you plan on continually restyling your bookshelves — don’t splurge a ton on something that won’t last through the season!

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Design by Dan Scotti Design

Be methodical

With such an empty canvas and possibly many potential pieces to showcase, it can be overwhelming to style bookshelves. If you’re wondering where to start, we recommend being methodical about the process. Clear everything off of your bookshelves and start with a blank slate. Gather all of your belongings and take inventory of what you have. Then, start creating groupings. A good rule is to have a large item that anchors supporting accent items. The rule of 3 is also a rule we stand by — essentially, group things in three’s. Additionally, odd-numbered groupings generally look better than even-numbered groupings. Play with placement and remember that it’s okay to be flexible and switch things up! Often times, styling bookshelves is a process — so continue styling!

built in bookshelves, modern living room

Design by Dan Scotti Design

Have a consistent color palette

Even if you’re going for an eclectic look, subtle color coordination is the difference between eye-pleasing eclectic and random design, organized chaos and cluttered mess. A consistent color palette will help your bookshelves look polished and cohesive. Think about the aesthetic you want to achieve: neutral, bright, or moody? Neutral with pops of color is always a good way to go. We highly recommend incorporating a metal such as brass, as well as using lots of organic materials.

Think about the rest of the space

It’s important to reflect on the rest of the space and the purpose that this bookshelf serves in that space. Is it a bookshelf in a library or home office that will be displaying primarily books? Is it in a kid’s room and will it be displaying toys and knick knacks as well as holding storage baskets? Or is it in a main living space, like the living room or dining room, meant to display aesthetically-pleasing pieces? Asking yourself these questions will help you envision how you want your bookshelves to look as well as narrow down which pieces you want to include in them.

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blue bookshelves, blue den, built in bookshelves around fireplace

Design by Eve Robinson & Associates

Showcase your personality

At the end of the day, this feature of your home is meant to reflect the things that you love. Use it to showcase your style, personality, and favorite belongings. While there are a ton of design “rules”, what matters most is that your space makes you happy. So while displaying family pictures on bookshelves may be a designer pet peeve for some, or while some designers may vehemently object to home decor from department stores like Target, the important thing is to include pieces that spark joy (Marie Kondo says hi!).

eclectic living room, chic living room, blue velvet sofa
built in bookshelves

Design by mrs.paranjape

Less is more

Your bookshelves should reflect a carefully curated selection of items that you truly cherish. Get rid of any clutter; every item on your bookshelves should either be beautiful, functional, or sentimental. Incorporating built-ins in your home is an opportunity to spotlight pieces you really love, rather than to create more clutter.

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Design by Eve Robinson & Associates

For more living room ideas check out our blue sofa styling ideas or ottoman vs. coffee table hints.