Styling a Bookshelf—with Actual Books!


Search “bookshelf styling” on Pinterest, and here’s what you’re going to get: a lot of vases, oversized wood links, art prints, baskets, and books turned around backwards to show the pages, not the spine. All of which is, fine, and beautiful, and zen (if a little lacking in personality). It’s the Magnolia/Studio McGee/Chris Loves Julia brand of shelves, and it looks great. Unless you own books.

I don’t know about you, but I have always loved to read, and I’ve always loved books. I love being surrounded by them, and more importantly, I have a lot, and I need to store them!

That’s why I can’t imagine wasting perfectly good shelf space on exclusively art and sculptural objects. I love displaying treasures, but I also need storage. Yes, even in our living room, we expect our shelves to actually go to work, storing our many books.

But that kind of inspiration can be somewhat hard to find, so today, I’m sharing a journey of styling book shelves, with books! (And art! And vases!) We can do this, let’s start with inspiration.

Shelf Styling Inspiration, Featuring a Lot of Books

Dreamy! This is clearly a bookshelf of a reader, as the focus is really on the books—and seems primarily to be used as storage. But we also get some bookshelf styling, with a photo, a plant, some objects. This is a library vibe, in a very casual, comfortable, stylish way.

I LOVED this house tour of Glennon Doyle’s home, because I love to see books on display. Actual, colorful books no less!

Against the white wall, with the clear shelves, it really becomes an art installation. But, more importantly, these look like the books I read (in fact, I recognize some of those spines…) and they look great, in a beautifully designed home. We can all coexist, okay?

Ughhhh, how good is the alligator bookend situation in that shot? We love a whimsical animal bookend in this house.

But mostly, I am studying this bookshelf styling because, among the many books, we have some really interesting things going on. Yes, photos and objects, but also enough space for a big plant, and the entire top shelf is incredible, with vases, objects, another plant, and leaning artwork. (I love a leaning artwork, but I am not chill enough to actually execute on it very often.) Even with all of the book storage, it’s clear we’re in a styled space.

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Tips for Styling a Bookshelf with Books

Obviously, putting books on shelves is simple enough, but making things feel designed and intentional and styled, well, that requires a little bit of attention!

If you want to love the way your shelves look, my biggest tip is not to rush it. Feel free to take some time to marinate. I like to just pop everything on the shelves, and wait it out a little while. Eventually, I’ll notice patterns and colors—and start having bookshelf styling ideas as things bother me.

Then, I start moving things around until they feel right. But I do have a few clues to keep in mind.

Switch Up the Spines

Glennon Doyle specifically broke this rule above, but look at the other two examples and observe the way the spines move from vertical to horizontal. There are horizontal stacks next to vertical spines, some have a bit of a lean going on, some stacks create a surface for frames or objects.

Mix up the spines when bookshelf styling to create a sense of balance and movement. I love displaying treasures, but I also need book storage. So, today, we're talking bookshelf styling that includes actual books!

Mixing up the spines takes a repeat visual shape (the lines of books) and makes it more interesting for your eye. Create some big stacks, some small stacks, some vertical books in large groups, some in small chunks, some with bookends, others casually leaning, etc.

Basically, mixing it up to keeps your eyes engaged. If you can’t figure out what feels off, start by checking for too many repeat shapes in your spines.

Consider Color

The internet is full of ideas about colors of book spines. You can go full rainbow, create fun gradients, sort by color. Color is so important in design, and it would be a shame not to think at all about the colors of your spines at all.

You don’t have to fully sort by color or in rainbow order if you don’t want to. I personally usually do a “soft sort” (I just made that up, LMK if that’s dumb) in that I’ll put together the yellow/orange/peachy-colored spines, mixing in some white or black spines as well. Then I’ll put some greenish/blueish/purpley ones together as well. I’m not hardcore about it, and I think that makes it feel cohesive but not too stiff.

Consider grouping by color in a casual way when styling your bookshelf. I love displaying treasures, but I also need book storage. So, today, we're talking bookshelf styling that includes actual books!

Also consider the weight of colors—I put a block of white books on a high shelf to still get the storage out of the high shelf without it feeling too heavy or off balance.

And, of course, sometimes it’s fine to ignore color. If you have a bunch of different colored coffee table books and you want to stack them all together because of the similar shape and size, go ahead. Mix up your own rules, you got it!

Decorate Around the Books

Again, personal preference matters here—if you want a bookshelf full of just books, go for it. But we’re talking *bookshelf styling* here.

Books are beautiful, but they’re all the same basic shape, right? While we mix up spine orientation to mix up the shapes and give our eyes somewhere to travel, we should also consider other shapes we can add.

Vases, sculptures, frames, and other decorative objects give your eye a respite from the lines of the books. Pop a small sculpture on top of a stack of books, lean an art piece against the wall, or just pop a vase on that shelf. Consider adding round shapes specifically to break up all of those straight lines.

Including art, decor, vases, and even sculptural bookends among your books helps your eye move around. Click to read more bookshelf styling tips that involve actual books!

And please, please, choose objects you really like, that have a personal story, or are crafted by artisans, as you are able. That generic wood link object from Target is fine, but let’s find something you’re going to love for a little longer.

Bonus: Bookends Break it Up

I love our dachshund book ends! (I told you above that we love an animal book end in this house.) Bookends are great tools for mixing up shapes, because they keep books from being exclusively square at the ends. Makes sense, right?

Use bookends to break up that linear shape when you need to, there are SO many great options out there, full of personality.

Our Living Room Shelves, Featuring Books

Here it is—your first peek at our living room after removing the front door, doing an addition, and having a new fireplace and shelves installed! I am excited to share more soon, but select things are still in progress (as you may be able to tell in these photos, we have some lights to install on the shelves yet).

I love having bookshelves in our living room—we did in our last house as well—because you can add so much interest and personality. Plus, of course, we have books to store! Ready to see? Here we go:

On this side, I kept it book-heavy on the bottom because the books have so much visual weight, it starts to feel out of balance quickly when you have a lot of books on a high shelf. I’m not sure if I’m going to keep that bottom shelf full like this or not, but I’m liking the progress so far.

And on the other side, we have a few solid stacks of coffee table-sized book on the bottom, with just a few decor items breaking up the books above. I love seeing some of my favorite design and garden books on display, along with pieces from our travels and little artworks.

Shelf Styling to Showcase Books

Calling all book lovers! Are you feeling a little more confident bookshelf styling…with actual books? I sure hope so! The main things to keep in mind are shape and colors, of course. Think about how we are keeping our eye moving around while also showcasing what is a very visually repetitive collection to own.

Let me know in the comments which of these tips were helpful to you!

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