How to Stylishly Organize Your Bookshelves

Stylish BookshelvesCourtesy Loi ThaiRemember, you can always paint the backs of the shelves to add a pop of color.
If your bookshelves are where you park Pottery Barn catalogs, it’s time for an overhaul. Beyond their practical role — organizing those things we used before we had Kindles and iPads — bookshelves can serve as handsome display cases that let you decorate entire walls with objects you already own. The trick is finding a happy medium between the lonely shelves of a “style-challenged loser” and those of an “uptight freak show,” as designer Sara Ruffin Costello writes in the Wall Street Journal. Here’s how:

Empty them out: Start by pulling everything off the shelves, then sort books by subject, size, or color, suggests Loi Thai, who owns the Bethesda, Maryland, antiques shop Tone on Tone and shared his ideas in the Washington Post.

Weed out shabby-looking paperbacks and anything that reads Chemistry 101 on the spine. Ditch all gewgaws that aren’t worthy of display (including that Star Wars action figure collection). Be ruthless. Scour the house for nicer knickknacks: trays, vases, wooden boxes, and the like.

Create a backdrop: Consider painting the backs of the shelves to add depth as well as a pop of color. Go with a shade that’s darker than that of the shelves themselves to get the most impact.

Replace the big stuff first: Return your now-curated objects to the shelves, starting with the largest ones and using a zigzag approach. In other words, set a large accessory — such as a chunky box, a plate on a stand, or a pair of candlesticks — at the upper far left of the top shelf. (“Items with rounded edges are a nice contrast to all the books,” Thai says.) Then place another large object or a group of them on the far right of the shelf immediately below. And so on. You’ll create symmetry and balance by working from side to side like this. If you have two sets of shelves side by side, reverse the process on the matching case, putting a large item on the upper right and working downward in the opposite direction.

Fill in: Add books and smaller objects to the empty spaces, alternating horizontal and vertical stacks of books, placing the biggest ones on the bottom shelves and smaller ones up top.

Beware of overstuffing: The basic rule of thumb is one third books, one third accessories, and one third empty space per shelf. If you’re short on storage, fill the bottom shelf with identical boxes or baskets.

Let books do double duty: Use vertical stacks to buttress horizontal ones or to hold small objects. (Try books in a pyramid shape.) Rely on a mix of interesting shapes, textures, and materials, such as leather, wicker, horn, shell, metal, and ceramic. Try to balance dark with light, matte with shiny, round with square. If you don’t trust your taste, limit the number of colors and items you choose and simply vary the shapes. Thai displays like-toned collections of antique creamware, silver pieces, and marble objects on his shelves. “If you have too much going on,” he says, “it can be overwhelming.”

Think scale: Don’t display items that can’t hold their own. When grouping objects, remember that odd numbers of items tend to be more pleasing to the eye than even ones.

Add depth: Don’t just line the shelves from side to side. Think about layering objects from back to front, says Thai.

Evaluate: Costello advises you to step back and ask, Are there three big moments — top left, middle right, and bottom center (the golden triangle of styling)? Do the shelves look generally full? Is it too busy in one area and too empty in the others? (Rearrange.) Does one item stick out like a sore thumb? (Remove.)

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