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8 Tricks Interior Design Experts Use to Stylishly Organize Bookshelves

Beyond their practical role—organizing those things we used before Kindles and iPads—bookshelves can serve as handsome display cases. Here’s how to decorate bookshelves to make them look their best.

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First: Empty your bookshelves

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 and scour the house for nicer knickknacks: trays, vases, wooden boxes, and the like. These decorating mistakes could make your house look messy.

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Create a backdrop

Consider painting or adding wallpaper to the backs of shelves to add depth as well as a pop of color. For the most impact, go with a shade that’s darker than shelves themselves.

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Replace the big stuff first

Return your now-curated objects to the shelves, starting with the largest ones and using a zigzag approach. 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.

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iStock/Marco Rosario Venturini Autieri

Fill in the blanks

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. “I like it when books look organized,” says Marissa Sauer, interior designer and founder of Design MACS, “so if I have a stack that’s left to right, I’ll put the tallest one on the outside and the smallest one on the inside.” These are the secrets of people with impeccable homes.

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iStock/Ross Chandler

Beware of overstuffing

The basic rule of thumb for decorating and organizing bookshelves: 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. Organize 60 percent of books vertically and 40 percent horizontally to create both balance and spontaneity. These are the tricks interior decorators would never tell you for free.

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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.”

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Think scale

Don’t display items that can’t hold their own. “Objects that are heavier tend to work best,” says Sauer. “I like them to be on the small side; maybe 8 inches tall at most.” When grouping objects, remember that odd numbers of items tend to be more pleasing to the eye than even ones. Sauer recommends shopping antique stores and fairs in order to find unique accessories. Have you read any of these bestselling books of the decade?  Keep them on your shelves for a colorful accent.

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Evaluate your masterpiece

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.)

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest