I’ve been wanting to share my tips on shelf styling with you for quite some time so I thought given I have a lovely shelf sat in my living room, it was a good opportunity to do just that. Of course, there are a million ways to style a shelf and that’s probably why the hashtag #shelfie is so damn popular over on Instagram and how it became a ‘thing’. Showing off a pretty shelf (or in this case, a shelving unit) gives us the opportunity to express our own style and personality and every single one – even within the same house – will be different. For me, I love all things gold and glam with a little touch of bohemian and so that’s essentially how I’ve styled mine. Your results will (and should) vary.

The Easiest Way to Style a Shelving Unit

However, whatever your style, I think that the way you approach shelf styling can actually be methodical as well as creative. I have previously deconstructed styling a coffee table in the past as well as a bar cart, breaking it all down into the basic elements that I tend to always use and shelf styling is really no different in that respect. So walking you through my process today (there’s even a gif!) might give you some ideas on how to style your own shelves in your own way.

Caveat 1: I feel like I’m going to keep repeating this until we finally change things but I feel the need to just start by saying we only just moved a month ago into our home so I haven’t yet updated the living room and the paint, wallpaper and carpet were the choices of the previous owners. Still, it’s fine for now and so I’m working with it until we get around to getting all that good stuff done!

Caveat 2: Because I know I’ll get asked, the shelving unit is vintage (Pierre Vandel from the 70’s). You can read more about how I came to acquire this beauty here.

Step 1: Assess the Space

Shelf Styling Tips - Start with analysing the space you have to work with

Now for this particular shelving unit, we can see that there are shelves at different heights and widths. You might have something similar if it’s built-in or you may be able to adjust your shelves to accommodate various heights of items. But what this does is gives me an idea of the space I have to fill and the shapes of objects I might want to use.

For instance, the right side of the bottom shelf is quite long and wide but not particularly high whereas on the left side, I have quite a bit of height to work with. So I’ll use the negative space there to decide how big or wide my objects going on those shelves might need to be whilst also giving some items a bit of breathing room.

Step 2: Gather Your Supplies

How to Style a Shelf - Gathering Supplies

I normally have a loose colour theme in my head (use the existing elements of your room and your own tastes to guide you) so for this, I knew I wanted to use gold (always gold with me), white, green and a few touches of pink. There are other colours as well in there but those were my main four. My second step was to gather supplies that work within that colour scheme. I will normally do a bit of a whizz around the house and see what I have that might fit and I’ll just put everything in a little pile somewhere – in this case, the floor!

What will you be looking for? Books, candles, trays, objects, baskets, boxes, vases, plants, flowers, smaller pieces or art or picture frames and anything else that catches your eye. Make sure you have a good variety of items in different sizes, shapes, heights and textures and look out for anything quirky or interesting that will bring personality to your display. There really are no hard-and-fast rules here!

Step 3: Start with Books and Magazines

Shelf Styling Tips - Start with books and magazines

I knew I wanted books in my shelving unit so I started with placing a few stacks on various shelves. Of course, you can place your books vertically as well but – perhaps bizarrely – I don’t own a single set of bookends (!!) and so I decided to only stack them horizontally here. I also included a stack of magazines so if you don’t have a lot of books but are a bit of a collector of magazines, this works too.

As you can see, I stuck pretty closely to my colour theme when it came to choosing what books I’d use on my shelf. So most of the spines are either pink or green with a few black/grey/neutrals as well. You don’t have to be this pedantic, of course, but it does make for a more pulled-together final look!

Step 4: Add Some Life

Shelf Styling Tips - Add Your Plants

The next step for me is adding some life. There is pretty much no surface which cannot be improved with plants in my opinion. Now, at this point, I’d advise to only start with your larger plants. You want to start with your biggest items before moving on to the medium and small. And plants – due to their lovely leafy nature – are great for filling in some of that blank space without overwhelming it. We can see now there’s a nice variation between width (the books) and height (the plants) and we want to keep repeating this pattern, varying the relationships between your items so that you have items that take up space horizontally and items that take up space vertically.

Step 5: Add a Tray

Shelf Styling Tips - Add a Tray

So as you’ll notice in Step 3, I didn’t include books on every shelf. So what else can be used to create that horizontal effect I wanted? A tray of course. Trays are another one of my go-to’s when it comes to styling almost any area in my home and they are perfect for corralling smaller decorative items to make them look a bit more purposeful and less like just a bunch of random stuff you haven’t bothered to put away.

Step 6: Add Your Larger Objects

Shelf Styling Tips - Add Your Larger Objects

Next, I’m moving on to a couple more larger pieces – in this case, a white ceramic horse and a gold skull. I purposely chose an item that was a little higher on that top shelf given the amount of negative space I had to fill and for the second squarer shelf, I chose something a little shorter and wider. So let the space you have dictate the size of the items you use. I find it’s normally more effective to use one large item that commands a bit of attention than a bunch of tiny ones to keep things from looking a little too cluttered.

Step 7: Layer In Medium Sized Objects

Shelf Styling Tips - Add Your Medium-Sized Objects

After that, I can move on to medium-sized items. I always like to include candles on shelves because I think it looks pretty at night so I included a large pink candle and a ceramic white pineapple, a small gold urchin on the bottom shelf and another candle next to the plant in the peach pot.

Bonus Tip! In between every step, stand back a bit and assess if things are working. You might find you need to swap out one large item for a different one or change around the books or add a dash of colour somewhere to balance things out. You’ll almost never get it perfect on the first go so give yourself a little time to tweak throughout the process.

Step 8: Layer In Your Smallest Items

Shelf Styling Tips - Add Your Smaller Objects

So once my medium items are there, I simply look to see if there are any smaller or awkward spaces that need a bit of filling in. This is where your smaller items will come in. A little pink and gold bowl and a set of vintage glasses finished off the look. Resist the urge to fill your shelves with lots of tiny things here – it’s always better for a shelf to have slightly too little on it than to be overly cluttered. (Obviously, “too cluttered” is subjective and as a maximalist at heart, this is my version of slightly more restrained – yours will probably look very different!) ;)

Step 9: Add Art

Shelf Styling Tips - Add Your Art

Now I could have easily left it just like that and called it done. However, I felt like something wasn’t quite right. The largest shelf (3rd down on the right) felt a bit off somehow. Remember, that odd numbers always look more pleasing to the eye and after trying a few items out to balance it, I decided perhaps the best thing was to have some art behind, creating my eye-pleasing triplet of items and creating a more layered effect. I chose another piece of art for the top left as well to balance it all out.

Of course, this probably could have been Step 4 or 5 perhaps but well, this is real life and how the shelf ended up looking like this! But if you are looking to add small pieces of art to your shelving, try to do it when the largest items are going in so you can layer in front of them!

And that’s it! My shelf is done. Here’s a little breakdown of everything that I included in my shelf styling if you wanted to pin it for future reference…

Elements for Styling a Shelving Unit - Step by Step Guide

And here’s a cute little gif I made showing exactly how the shelf was done step-by-step.

Shelf Styling Gif

I do find a gif quite satisfying, don’t you? (Okay, maybe that’s just me then).

How to Style a Shelf

And here of course, is the finished look in the context of the rest of the living room. Complete with sleeping dog.

Deep plum living room with gold accents and styled shelving unit

Anyway, I hope you found that following my thought process was helpful! Would you want to see more styling tips? If so, anywhere in particular that you struggle with? Otherwise, I’d love to hear if you have any of your own tips so do share in the comments below!

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