Accessorizing Bookshelves

In my book (no pun intended), built-in bookshelves are gold in any room. They provide a focal point and the perfect opportunity to accessorize.  They’re not cheap to build so if you have them in your house, consider yourself blessed.

This week I styled some built-ins for a room I’m working on.  Here’s where I started…

And here is what I ended up with….

The first step was to remove all the shelves and paint the back Jasper Stone, a color by Sherwin Williams that works with the plans for the decor in this large family room.  I put back only some of the shelves and staggered them for interest.

If you have built-in bookshelves or plan to in a future home–and you’d like some tips for pulling it all together–here is how I do it.  

I start by finding some good books because, let’s face it, bookshelves need books.  Not too many, but some.  

I prefer hardbacks and I like for the covers to have some character, the older the better.  Sometimes I fill in with paperbacks that I’ve ripped the covers from and tied up with string.  

When placing the books, I alternate right, left, and center.  I also scatter them throughout for balance. 

Speaking of balance…

I follow the Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear rule–some deliberately very large items, some medium-sized ones, and a few smaller pieces to fill in the gaps.  

I begin by placing the biggest accessories first, making sure they are evenly distributed throughout. In this case, it was the big urn with faux ferns, the stool and green jar, the faith/worry sign,  and the large wire urn.  

I aim for repetition either with color, texture, or theme.  In this built-in I used ferns in several places, several very dark items, and three of these spouts from vintage watering cans that I used as vases.  I wish I had bought several of these for myself because I just love them.

To add depth, I almost always hang something on the back wall of a built-in. Here I hung a very old clock that I found.  It doesn’t work and it’s a little dented and dinged, but who cares?  I’m guessing it was once used in a school which is appropriate since the homeowner is a teacher.  She wasn’t home when the photos were taken but has since set the clock to the time of day her daughter Faith was born, which coincidentally was exactly six years ago today. 

Another way to add depth is to place larger pieces in the back, medium-sized ones slightly forward, and something smaller near the edge of the shelf. I just say no to lining everything up with no variation in height.   Tall, medium, short–that’s my goal. 

I also always make sure that any framed photos I use are placed low enough that they can easily be seen.  

In the end, accessorizing built-in bookcases is like working a puzzle. There are some principles you can follow, but you just have to keep at it until it looks good to you.  When you’ve finally gotten it right, you’ll know it. 




12 thoughts on “Accessorizing Bookshelves

  1. Oh, I am lovin’ this! Nothing boring about these bookcases. Painting the back of the cabinet makes everything pop. I may do that to the bookcase that is in the kitchen eating area, housing cookbooks and some vignettes with vintage dishes. Love that the homeowner set the clock to the time her child was born…a significant detail like that just makes it special.

    1. She said she was desperate for some color, so we started with the bookcases. You should try it with your kitchen piece. It really does make a difference.

  2. Jill, this looks soooo good! The color you used for the background is so striking and every accessory is perfect. I especially like the watering can vases ( I’ll keep my eye out for those!) and how cleverly you used all the books! The 3 bears analogy is one I’d never heard – it makes sense. ? I would love to have seen her face when she walked in and saw this!!

    1. Thanks! It was quite a transformation and took a lot less time than I thought it would, especially since I had a two-year old with me. He was my helper!

  3. Hi Jilly! What a great post. It’s a keeper! I learned a lot from your suggestions. I especially loved painting the back. Question: what do you do with a small shelf that has equally spaced permanent placed shelves? Can’t make shelves different heights, widths, etc. Maybe you could take a look at my post at
    about the shelf my Dad made for me years ago. It’s already styled but I’m open to your ideas. Have a wonderful weekend. Pat

  4. I love the way you decide what to put and where. Now i need to look at my non-built-in shelves, and see what i can change. Thanks and love those vases.

  5. ❤️ Love so many things…the paint choice for background, clock set when Faith was born, ripped covers from paperbacks (need to do this) and staggered bookshelves for interest! Lovely! ❤️❤️❤️

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