Built-in shelves are a storage option with a key feature to bear in mind: they’re visible all the time, which means they should be aesthetically pleasing. Thus, you have the decor to consider as well as the functionality. 

Whether you have new shelves or are just looking to revamp your old ones, you’re likely wondering how to decorate built-in shelves so that they look great and fit in with the rest of the room. After all, there’s nothing like having guests come over and compliment you on your eye for interior design..  

Well, you’re in luck! In this article, we’ll go over: 

  • How to prepare before decorating your shelves 
  • Ideas for what to put on your shelves  
  • Common mistakes to avoid as you decorate 
  • How to style built-in shelves step-by-step 

Preparing to Decorate Your Built-In Shelves 

Before you even begin to look for shelf decor ideas, it’s wise to prepare for the process. This means doing a few things to clear the space and ensure you have a fresh base and the right mindset to start.  

Working from the ground up is the key to creating anything great, so try not to work around any clutter you may have collected there. The following tips will help your creative side flow and inspire great shelves.  

To start: Out with the old! 

Clear the Shelves 

If you’re redesigning an existing look instead of starting from scratch, it’s important to clear out what’s already there. Even if you anticipate putting some things back in their original place, it’s difficult to picture what you want the shelves to look like if you have objects getting in the way of your creative vision. Find a temporary place for them before you begin (even if it pains you to take down pictures of the kids and pets). 

Consider the Rest of the Room 

No matter the room they’re in, consider the shelves in the wider context of the rest of the room. If there’s a specific theme in the room, such as particular colors, patterns, or an actual theme (like western or modern), you should start to think about tying the shelves into this design. Bright red decor might look odd against sky blue walls, for example.. 

Think About Paint or Stain Colors 

You don’t have to stick with the original color of your built-in shelves. You can gently sand them and give them a few coats of wood stain or paint if you’re changing the rest of the room or they don’t fit in with what’s already there.  

Consider using your shelves to provide a pop of color that ties into other accessories in the room, or paint them a neutral shade to fit in.  

If the room has lots of cool colors, for example, painting them gray might look much better than leaving them brown. 

Weigh Up Storage vs. Aesthetics 

The last thing you need to consider before beginning to decorate your built-in shelves is how much space you need for storage. You may want to use them to hold books or other items, or you might want to dedicate the space purely to enhancing the room’s aesthetic. 

If you have too much to store, cut it down, so it doesn’t look cluttered and you have room for your creative touches.  

Once you have your base and an idea of what you want to do, it’s time to get to the fun part: decorating. 

Top 5 Shelf Decor Ideas 

Before you run to the store, you should know that you don’t need to go out and buy everything you want to add to your shelves. You most likely own some great candidates already—just check your closets, nightstands, and tables. Reusing items you find around the house can save you money, reduce clutter elsewhere, and bring some life back into the things you already own.   

As you look around at home or in-store, here are some shelf decor ideas that will make you look sophisticated, fun, and make sure your home is the oasis you need after a long day at work. 

1. Books 

Books are, perhaps, the most obvious thing to put on built-in shelves! If you have a large collection, consider what you want to display. It may come down to picking books with appealing covers or choosing what genre represents you best.  

If you want to give off an air of sophistication and intelligence, you can place a collection of classics there—most of which you can find pretty cheap in thrift stores, and you’re not obligated to actually read them. 

You don’t have to have all of your books on display. Only the ones that make you look like your best self.

decorate shelves with books

2. Plants 

Plants are a great addition to any shelf. They offer natural beauty and breathe life into your home—and you can use artificial ones if you know you’ll forget to water real ones.  

If you have animals, make sure you pick pet-friendly plants. Even if they’re up high, cats have an inexplicable talent for reaching impossible places to get into things they shouldn’t. 

Bonus Tip: If you do place real plants on your shelves, don’t water them there. Instead, remove them, water them, and put them back when they’re dry. Water and wood don’t mix well, so this will protect your shelves in the long run. 

Style Your Shelves with Plants

3. Personal Pictures and Artwork 

Another great touch is personal pictures. Whether they’re pictures of your family, pets, or travel adventures, decorating your shelves with these can really give them that unique touch that’s authentic to you. Pick some cool picture frames or hang polaroids on the walls of the shelves to add more memories while taking up less space. 

Alternatively, consider some artwork you love. It could be art done by a friend or family member or something you’ve purchased. It doesn’t have to be an original that you spent thousands on—prints are nice too. 

Style Shelves with Art

4. A Lightbox 

A personalized lightbox lets you display a feel-good message of your choice for your wall shelf decor. They come in a variety of colors and intensities to suit your room and style.  

Whether you’re a ‘live laugh love’ kind of person or want something more ‘you’, the beauty of these lightboxes is your ability to customize them. You can even change it to welcome guests when you have them over.  

Style Shelves with Lightbox

5. Ornaments and Figures 

Lastly, consider ornaments and figures for shelf decorations. There’s a huge variety, so you can customize your choices to your exact taste.  

Consider some fun, bold accessories, or opt for more neutral and classic sculptures and ornaments. You could even use these as bookends, but make sure they’re heavy enough to hold all of those classics. 

Style Shelves with Objects

Mistakes to Avoid When Decorating Built-In Shelves 

Although designing is a personal process, there are some classic mistakes to avoid with decorative shelves. Start slow, and make sure you bear these in mind as you begin to collect your decor and organize it.  

Cluttering 

It’s possible to do too little when it comes to decor, but it’s even more likely that you’ll end up doing too much. Knowing how to decorate shelves without looking cluttered is a great skill and one you’ll need when making your shelves look their best. Plus, studies have shown that people with lots of personal belongings (and therefore, clutter) have higher levels of stress. 

One tip to prevent clutter is to space out the belongings and decorations on your shelves. If there’s no room for space, there’s probably too much going on. 

Minimalism is key here, especially as built-in shelves are so visible. There’s nothing worse than sitting in your happy place and seeing a mess in your line of sight that refuses to let you relax. 

Failing to Create Variety 

Some of the best built-in bookshelf decorating ideas involve creating variety in height, spacing, and texture. It can look unexciting if you have multiple shelves full of books or plants and nothing else.  

Instead, try to create something different on each shelf. It’s much more pleasing to the eye. For instance, you might try tall plants on the top shelves and short, stocky books on the one underneath or a combination of both on both shelves. 

You can also position alike items differently, such as placing some books vertically and others horizontally.  

The Sunk Cost Fallacy 

If you already have decorations for your shelves, you might want to use all of them instead of putting some in storage. This can lead to not only clutter but adding things that don’t match the room and ultimately creating a look you aren’t happy with. 

Don’t force everything. If you’ve made purchases in the past that you can no longer return, that money is gone regardless of if you use the items or not, so there’s no point in telling yourself that you must use them. You’ll end up unhappy with the look and missing the money regardless—which is exactly what sunk cost fallacy means. 

Moving Too Fast 

In the same vein, you don’t want to move too fast on this. It’s better if you end up needing to get more things to place on the shelves than if you end up with too much.  

As you begin your step-by-step process, take it slow and know that this isn’t an urgent task. Better to do it right than do it quick. 

A Step-By-Step Guide to Styling Built-In Bookshelves 

We’ve covered a lot, but what does all this look like in action? To make it easy, here is a quick recap in the form of a step-by-step guide.  

Follow these steps to make your shelves look incredible—and remember, you can take your time on each one. 

  1. Clear off the shelves if there are items already there. 
  1. Consider the theme of the room.  
  1. If you want a new color, sand them down and paint them. Make sure you do two coats and let it dry completely before continuing. 
  1. Pick out any items you already have that you want on the shelves, whether it’s books to store or personal items you want on display. 
  1. Arrange your decor on the shelves and see how much space you have left. 
  1. Find items to fill the rest of the space. Rather than only visiting generic stores, try thrift stores, unique boutiques, and online stores such as Etsy for things you won’t see anywhere else. 

And most importantly, don’t stress! You can always add, remove, and rearrange your built-in shelf decor whenever you want.. 

At the End of the Day, Your Built-In Shelf Decor Ideas Are Personal 

The main thing to remember when it comes to how to decorate built-in shelves is that you should put your personal stamp on them. If you don’t like something there, don’t force it—those shelves may just not be the place for it. 

Be methodical to ensure you get the best result, but remember that it’s also important to be true to yourself and enjoy the creative process to really personalize that part of your room.