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We are all fans of a large open shelving system, at least up to the point of shelf decor. When you don’t have an artsy side, staring at the empty shelves feels like when a writer contemplates a blank page – styling easily gets overwhelming.

But don’t worry – you are not alone! Shelf decorating is a perfect way to introduce bright colors, vintage vibes, or simply a personalized feeling. This, however, is easier said than done.

You want the open shelves to look pretty and stylish, and at the same time use them as a storage solution for small and impactful items. The best way to approach shelf styling is by thinking about what matters to us.

Are there book collections you wanted to display? Will the shelves be the home of your large travel memorabilia or family pictures? Are you an antiquity collector? If you answered any of these questions with a yes, you are on a good path to the perfect shelf decor.

How to style open shelves in the living room?

Let us answer the burning question: how to style open shelves in the living room without overdoing it? Where should you begin? Which items can you group? Will color arrangement work? Let us help.

Be it that you want a stylish living room everyone will admire or a simple and discreet design only for you, we have the solution. Keep reading.

How to position open shelves in the living room?

1-20-2 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source:D E Rink Construction

The first successful step on how to style open shelves in the living room is choosing the perfect location. Take the proportions of the room into account and place the shelves where they will attract the most visual interest. If the room allows it, go for floor-to-ceiling units with minimal fixtures and place all items you want. You will still preserve the strong and exciting look.

Many homeowners make the mistake of avoiding shelves in smaller rooms. If you ask us, this is where you need them the most, as they enable more storage.

1-21-2 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source:PROYECTO

Next, define the look of the open shelving unit. Will it be traditional and rusty, or sleek and contemporary? Will it feature large and unfussy items or detailed joinery of small accessories?

Next, make a list of the items you want to display and plan carefully. This way, you will have enough space for all items and the shelves will still look balanced and clean.

Start over

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We are not trying to discourage you from displaying all the belongings you want, but we still advise you to pick items carefully. To avoid clutter, get rid of all items you don’t use or even like. An idea would be to donate them – they might just be what someone else’s decor is missing.

Many homeowners ignore this step and end up with crowded and overwhelming shelves with multiple small items. But think of it this way – the more items you put on the shelf, the less impactful each of them will be. Sometimes, a single large piece can provide much more drama.

Last but not least, some items simply don’t belong on an open shelf. You can store those behind closed doors, and keep display space for more beautiful belongings.

Don’t get all items at once

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We all love browsing through home decor stores. At first sight, it seems they can offer all resources needed to furnish our space to perfection, but that’s not how shelving works. Give yourself some time and don’t jump for the first item you see. It will make it much more fun if you curate accents over time, and make sure they work with each other.

1-37 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source: Mimi & Hill interiors

Better yet, your purchases will be more thoughtful and inexpensive, and there will be a cute story to tell behind each of them. Surround the utility stores and go for thrift shops, flea markets, or even garage sales.

How to pick the perfect decorative items? On top of our heads, we would recommend candle holders, sculptures, books, ceramics, or figurines, but it is up to you to decide. If you chose chinoiserie style, for instance, look for items that will support the look, such as blue jars, Staffordshire dogs, etc.

Begin with the top shelf

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The best practice is to begin from the top and work your way down to the bottom shelf. It is the top shelf where you can put most of the items without cluttering the look, so try covering the majority of its surface.

For a more dramatic look, leave some space on one side, or even in the middle. What designers recommend the most is to lay similar home decor at different heights.

Balance is key

1-31 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source: Endless Ideas Interiors Inc.

Bringing open shelving to life is difficult, as you have a lot of space to fill. This is why you need to balance visual height and play with colors and materials in a way that soothes the viewer. Of course, we don’t want our shelves to look crowded and cluttered, but how do we ensure they are not too sparse and boring? That is the actual challenge.

When it comes to shelf styling, there are two main tricks to take into account. Large statement items work the best on their own, while smaller sculptures and accessories should be paired and grouped. Last but not least, they should be arranged symmetrically.

The groups you create should have a notable connection and be related in form and color. Remember – not all items need to be functional. Instead, grab a couple of mason jars with varying heights and fill them with colorful props. You will love how awesome they look.

Repeat the decorative items

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In the case of shelf decorating, repetition is encouraged. It doesn’t matter how many open shelves there are, or how large they are. The key decor item on the top shelf can repeat itself in smaller samples on the next shelves. Books look even better dispersed in multiple units instead of a single one.

Repetition provides balance and an uncluttered look. It doesn’t only refer to the type of items you use, but also to sizes, textures, or the color palette. In the end, you will have a harmonized and uniform look top-to-bottom, and you will love how well the shelves complement your room.

Pay attention to the material

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It doesn’t only matter what you put on the shelves, but also how they look on their own. Thickness is thereof a very important consideration, and it defines the appearance of your open shelving unit.

Wood, for instance, is always a good option. It provides a clean and confident appearance and works well with all decor items. A good idea is to look for shelves with adjustable heights so that you can accommodate any item you want.

There are many taller objects you can consider, such as large pictures, snake plants, or candlesticks.

Ensure there is some blank space

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Shelves that have multiple decorative items on them tend to get cluttered, so remember to leave some blank space here and there.

This way, the shelves will look more stylish, and visitors won’t have the impression that you just threw a random bunch of items on them. You are after an intentional, appealing look, and large collections of items won’t get you there.

Books, books, and more books

1-23-2 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source:Tess Bethune Interiors

What is an open shelving unit without books? Books are the starting point of any open shelving project, so consider this idea even if you are not a passionate reader.

Why books? This is your chance to create a cozy and private library, ideally accompanied by a comfy chair and a stylish lamp. Even if you don’t own a book collection, display the few favorites on your reading list and let them trigger a discussion.

1-24-2 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source: stephane chamard

You can group the books into smaller stacks, and place them both vertically and horizontally to attract more visual interest. If you are a passionate collector, arrange the books in color stacks for a more curated appearance.

How to begin? Grab a few books and arrange them upright at the end of one shelf. Complete the look with a beautiful vase, a small plant, or any other decorative accessory. Follow the same approach on the other shelves, but not in the same line – throw some zig-zags in there for a fun vibe.

Use artwork

1-25-1 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source: Josh Wynne Construction

Many homeowners overlook artwork while styling shelves, and that’s a pity. Beautiful and stylish pieces can boost up the personality of the room, especially if you created them or they have a special meaning for you.

The same as books, artwork provokes discussion and draws everyone’s attention as soon as they enter the room. Thanks to art, open shelves get a deeper, visually layered, and intentional look.

1-26-1 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source: Extreme Developers, Inc

Better yet, art is subjective, and you can’t go wrong with it. Just look for a piece you would enjoy looking at, be that a DIY project or an expensive sculpture you got at an auction. You can either get a single large piece or multiple items for each shelf.

Plan the color scheme

1-27-1 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source: Lace and Grace Interiors

Another critical aspect of any long open shelving project is the color palette. The tones and nuances you use can change the overall appearance of the room, so choose them carefully.

By saying this, we don’t only refer to the decor and functional items on the shelves, but also the shelves themselves. Instead of a single plain color, you can combine different nuances of timber. You can even combine timber with other materials such as fabric or wallpaper. Add even more visual interest by applying a painted finish on the back panel.

1-32 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source: Urbanology Designs

It sounds complicated, but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The room can be your main pointer and indicator, so play with the colors that are already there. If you need an accent color, paint the back of the shelves, and choose objects that work well with that color.

Follow the same rule when choosing materials and textures. You can get metal, porcelain, wood, or glass objects – as long as they are well planned and work with the room, the result will be amazing.

Photo galleries are not exactly modern

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Photo outfits on open shelving look cluttered and a bit outdated. This may be fine if you are a passionate photographer looking to display his masterpieces. If this is not the case, bring a photo display down to a couple of your favorite family shots.

1-59 How to Style Open Shelves in the Living RoomImage source: M/I Homes

Better yet, save the shelf space for unique and larger pieces, and hang the photos in unexpected locations. A good way to go would be to create a gallery on the staircase, or place pictures in cute, petite frames and arrange them on a side table.

Final thoughts

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Now that you know how to style open shelves in the living room, it is time for treasure hunting. You’ve got your floor-to-wall focal point, and you only need to make it memorable for every visitor. You will be surprised by what shelves and built ins can do – they can change the overall vibe and feel of the room!

Make all important decisions upfront – choose the materials, colors, and select items with prominent roles. Research for ideas or display your DIY items – as long as you enjoy looking at them, the job will be done.

Remember – this is not a permanent commitment to a style. What makes long open shelves so cool is that you can switch the look any time you want, and do so on a budget. Don’t batch-buy – instead, give yourself time and look for the perfect objects. They could be anywhere!

If you liked this detailed article on how to style open shelves in the living room, you should check out this article on how to arrange a narrow living room.

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