How To Decorate The Shelves In Your Living Room

Living Room Shelves
Shelves offer the perfect space to showcase your favorite items and create beautiful arrangements, and decorating your shelves is a simple yet effective way to add a touch of personal style to your living room. 

In this article, we'll share an array of inspiring ideas for decorating your shelves, along with expert tips for achieving the layouts and designs. 

So, grab your favorite decor, and let's get started on bringing some personality to your living room. 

6 Tips For Decorating Your Living Room Shelves

When decorating your living room's shelves, it's essential to have a game plan for how you'll achieve the finished look you desire. You'll need to consider everything from the size of the shelves to the decorative objects you're thinking of using to create points of interest.

"Decorating shelves can feel a little daunting, so my biggest tip is to divide and conquer. Focus on one shelf at a time and work your way through the whole shelving unit."

But don't try to do it all at once. "Decorating shelves can feel a little daunting, so my biggest tip is to divide and conquer," says Megan Dufresne. "Focus on one shelf at a time and work your way through the whole shelving unit. Once you have your basic decor in place, you can tweak and move things around as needed to create visual balance," adds the California-based designer.

Here are some top tips on decorating the shelves in your living room.

1. Decide on a Color Scheme

Firstly, deciding on a color scheme is important — this is a crucial part of the process because it influences everything else.

For example, getting a bright pink neon sign might not be the right fit if you're looking for a minimalist, neutral scheme. Whereas if you're going for a summer theme, you'll probably benefit from bright and bold colors and seaside-themed decorative objects you'd typically associate with summer holidays.

Items on a shelf
Credit: MC Design

You can be relaxed with the color scheme, as being too strict can often take the fun out of decorating. However, it can help bring the look or vision you have in your mind together. It avoids any obvious decorating choices that clash with another feature.

2. Choose a Selection of Decorative Items

Next up, you'll want to select the right items to decorate the shelves. There are lots of beautiful items you can use for your shelving. For example, you could:

  • Incorporate a bit of nature into your home through house plants and benefit from the clean air they help create;
  • Add a bit more personality to the house with picture frames that add character and interest, or;
  • Accessorize with candles, books, vases, and small sculptures.

It's all down to personal choice and what items you wish to display. Everyone's different regarding their interior design preferences and their home in general, so make your own decisions on what you'd like on display.

3. Choose a Variety of Shapes, Heights, and Sizes

When it comes to styling shelves, it's vital to pick a variety of shapes, heights, and sizes.

"Incorporate various sizes, shapes, and textures that all complement each other. This means they follow a similar style, color scheme, or overall theme," advises Megan Dufresne. "In this way, you can mix and match items while ensuring they come together cohesively when it's complete."

Alison Wright, from the interior design firm Metal + Petal, agrees. "Shape, form, and scale are other things to consider when decorating shelves. Making sure there are appropriately sized pieces for your shelves will give you a finished, perfectly styled look," she adds.

Living Room Shelves
Credit: MC Design

When arranging your shelves, it's good to place taller objects towards the top and back of shelves, allowing smaller items to stake a claim for attention.

Creating a flow is essential, so mix it up where you can with various knick-knacks, plans, and photos. You can also make use of house plants when it comes to styling shelves, too. For example, a snake plant can create a lot of extra height on shelves higher up — and plants like ivy can hang down and make a free-flowing effect across multiple shelves.

4. Arrange in Odd Numbers

When adding items to your shelves, think about how many you incorporate into each shelf. Our brains prefer grouping things in odd numbers, so where you can, display items in groups of three, five, or seven. (The rule of odd numbers isn't exclusive to shelving, so keep it in mind when decorating other surfaces like your dining table, side tables, or coffee tables.)

5. Repeat Items to Unify the Display

For shelf styling that stays consistent throughout, it's always helpful to repeat some objects if you can. It keeps the flow throughout the living space and helps bring the look together. If you're using a shelf to store books, then ensure you've got more books stored elsewhere on another shelf.

When decorating shelves, add similar photo frames, plant pot shapes, and colors, as well as candles that fill up the bare shelves you started with. The right decor can help bring the display together, so experiment with what works and what doesn't.

6. Less is more

When filling up your shelves, remember that you don't want to clutter a blank space for the sake of it. Sometimes a minimal approach is needed, especially if you're shelf isn't the biggest.

You can add many beautiful pieces to your room, but don't compromise the space to the point where it feels cramped and crowded. If you've got too much decor, then refrain from putting it all on a shelf and instead find other ways to display it.

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How To Decorate The Shelves In Your Living Room: Step-by-Step

Next, we'll cover the steps you'll be taking when it comes to arranging your shelves. From getting started to nailing the perfect design, we've got some great tips from expert interior designers.

1. Remove Everything to Start

Before starting your shelf styling, you want to remove everything to give yourself a fresh start.

"Everything is easier with an empty slate," says Rebekah Correll of Transparent Interiors. "When taking things away, try to group them elsewhere by height, color, or shape — this will make things move faster. I usually place everything on a large surface, such as a dining table, for easy access," she adds.

Giving yourself a blank slate will inspire creativity and enable you to think beyond what is already on display. It also gives you an opportunity for a mini spring clean, as you can give each item a quick wipe-down to remove any dust or dirt.

2. Begin with Books

Books are an obvious choice to decorate shelves with and are a great starting point when you're stuck. Books bring interest to a room, add depth, and encourage guests to get up close to see what the home occupants enjoy reading.

"When layering in books, choose different heights for more visual appeal. Don't be afraid to mix and match," advises Anna Popov.

With open shelves, you can group several books with a bookstand at either end if required. Books also provide height and some structure that you may be after with open shelving.

Books on a living room shelf
Credit: Metal + Petal

3. Tell your Story

Your home should be personal to you, and styling your shelves is no different — use it as an opportunity to showcase your passions or life experiences.

"Styling a bookcase involves artfully layering items relevant to a family's story, travels, and history. K Kong Designs often includes a client's collections when cultivating shelves or bookcases," says Kristin Kong and Tara Teverbaugh. "Wood artifacts, framed art, natural elements such as geodes perched on stands to at height, blend with a family's favorite photo and books to create a meaningful and artful display," advise the creative duo.

Living Room Shelves with Decor
Credit: K Kong Designs + Mali Azima

4. Add Large Items to Add Further Height

There are lots of objects that you can add to decorate shelves in any room of your home. Things like picture frames and artwork can help draw the eye; the higher they're placed, the more the eye will be drawn.

Living room shelves
Credit: Metal + Petal

Large items also make a good starting point for any arrangement. "Position your largest, heaviest elements first," recommends Anna Popov. "Start stacking and staggering items throughout, making sure to counterbalance large and small items and include a variety of shapes, textures, and complementing colors. Unusual shapes and varying materiality and sizes will help add interest."

A few tall items you could use include:

  • Tall, eye-catching plants are a great way to add life to the space and can inject a bit of color. Even those going for a neutral look can benefit from some nature. Whether fake flowers, plastic plants, or the real deal, it's all excellent decor for the shelf.
  • Picture frames can be filled up with wallpaper scraps, photos, wrapping paper, antique documents, and even pages from your favorite books.

5. Fill in the Gaps

While you want to keep the surfaces manageable, there will be occasions when you want to fill in some gaps that may be too big. If you're not filling in the gaps, the shelf itself may be too sparse.

Smaller decorative pieces, like candles, small plants, and sculptures, are all great ways to decorate shelves.

These ideas are all suggestions and don't need to be something that you have to adhere to strictly. Instead, you can take this as a guide that provides structure to your shelving goals. If you've followed these steps, you'll come away with shelving in your living room that looks the part and provides you with satisfaction every time you enter the room.

"Once you are satisfied with your arrangement, step back and take a look to take at the overall look—it's impossible to gauge how well things are balanced when you're too close. Rearrange and repeat until you are satisfied," says Anna Popov.

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What Should I Put on My Living Room Shelves?

When it comes to your living room shelves, you want to display objects that are used sparingly. For example, items on your bedside tables or shelving in the bedroom might be things you use every day. But for the living room, you want objects that are solely used for decorative purposes rather than having to move them from their spot.

Think about books you've read, candles you're happy to keep in place without necessarily burning them, and plants that are easy to maintain. You could also go for pieces that could spark conversation.

"When styling shelves in a public space of your home, bring conversational pieces into your selections."

"When styling shelves in a public space of your home, bring conversational pieces into your selections. Family heirlooms or objects from past travels mixed with intriguing art and books create eye candy within your living area," advises Allison Wright

How Do You Arrange Decorative Items on Shelves?

When arranging decorative items on your shelves, think about displaying them in odd numbers where possible. Displaying them in groups of three, five, or seven will be something that the brain loves and, therefore, will be an excellent mood booster every time you come into the room.

"Groups of three items work well, and each group should have varying sizes when styling each shelf. Start with one large dominant item, add a smaller secondary element and finish the grouping with the smallest item. This formula works well when compiling aesthetically pleasing groupings," Kristin Kong and Tara Teverbaugh

Make sure you're filling in any gaps where you can but be considerate about overcrowding the space too much. In a living room, you don't want it to feel too cluttered, especially when you might already have a lot of furniture on the ground taking up the room. Even the biggest spaces can feel disorganized from overdoing it on shelving units.

You also shouldn't be afraid to mix and match the pieces you use to decorate your shelves. "Avoid compartmentalizing," says Megan Dufresne. "For example, having one shelf of all books and another shelf of all plants. The goal is to spread things out and create balance throughout the unit."

How Do You Decorate Floating Shelves in a Living Room?

When decorating floating shelves, you want to take advantage of hanging plants where possible — this adds depth to the space and is excellent where you have shelves aligned above and below each other.

"When you have an open plan layout, exposed and floating shelves can serve as a means to divide rooms while maintaining a connection and a line of sight between spaces," Anna Popov.

Consider placing items on these shelves that you rarely move and therefore aren't a hassle to get. Also, the higher the floating shelves, the less you want on them.

How Do You Decorate Built-In Shelves in a Living Room?

Whether you're choosing items for built-in, floating shelves, or even on a bookcase, the approach is much the same.

With built-in shelves, it's good to look at positioning items at different depths to make the shelving stand out. Push books right to the back and bring small sculptures, candles, and other smaller items to the forefront.

Anything You Should Avoid When Choosing Decor for Living Room Shelves?

"At Metal + Petal, we suggest your family photos stay in your private rooms, not using them in spaces like your living room," says Allison Wright.

Don't go too small and add objects with different heights. "Do not be afraid of large objects on your shelves. If all your accessories are a smaller scale, the shelves will not look complete," adds Allison Wright.

Meet the experts

At Living Cozy, we produce our content alongside interior design and home decor experts. In this guide, you’ll advice from:

Written by
Ash Read
Ash is the founder of Living Cozy. He's been featured by publishers like MyDomaine, Realtor, Real Homes, Architectural Digest, The Spruce, Homes and Gardens, and more. As a writer his work has appeared in publications like FastCompany, TNW, and Entrepreneur.
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