Built-Ins & Shelf Styling: Demystified

Tackling the ever-elusive formula to those divinely styled built-ins you see all over Pinterest and Instagram. With our designer tips and specific shopping list, you’ll be shopping and styling to perfection in no time!

As a creative, part of the fun behind getting the results you want is to dissect just exactly how a room has been put together. Common elements abound, whether in shape, texture, color, line or form – and once you can identify those elements, it’s really fun to inject the pieces you want.

If you haven’t yet worked with me, you wouldn’t know this, but I encourage all of my clients to do a bit of visual homework at the beginning of their project, which gets them to narrow down the elements from their saved inspirational images that they truly are drawn to, and allows me as their designer to sort of get into their brain. (Much easier than trying to read minds!)

Back to the books(helves): Design is 3-dimensional and so are your shelves, so let’s get to thinking in three layers:

  • Layer 1: This is the back of your shelf or built-in.
    Items that work well in this layer include art, frames, shallow bowls, plates on stands or trays, medium sized potted greenery or plants
  • Layer 2: This is the middle of your shelf, linearly speaking.
    Items that work well in layer two include statues, busts, objets d’art, oddities with height, candle sticks, medium sized vases, book stacks (displayed horizontally or vertically). Basically here you’re looking to add items with visual weight that create another dimension of depth on your shelf
  • Layer 3: This is the front of your shelf, closest to the outer edge.
    Items to use in layer three include small vases and bowls, small objets d’art, small plants, smaller trinkets or photo frames, candles in a low and long vessel, trays for grouping small collections together

Repeating patterns, colors, height and layering on “bookend” shelves – creating a mirrored effect that is visually pleasing to the eye.

Imagine you have 4 built-ins, split with a TV or fireplace mantle between them.
Let’s label from left to right, shelf A, shelf B, >fireplace< shelf C, shelf D.

To achieve the mirrored effect, you want to repeat one or more elements
(pattern, height, color and layering) on shelves A & D, and B should mirror C.

So What Do You Buy?

I have a nice list of items I’m always keeping a keen eye out for whether I’m at an antique shop, thrift store, estate sale or flea market and I’m going to let you in on my secret… there are five items you can never have too many of, so here’s your permission to collect all the ones you love during your adventures.

  1. Photo Frames (range in sizes from very small to 8×10)
  2. Candles (in all shapes and sizes: oblong, cylindrical, textured vessels, colored vessels, etc.)
  3. Bud Vases & Textural Planters (ceramic, antique brass, silver plate, glass and woven)
  4. Curiosities, Whimsical Items and Objets d’art (items that sit or lay nicely on top of books or boxes. Think trinket boxes, bowls, decorative boxes, sculptural items like orbs, magnifying glass with handle, shells or other natural elements like coral, petrified wood, etc.)
  5. Books (take a peek under the jackets of hardcover books, if it’s a color you love or have in your home, buy it and toss the jacket!)

Styling Notes from Your Designer

  • Stack books by color, don’t be afraid to stack them to seat-height for maximum impact!
  • Acrylic Risers act as a perfect base, we love these!
  • Plate stands and Easels (acrylic, brass, silver)
  • Bookends can always be useful as bookends or sitting on top of books!
  • Utilize trays to group small objects, we love this natural marble tray , a handled tray like this or an acrylic tray that pairs a pop of modern among traditional décor.
  • Bring in natural greenery like faux boxwood wreaths or orbs, faux orchids, single stem florals (look for “real feel”), dried hydrangeas, magnolia leaves or preserved boxwoods. (I am Team Faux because I forget to water and trim anything living, and spending a little more on a plant or flower I won’t kill is worth it to me!)
  • If your room is still feeling a tad flat, consider a peel & stick grass cloth wallpaper or any other peel & stick woven paper. We love Society Social’s grass cloth (made in the USA) and Spoonflower’s newest peel & stick (made with eco-friendly inks and free of formaldehyde and phthalates.)
    Both come off beautifully without ruining surfaces, perfect for temporary application or renters!

If you’re still unsure about how-to with those tricky built-ins, send me a note & let’s schedule a virtual bookshelf styling session!


Brittany “Bee” Zimmerman

  1. Jackie Bajuk says:

    Great tips! Just bought a new house and ready to start fresh with decor. This is super helpful to keep in mind while shopping!

  2. Joanne says:

    Wow, I found you on a FB page where you commented loved your blog on bookcases

  3. Thank you Joanne, I’m so glad this was helpful to you! Thanks for the follow!

  4. K Wads says:

    Very good. Thank you.

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