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The first time Melissa Colgan styled her living room bookshelves, she followed the Dewey decimal system. “It was a failure,” she recalls with a laugh. It wasn’t that classifying her books by subject matter was difficult—she just couldn’t remember where anything was once she did it. “My brain just doesn’t see things like that,” says Colgan. So the Washington, D.C., designer reverted back to the type of categorization she is most comfortable with: color. 

Coordinating books by hue is far from a new concept, but Colgan went beyond the standard ROYGBIV arrangement; she was methodical in her approach. It isn’t “in your face rainbow” either—in fact, she admits it takes most guests a while to even notice. What’s really worth noting is that the designer didn’t have to throw anything away in order for her shelves to look super-tidy. The longtime stylist reveals her tips for curating open shelving by shade:

Build From Dark to Light

Colgan began by placing her black and gray books on the bottom shelf to ground the space. As she worked her way up, she transitioned from cooler greens and blues to warmer yellow and red tones. By having the white bindings at the top, her ceilings look slightly taller than they really are.

Strive for Imperfection 

“One of my pet peeves is overstyling,” says the designer. An easy way to achieve balance: Break up the gradation. Sticking a mustard yellow binding in between two pale yellow ones will make the whole thing feel less contrived. 

Color-Coordinate the Accessories

Shelves look crowded when there are too many types of accessories—plants, candles, prints, vases—in the mix. Colgan narrowed her accents down to oil paintings and brass task lamps, with a few bookends thrown in for good measure. The designer cleverly leaned the works of art against bindings in the same color so they looked as natural as possible. Finally, a grown-up take on the rainbow bookshelf. 

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