9 Hard-and-Fast Lessons in How to Decorate the Humble Shelf

From color-coded books to palette play.

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No piece of decor holds as much promise as the humble shelf. A literal blank canvas for your next project, this slab of wood has the ability to infuse both heart and functionality into your space. 

Of course, this versatility is exactly what makes it so daunting. Home to anything from plants and books to tableware and kitchen tools, shelving is a formidable opponent for design experts and novices alike. But practice makes perfect, and the pros have a ton of it, so we turned to them for their tried-and-true styling tips.

If you’re in the midst of a stare-down with your new shelving unit, we’ve got you. The below spaces offer shelf decor ideas in spades.

Pick a Color Palette and Stick to It 

Courtesy of Bespoke Only

Before you even think about curating your odds and ends, select a few complementary hues you want to feature. Not only will this make for a seamless shopping experience, but the resulting collection will look cohesive. We love New York–based firm Bespoke Only’s use of natural tones.

Keep It Simple

Courtesy of Camille Architects

A sparsely decorated shelf can be just as effective as a jam-packed floor-to-ceiling bookcase. Keep it from looking cold by selecting high-contrast photography or knickknacks that pick up on the other colors in the space, like Camille Hermand’s navy prints in her Nesles project. 

Color-Code Your Books

Simply reorganize your tomes by color, and you have a bookcase that doubles as an art installation. Make the look pop with a lick of black on the unit and walls. 

Add Depth With a Strategically Placed Coat of Paint 

Courtesy of Studio McGee

Follow Studio McGee’s lead and paint the back wall of your unit black to make the shelves look especially deep. Stick to just a few white accessories to further highlight the contrast.

Eliminate Decision Fatigue With Picture Ledges

Courtesy of Studio McGee

Behold, shelving fit for a maximalist. Rather than narrow your art down to just a few permanent pieces, install photo ledges and switch up the display as much or as little as you want. Stick with a single frame style and simply lean your selected works against the wall. 

Cluster Similar Objects

Courtesy of Bespoke Only

This trio of shelving units is the star of Bespoke Only’s Upper East Side project, which we credit to the fact that each ledge seems to have its own theme. One sill is devoted entirely to glazed canisters, while another is exclusively home to coffee-table books. 

Mix in Greenery

Courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts Architects

Not all plants like direct sunlight. Take notes from Elizabeth Roberts and intersperse your favorite shade-loving botanicals with your standard shelving fare.

Treat Your Dinnerware as Art

Courtesy of Space Exploration

Even in more utilitarian spaces like the kitchen, mix form and function by layering artwork and family heirlooms with your more practical pieces, like cups, plates, and bowls. In complementary shades of cream, they’re just as beautiful. 

Go Monochrome

Photography by Jessica Antola

Sticking to a single hue is the simplest way to make your storage appear intentional. Stylist Erin Walsh’s use of cranberry-toned books, picture frames, and photography in her Brooklyn Heights home is purposefully hard to overlook.