The Best Bookshelves Add Serious Storage and Can Even “Raise” Your Ceiling
Plus designers dish on how to choose the one for you.
Published Aug 9, 2022 1:13 AM
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Reading up on Domino’s shopping guides is like having your own personal product concierge. We do the tedious part—deep-dive research, hands-on testing, and tapping experts for advice—so all you have to do is hit “add to cart.” That’s why we call them Simply the Best.
At its most basic, a bookshelf should serve as a neat, sufficient storage and display space for all your favorite titles and beloved knickknacks. But the best bookshelves? They offer function and then some. Design enthusiast and Summers in the City’s Heather Summers cosigns looking beyond the obvious when shopping shelves, like she did when choosing the accessories for her small, natural light–filled New York City apartment. “Is there space on the top for additional storage and styling? Can they be configured in different ways?” she asks. “A bookshelf also has to be well made and stand the test of time—and the weight of a lot of books!”
And who could argue with that? Studio Plumb founder Rebecca Plumb also prioritizes purposefulness when addressing her clients’ storage requirements. “How much open shelving can be realistically maintained?” she asks. “Usually it’s a mix of closed cabinets and open shelves with some areas styled permanently and some with functional use that isn’t difficult to reset. Stacks of dishes, barware, and glasses can be ‘restyled’ by anyone.”
To help jump-start your search, we rounded up some of our favorite designs and styles, whether you have a floor-to-ceiling literary collection fit for a stunning built-in idea or a small but mighty library that can artfully hover on a floating number.
- The colorful cool kid: USM Haller Shelving
- The sky-high stairway: CB2 Stairway Wall-Mounted Bookcase
- The DIY it any way: IKEA Billy Bookcase
- The crafted classic: Room and Board Woodwind Bookcase
- The arched silhouette: McGee & Co. Guthrie Cabinet
- The modern lowboy: Hay New Order Bookshelf
- The small-space sweetie: Ethnicraft Pirouette Book Rack
- The hanging head turner: Burrow Index Wall Shelf
- The timeless modular: Vitsoe 606 Universal Shelving System
The Colorful Cool Kid: USM Haller Shelving
Materials: Steel | Dimensions: Customizable | Warranty: 2 years
What we like:
- Comes in 14 different shades
- Made in Switzerland
- Free design assistance
Why we chose it: A vibrant unit with mood-boosting hues.
The USM Haller unit’s wide-ranging colors present a good argument for anchoring a room’s palette with a bookshelf. It comes in multiple lively hues, from sunny yellow to a very pigmented blue, and a drag-and-drop–enabled 3D Configurator on the brand’s site gives you even more control over color distribution. Simply choose desired height and depth; accessories, whether it be a metal door with handle, glass door with handle, or an extension shelf; and then decide if you want extra color applied all over the unit or on specific spots. Pay a little more for glides or lockable castors and for hard or soft floors. Not sure which shade shines best where? Sign up for complementary design services, which are available via video, by phone, or in person.
The Sky-High Stairway: CB2 Stairway Wall-Mounted Bookcase
Materials: Engineered wood, lacquer, aluminum frame | Dimensions: 96-by-30 inches | Warranty: None
What we like:
- Easy to assemble
- Clean, minimalist design
- Narrow frame ideal for small spaces or using multiples for modular look
- Shelves aren’t adjustable
Why we chose it: An minimal, easy-to-install choice from which you’ll get so much storage.
If you’re worried that a bookshelf will bear-hug your small apartment, fear not: This laid-back CB2 exclusive makes a statement without consuming too much square footage. With seven shelves, the 8-foot-high design shines thanks to its all-white high-gloss shelves and powder-coated aluminum frame. And while definitely a horizontal space saver when used solo (it measures a mere 13 inches across), you can create a custom look by installing the unit in pairs or more. Simply mount it to the wall (the bolts, screws, and plastic anchors are hidden) and add books, as well as other bits and bobs, for a modern, built-in appearance. One note, though: The spacing between the nonadjustable shelves is just 11.5 inches, so taller objects must go on the highest platform.
The DIY It Any Way: IKEA Billy Bookcase
Materials: Particleboard, foil, polypropylene | Dimensions: 79.5-by-31.5 inches | Warranty: 10-year limited
What we like:
- Adjustable shelves
- Made with recycled wood
- Under $100
- 2 alternate colors cost $20 more than white
Why we chose it: This ubiquitous IKEA basic invites you to make it your own.
When Plumb mapped out her family’s formal dining room makeover, she zeroed in on two long, blank walls that needed storage and function. The Billy bookcase easily ticked both boxes. “It’s not a huge room, and two pieces of freestanding furniture like a sideboard and a hutch started to feel like a vintage furniture shop to me (not in a good way!),” she recalls. In the end, she pulled off a clever DIY feat: She combined the bookcase with IKEA Sektion cabinets and coated the newly adjoined pieces in Oakmoss by Sherwin-Williams. This resulted in an entire wall of storage, including a bar area, not to mention a ton of visual interest. “We had the family expertise and help to DIY an IKEA hack, which works best if you can completely build everything in and finish with lots of trim and paint,” explains Plumb. Billy isn’t limited to book storage either: Take a cue from DIYer Saritha Ashok, who fashioned a closet shoe shelf for her entire family out of one, or combine two units for a chic glass-encased toy storage nook.
The Crafted Classic: Room and Board Woodwind Bookcase
Materials: Wood and wood veneer| Dimensions: Customizable | Warranty: Unspecified
What we like:
- 7 different wood options and 10 sizes to choose from
- Crafted by Pennsylvania or New Hampshire woodworkers
- Free delivery on returns
- $89 delivery fee
Why we chose it: A beautifully crafted design made with warm, natural wood.
Durability is a main reason shelves like Room and Board’s Woodwind bookcase have such enduring popularity. That said, we appreciate the opportunity to personalize this ageless piece of furniture. The customization options offer your pick of various heights and styles, which you can easily combine, plus there are seven wood types: white, maple, cherry, white oak, walnut, maple with shell stain, and maple with charcoal stain. Finally, choose from stainless or natural steel hardware as well as the direction that shelf doors open, and you’re all set with a custom-meets-quintessential shelf that’s worthy of heirloom status.
The Arched Silhouette: McGee & Co. Guthrie Cabinet
Materials: Iron, oak, beadboard | Dimensions: 92-by-50 inches | Warranty: None
What we like:
- Glass doors
- Shelves made of natural oak
- Great for dinnerware, books, and more
- No returns or exchanges accepted
- $500 handling fee
Why we chose it: An architectural beauty with subtly elegant details.
Studio McGee’s designs are synonymous with modern farmhouse style these days and, to no one’s surprise, its stunning Guthrie cabinet doesn’t disappoint. A curved silhouette lends sophistication and softness to the solid powder-coated iron frame, and a white beadboard backing and natural oak shelves make for an equally gorgeous interior. While not adjustable, the thick shelves can hold all types of objects, from dinnerware sets to woven baskets to even stacks of folded quilts.
The Modern Lowboy: Hay New Order Bookshelf
Materials: Aluminum | Dimensions: 29.25-by-78.75 inches; 29.25-by-39.5 inches | Warranty: 1 year included with purchase, 3 to 5 years for additional fee
What we like:
- Open and closed storage
- Available in low and tall options
- Full-service in-home delivery included in shipping
- Limited color palette
- Restocking fee on returns
Why we chose it: Bring your prized possessions within reach on this shorter-than-the-average shelf.
Our pick from Hay makes up for a lack of vertical space with width. This set of shelves includes a double low option and a partner with closed storage, so the objects of your choosing receive front-and-center treatment while others remain behind closed doors. Made from sturdy aluminum, the design is simple enough to blend into any space without competing with its surroundings. The price point is a bit high, but given Hay’s design chops, we’ll wager the splurge is worth it.
The Small-Space Sweetie: Ethnicraft Pirouette Book Rack
Materials: Oak | Dimensions: 79-by-24-inches | Warranty: 2-year limited
What we like:
- 4 drawers included
- Storage compartments in varying sizes
- Unique shelf design
- Only comes in 1 finish
Why we chose it: Nooks and crannies for all your treasures in a slender bookshelf.
We honestly can’t stop fawning over this Ethnicraft design. Inspired by the 1960s, the solid oak construction and hardwax oil contribute to its vintage feel. The piece comes with four drawers—two small, two larger ones—and compartments of different widths and heights, perfect for housing tiny potted plants or showing off a vase collection. At a mere 2 feet across, the shelf is perfect for a corner or a hallway, or those who need a compact storage solution. And not that it needs more to sell it, but the icing on the cake is that the Pirouette comes fully assembled. Pick a spot, add books and accents, and enjoy the lovely view.
The Hanging Head Turner: Burrow Index Wall Shelf
Materials: Solid ash | Dimensions: 32-by-32 inches | Warranty: 1 year
What we like:
- Simple installation
- Each shelf has 2 mounting positions
- Made from sustainably forested wood
- Only available in 3 shades
Why we chose it: Mount these multifaceted shelves all in a row or stack them on top of one another.
When Duende’s Elise Joseph moved to Los Angeles last fall, her DIY built-ins didn’t mesh with her new interiors. “Our home here is newly built with a clean, modern aesthetic—tall white walls, sliding glass doors, and skylights—so I opted for tone-on-tone wood bookshelves to help our collection of vases, art, books, and colorful objects stand out,” the designer explained of her Burrow shelves, available in walnut, white, and oak finishes. “I love how versatile they are and that they can be arranged both vertically and horizontally. I’ve already played around with them multiple ways in our space, and I appreciate that they are easy to add on to should we prefer a more dramatic, full-wall display in the future.”
Joseph also likes that the shelves have a less formal library feel and are more suitable for displaying vignettes and small book selections. “I love to find the perfect blend of form and function,” she explains. “I’m always looking for ways to mix materials, proportions, and textures, so I chose to ground the living room with darker walnut, raw jute, and curved, chunky silhouettes, and kept the shelves light and airy as I hung them vertically to draw the eye upward.”
The Timeless Modular: Vitsoe 606 Universal Shelving System
Materials: Steel | Dimensions: Customizable | Warranty: 1 year
What we like:
- Can be wall mounted or compressed between floors and ceilings
- Free U.S. delivery
- 6 finishes
- Lots of options; you may need professional assistance configuring the best design for your space
- Made to order
Why we chose it: Rearrange as often as you want with this flexible shelving unit.
That feeling of assembling a piece of furniture only to be totally underwhelmed by the results? Not fun. Fortunately, the odds of this happening with the classic Dieter Rams–designed Vitsoe 606 System are slim to none. This customizable unit enables you to go as simple or complex as you like, piecing together your coveted shelf by budget or preferred layout, all while shifting shelves and cabinets around at your leisure, a feat that’s easily accomplished without tools. The aforementioned additions are simply hung from aluminum “E-Tracks” (available in various heights from 22.5 to 89.75 inches) and locked into place with notched pins. Cover an entire wall with single and double shelves with or without drawers, cabinets, and even a desk. Or create a room-divider bookshelf that’s held up by alternate X-Posts, mechanisms that press against the ceiling and floor. But don’t let the numerous options intimidate you—take advantage of Vitsoe’s free planning service and curate a unit knowing that it can easily change when and if your needs do.
On Our Radar
Wallniture’s metal U-shaped floating shelves deserve a mention for their simple design and versatility—we can easily see them used to spice up a display of plants or in the kitchen as a stylish spice rack. And the $40 price tag makes this set an absolute steal.
How We Chose These Products
Many of us tend to spend the bulk of our bookshelf browsing checking for the standards: size, function, and finish. But we dug a bit deeper with our selections. We considered distinct styles, from classic and hanging to modular and various customizable options; ease of installation; versatility; and space-saving abilities. Next, we explored different materials like steel, iron, and engineered wood, and ultimately narrowed down picks with assistance from our style director, Naomi deMañana, and style editor, Julia Stevens. Then we tapped designers Summers, Plumb, and Joseph for their personal takes on styling and other important aspects of a bookshelf beyond its basic uses for storage and display.
Our Shopping Checklist
“The qualities of a bookshelf depend on the space,” Summers says, and when it comes to size, that rule still applies. While they might overpower tiny spaces, larger shelves can be a dynamic addition to expansive rooms—this captivating bookshelf in Malika Leiper and Stephen Burks’s home totally elevates the duo’s Brooklyn apartment living area.
Of all our picks, solid wood shelves rank near the top due to their inherent durability. Oak and maple are easy to stain, and birch takes kindly to painting (DIYers, take note). Steel bookcases have the capacity for heftier loads, and any shelves crafted from this material tend to last long as well. For those who prefer a lightweight, cost-friendly option, stick to materials like particleboard (a component of IKEA’s Billy bookcase). While glass shelves are beautiful to look at, they’re not the most family-friendly; keep this in mind if you plan on placing one in a high-traffic area.
Not every bookshelf comes with all the necessary tools for assembly, so if simplicity is what you’re looking for, search for an all-inclusive option. Most of our selections come with the basic screws and bolts, and others are prefabricated for those of us who appreciate a more straightforward process.
For freestanding units, it’s crucial to shop for those with leveling floor glides or anti-slip pads that guarantee the shelves remain steady. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when installing wall-mounted shelving; they’ll generally perform better with brackets and/or anchors drilled directly into drywall, but read directions carefully.
Q: What is the best height for my bookshelf?
Ideally, your bookshelf height should be comfortable enough for you to reach the top shelf without assistance of a step stool or ladder (about 72 to 78 inches for a person of average height). The lowest shelf should be between 3 and 4 inches above the floor to avoid stooping or bending too low. Style-wise, if you have the vertical space, a taller bookshelf draws the eye upward and creates the illusion of higher ceilings.
Q: How do I know where to place my bookshelf?
Plumb tends to place bookshelves on large walls that don’t have a need for freestanding furniture. “They can be much shallower than standard pieces, so they give more flexibility along with floor-to-ceiling drama,” she says. We’re all for a statement piece taking its rightful place in a shared space, but for more low-key designs, other factors are at play. Is your bookshelf going in a high-traffic area? Will the placement ensure that the contents of the shelf are easily accessible or visible (if you need them to be)? If they’re hanging, are they above a busy spot or being used to flank larger pieces like a TV or mirror? In short, tailor the placement for your room design.
Q: Which bookshelf is best for smaller spaces?
“For smaller spaces, multipurpose gives flexibility with storage,” says Plumb. “Even shallow closed-door cabinets will give the opportunity to store things away and allow for display on top.” Wall-mounted and narrow shelves also tend to be compatible with smaller spaces. The former can be mounted flush against the wall, allowing more room for an unobstructed walkway, while the latter can fit nicely into small spots so you can take advantage of vertical space for added storage.
The Last Word
The best bookshelves let you show off your one-of-a-kind curios and serve as the perfect storage option. Whether it’s a distinguished statement piece like the Guthrie cabinet or the add-on-capable, wall-mounted Burrow, it should suit your needs, cohesively fit into your aesthetic, and look as good as it holds up. Invest, and you might have it for the long haul.