Design Discussion : Shelf Styling with Books

Design Discussion : Shelf Styling with Books - roomfortuesday.comI’m back with this month’s Design Discussion post and another hot, controversial interior design topic. Today I wanted to chat about shelf styling with books. I get a lot of these types of comments & messages… “I’m so happy you actually use books to style your built-ins,” or “your shelf could really use more books- after all, isn’t that the purpose of a BOOK case,” and “why would anyone ever flip their books with the spine facing inward?” There are a LOT of opinions and preferences when it comes to shelf styling with books, so I thought it would be fun and interesting to break it down, see where everybody stands, and share my personal preference. Click through for the post and to weigh in! 

Design Discussion : Shelf Styling with Books -

I’m a firm believer that a bookcase should reflect the inhabitants of a home and serve function for the room it is located in.

For example- in our formal living room, our shelves are stuffed with books. Remember this post explaining my decision to go heavy on the books? I love how it turned out and that it houses so many books we love and read. My previous office shelf styling, on the other hand, didn’t include nearly as many books. Instead, it housed bins for my design samples and swatches. From design magazines and sculptural art to clipboards and vessels for USB drives, the space was functional and beautiful. Do I love either space or shelf styling less? Not at all… they both reflect my aesthetic and serve a purpose for the room they’re located in.

Design Discussion : Shelf Styling with Books - roomfortuesday.comOn that note… it’s time to talk about quantity. I think the amount of books you fill your built-ins with is totally a personal preference. Are you a big reader and you genuinely a space for your books? Do you like the texture they bring to a room? Do you prefer less books and more objects? Perhaps you enjoy displaying treasures you’ve collected traveling? Maybe filling your shelves with conversation starting pieces is your goal. Regardless of WHY you style your shelves the way you do, I think it’s important to stay true to what you like while making sure your built-ins are functional.

Design Discussion : Shelf Styling with Books - roomfortuesday.comReady for another example? Above, in our previous living room… the built-ins were awesome for displaying curated items, books, AND our surround sound system (totally Emmett’s thing and non negotiable). Below, in our current formal living room- it’s more about beauty and storage for our books. We don’t watch TV in this room and we don’t need our surround sound to nicely blend (that lives in the basement). There is no right or wrong answer, special formula, or calculated design plan as to how you should decorate your shelving! It’s all situational and a matter of personal preference. You’re also allowed to have different types of shelf styling throughout your home. My office and living room serve different purposes, so why would the shelves not be styled accordingly?

Design Discussion : Shelf Styling with Books - roomfortuesday.comAre you a minimalist or maximalist when it comes to shelf styling? I think I can be a bit of both. In my office, I like everything to have a place. Too much clutter in my work environment leads to anxiety, but in our living room- I love how the styling tells a story. I tucked into little pieces and filled nearly every gap. I love that it’s kind of like a treasure hunt. Many friends who come visit ask about the pieces and books that fill our shelves… I love that it’s eclectic and leads to interesting conversation. The best compliment I received for our built-ins was this… one friend said, “Every time I come over, I discover something new on your shelves.” Of course I hadn’t switched anything up, but it made me smile.

Design Discussion : Shelf Styling with Books - roomfortuesday.comAnother question for you… would you ever reverse your book on the shelf or flip the spine inward, so it looks more neutral and less busy? I honestly do both! If a book has a strange title or isn’t a book that I’d read again, I’ll flip it and forget about it- especially if I’m craving a calm moment or negative space on a shelf. I know lots of people are totally against this, but I say do whatever makes you happy and makes the vignette sing!

Design Discussion : Shelf Styling with Books - roomfortuesday.comIt’s poll time! Where do YOU stand when it comes to shelf styling with books? I thought up lots of options below and would love to know your preference..

[Total_Soft_Poll id=”6″]

Design Discussion : Shelf Styling with Books - roomfortuesday.comIf you missed any previous Design Discussion posts, feel free to check them out below…

Design Discussion : Shelf Styling with Books - roomfortuesday.comAs always, we also have interesting conversation in the comment section below… if you’d like to elaborate on your vote- I’d love to hear more! Variety and individuality is a good thing. If all of our shelf styling looked the same, the world would be a boring place. As an opinionated designer and creative person, I love reading a shelf and formulating how it represents the person who styled it. I’m also a big believer that our homes tell the story of who we are. Isn’t that the same for built-ins packed with our favorite books, collections, and keepsakes? It’s really a beautiful thing!

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  1. So. I’m going to weigh in because that’s what I do, but I don’t really have a dog in this race. I do not have a single bookshelf or built-in anywhere in my home. *gasp* My personal preference for home items is that they have a purpose besides looking beautiful and collecting dust-art for walls being the exception. I’m not a keepsake nor collection person. That being said, I enjoy looking at beautiful items on other people’s shelves, and I’m not in any way affronted by the flipping of spines (although it does pique my curiosity!). As you say, a home should serve its inhabitants and tell their story. Then it is a true sanctuary. (Deep thoughts for a Wednesday😎)

    1. I’m with you, Peggi! I love for things to have a purpose, or at least feel like they could (pretty bowls, etc.), but I love looking at interesting objects in others’ homes.

    2. Not a single bookshelf?! I am also surprised you’re not a collection or keepsake kind of person! I’m learning so many new things about you this morning, Peggi. I feel like it’s tough to flip the spines on an entire shelf or wall, but I keep thinking of the inspiration (#3) in this 10 Pins post I shared awhile back. THAT is exactly how I would do it, if I were going to give it a try. Love your deep thoughts today, “A home should serve its inhabitants and tell their story- then it is a true sanctuary.” So true! Have a great Wednesday!

  2. My vote is functional/feels right but I would never flip a spine either. I get why it’s done for editorial purposes and I think your shelves are perfection. But when I see an entire wall/shelf of flipped spines it looks ridiculous to me.

    1. Thanks so much for weighing in Melissa! I’ve seen it done (spines flipped on an entire wall / shelf) so beautifully before. While it’s definitely an aesthetic installation rather than a functional one, it all boils down to personal preference. I’m also team functional / feels right in my own home! However, if I were designing a show home and had more freedom to be creative without considering function of everyday life, I’d be willing to try it. Have a great day! xo

  3. this is one of those topics that i see people comment on ALL THE TIME. it surprises me EVERY TIME i see someone have an opinion on how someone else stores their things. ha! i think elsie from ABM gets a ton of flack for her rainbow book wall which i don’t get. books are in the “who cares” category for me. i like them however, wherever. in my home right now, my books are actually behind closed doors where nobody can see them which seems odd i guess? i’m a minimalist and personally find my own bookshelves to be too much of a clutter eyesore in my own home so i don’t have any anymore!

    i find these discussions interesting because it really spotlights how we the readers can really be a pain in the ass! every one makes me stop and think, “why are designers constantly having to defend their choices?” and then i realize “oh, it’s because ‘we’ are mean”… which is just sad! there is no one size fits all when it comes to how we live in our homes and as long as our homes make us feel good, why are we all so concerned with others homes?!

    1. Ha! I agree with you, Jana. :)

    2. Haha! Such great points, Jana. As a design blogger, this is our industry & job, so sharing every little detail of our home with the world comes with criticism and LOTS of opinions. I’ve just kind of accepted that 99% of my friends & readers are kind, encouraging, and ask questions when they aren’t sure why I did something, but there will always be the negative, unkind 1%. Sometimes those moments lead us to defend our design choices, which comes with the territory I suppose. It almost reminds me of art school critiques… typically I have a good reason for doing things and explaining it doesn’t really bother me. I try to look at it as a way to educate and share my design philosophy. Anyway- it’s a weird world, and you hit the nail on the head… there isn’t a one size fits all, and a home should be unique to the people who inhabit it. That’s what keeps design alive and things interesting :) I love your words “as long as our home makes us feel good”… that’s ALWAYS the goal! Have an awesome day. xo

  4. I agree completely: I think shelves should be functional and aesthetically pleasing to their owners. I loved your point that that will mean different things to different people, and even different things to the same people in different rooms. Personally, I love a mix of books and other objects, as long as the combination doesn’t look too busy. I think a mix is especially relevant as digital books have become more prevalent, and fewer people own the requisite number of hard-copy books to fill their shelves anyway. :)

    1. My thoughts exactly (I’m so glad it translated), Julie! With a background in print design, I never read e-books or digital books, just because I prefer the old school feeling of holding it in my hands to read… plus I enjoy styling with books. That is such a good point though! It’s nice to have balance. Hope you’re having a good week :) xo

  5. In my childhood home we had a large built-in bookcase next to the fireplace..,my stepmom had it filled with books and chotskies of all kinds; I remember sitting on the rug she had in front of it, just staring at everything. I also remember discovering Stephen King because of those shelves. She had a vintage glass jar that housed a collection of eclectic matchbooks that she used to light her candles. Small framed artwork that she adored and was interesting to look at; hand woven Native American tapestries, wood beads, ceramic vases…it was a treasure trove that I delighted in for most of my childhood. Despite the chotskies it was very book heavy; which I adored. Perhaps those shelves are the reason I feel most comfortable with shelves designed like your formal living room shelves. I love discovering new items; it reminds me of back then, how one weekend I would notice a sculptured piece of art, and the next a book that I never knew was there. I’m a firm believer that bookcases are the largest expression of a persons personality; no matter how they’re styled! What I don’t really care for, is looking at shelves in someone’s home where the books are fake; not an actual book you can read, simply there for the aesthetic of having them. To me that feels empty. I love the mix of turning some of them with the spine facing inward; the mystery of what the book is would call to me in a room. I dream of a day where I have shelves in my home that can house my books, and hopefully I’ll be able to style them in a way that harkens back to that intrigue of my childhood, and the beautiful functionality of yours! Great discussion Sarah! Have a wonderful Wednesday!

    1. First of all- it sounds like your stepmom had impeccable style! I think it’s fun to analyze why we like the types of design we like based on life experiences. It’s interesting to see what impacts us and translates to our home. I’m with you on the fake books- that seems weird to me. I’ve also seen shelf styling “kits” being advertised that really bummed me out… you pick your style and a pre packaged kit arrives with everything you need. Why would I want to purchase a kit and have my shelves look the exact same as my neighbor who purchased the kit? It’s a strange concept to me. Maybe people are using the kits for filler alongside their own items? That would be better, I suppose. I have no doubt you’ll be able to style your own shelves one day that are representative of your style and maybe even reminiscent of the ones you adored in your childhood! Hope you’re having an awesome week, Lauren :) xo

  6. My husband and I both have books we want to keep but I personally really don’t want to display them, but the shelf is the most obvious place to keep them. So flipped it is!

    1. I love that, Margo! Such a practical and beautiful solution- plus a great compromise!

  7. I started following you because I found a picture of your shelves from your last house on pinterest. I was trying to get some ideas for styling built in shelves in my living room. I love the way you style! When I was looking for ideas, I noticed that sometimes shelves start looking like a store display for decorative items. I personally love the look of either bookshelves full of books or styled with a mixture of both books and interesting objects.

    1. Aw, I love hearing that Jamie! Thanks so much. I prefer our shelves to look nice, but they also need to be functional for our home. I didn’t mind tucking surround sound speakers in our previous built-ins because we used them (even though they’re pretty ugly). It’s all about balance, in my opinion. I’m with you though- books are a good thing :) Have a great day!

  8. Sable Bray says:

    I feel like physical books are becoming a thing of the past. With digital books or even going to the library , who actually buys and keeps actual books anymore. Personally the only books I have are related to my profession and study material, and no one wants to see that on display. I’m also on the no or limited bookshelf furniture too. I only have two small half wall height bookshelves, and they hold pictures and knick knacks, boxes with junk and things. I think with all the new technologies and the future of technology the way we decorate and functionality of furniture is in for a big change!

    1. Sable Bray, I love your name! So unique and pretty!

      1. I thought the same thing!!

      2. Sable Bray says:

        Awe thanks! Bray is my married name! It goes so we’ll with my first name 😁

        1. Absolutely! So pretty!

    2. Interesting point, Sable! I’m kind of old school, so I only buy hardback books, but I know most people prefer digital books these days. I definitely think you’re right though… technology certainly influences how we decorate and the design of furniture and architecture. I was reading an article about how garages have evolved as cars and SUVs become larger and larger. Super interesting to think about! Thanks for the great talking point. xo

      1. Sable Bray says:

        Yeah I understand the old school-ness of hardcover books, personally that is what I prefer to read when I do. But books are a lot of money and once you’ve read them they are usually done ( unless they are study/ reference material ). And I’ve moved a lot of in my life ( 18 times in 32 years including two oceans ). So I try to not invest in things that aren’t necessary and HEAVY. Books can be barrowed and now downloaded for free! As much as I hate to look at another screen it’s what’s feasible nowadays! I think that is why you can buy those fake books for bookshelves that have been mentioned! Haha

        1. Most definitely! You certainly have moved a LOT… no wonder you prefer a minimal aesthetic, Sable :) Such great points. Have a wonderful weekend! xo

  9. Hi Sarah! I’m a fan of bookshelves IN ANY and EVERY way! I think that varying the height of items and not having too much negative space are two ‘musts’ for me. Our home has bookshelves flanking the fireplace with closed storage below. This room once housed our living room, but it’s now our dining room. The bookshelves are very deep with not a whole lot of shelves. I would love to add more books, but I’m finding that it looks silly because of the depth. I have put grass cloth in the back for added interest and texture. I love to have larger items leaning in the back to help with the negative space. Even if I had more shelves made, I don’t think I could accomplish the same ‘look’ as your living room bookshelves. Could you give me your thoughts/pointers on addressing the depth?

    1. Me too, Mindy! I love that you added grasscloth for texture (obviously I’m a fan)- they sound beautiful! Great question on the depth… I’ve found that larger objects help make deeper shelves feel more balanced. Think of big ginger jars, large vases, etc. I also like to pull my books forward (leaving some negative space behind) so it doesn’t look awkward on a deep shelf. Installing artwork on the back of the shelf or using a stand for art (pushing it slightly forward) is another good way to fill negative space. Stacking books is also your friend when styling deeper shelves. Hope this helps :)

  10. So many interesting points on this topic. To comment on your voting box, my husband would be #1 and #2. In fact all the books we have are alphabetized by author and genre. If he has it his way, there would only be books on all the shelves in our home but we come to a middle ground and I sprinkle in objects and pictures on them. Recently, I talked him in to letting me remove all the paper jackets. We put them in a plastic tub and stored in attic. I don’t know why but they are his.
    Sarah, you are a master at styling bookshelves. You motivated me to style our bookcase in our bedroom after your living room reveal. I voted #3 because I like an equal amount of books, decor items, and pictures. I need them to be functional and make sense. When there is too much stuff or family just throws stuff on it to clutter it up and we aren’t using it to its fullest potential, I end up disliking it.
    I keep saying we need a library. Even if we had one, I wouldn’t like it unless I was able to put items here and there. Ha!

    1. Right?! I’m loving all of the talking points in the comment feed. You and your husband are the best of both worlds- organized, but also interesting (thanks to your objects and pictures)! I love hearing that I motivated your to restyle your bookcase… day made. I can only dream of having a library someday. Serious goals! I hope you’re having a great day, Danna :) xo

  11. Love these design discussions! Reading everyone’s opinions and what works for their homes is fascinating to me. 😊

    We are a family with 7 bookcases in our home. They are mostly filled with books, with a few other items displayed among them. I love looking at bookshelf-styling posts, but I have to admit that, once styled, mine stay that way for years! I like to group books by category. Science fiction in one bookshelf, with the old-school flying saucer model on top. Harry Potter & similar books in another bookshelf, with the family picture from the Hogwarts ride at Orlando in front. You get the idea.

    I always take the dust jackets off, but never turn the books around. I guess I like a bit of visual jumble, as long as it’s surrounded by a wooden bookshelf.

    1. Me too, Jennifer! We’ve covered a lot of interesting design topics, and I always love hearing different perspectives- and how people live in their homes. It’s fascinating to me! 7 bookcases?! I love that! Your bookcases sound so organized and well-kept. I enjoy mixing things up and restyling from time-to-time, but I feel like our formal living room built-in will stay this way for awhile. I’m still liking it. I also enjoyed hearing about your Harry Potter books and photograph (I also love all things HP)! I’m with you on removing the dust jackets. They always seem to get in the way and aren’t the prettiest. Thanks for sharing!

  12. I never comment, but this is a pretty important topic to me :) I work in publishing, read for leisure, have bookshelves in almost every room of the house. I’m all for mixing books and objects on shelves but books MUST be spine out for me. At work all books are organized by topic and alpha by author within each; at home at least by topic. Otherwise I’m searching forever and that just seems silly.

    1. Thanks for commenting Melanie! I love hearing your perspective- especially coming from a professional in publishing. Great points! xo

  13. I always love your shelf styling. It has the balance and texture that I would need as to not make me feel like it’s too busy and cluttered. That being said I admire people that can have things just thrown about so to speak and that can be esthetically pleasing also, it would just make me crazy. I think this subject really brings out what matters or what they find pleasing to them individually in their space, that’s what makes a home unique and beautiful, there’s no right or wrong.

    1. Thank you, Michele! This really is a subject that makes you question what makes you happy in your home and your styling preferences. You’re exactly right- there is no right or wrong formula :) Thanks for sharing!

  14. I’m mostly in the super organized camp, but with a dash of aesthetic interest, too. I would never turn the spines, but only because I’m pretty minimalist in general, so I would never hang onto a book I didn’t feel attached to or like someone in our house might read again. I drive my husband crazy, but I was tossing things before Marie Kondo ever talked about joy sparking! We have books stacked on our shelves and throughout our home and they are grouped loosely by genre but also by how good they look together. ;) This was a fun read!

    1. Totally get that, Kristen! I love how organized you are- that’s incredible. Maybe I need to hop on the Marie Kondo train. Have a great day! :)