Shelf Decor and Styling Guide

Once I completed my DIY built in shelves, I couldn’t wait to style them with some shelf decor. The empty shelves taunted me for weeks while I tried to figure out my plan. Sometimes when I try something new or out of my comfort zone, I can feel a bit paralyzed trying to figure out where to start and fear it won’t turn out. I’ve never really style a massive amount of shelves like this before and was a tad nervous they would just look like a hodgepodge of cluttered junk with no meaning. I also didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on bigger brand new sophisticated items either. I was confident that Goodwill and clearance would serve me well with the right pieces and mixture and man was I right!

living room built ins around fireplace. shelf decor. living room decor

Like all thing DIY and decor, I decided to approach this with the idea that I wanted to achieve a professional look with meaning while staying frugal (man or man am I frugal). With those things in mind, I approached this project in two ways 1) I would shop my own home and 2) I would shop Goodwill and clearance only for the things I didn’t have (not to exceed $5 for any new item). My goal was to outfit these things beautifully and spend less than $100 total. With 20 shelves to style, that only left me $5 a spot and felt like a challenge, but dang it I love a good frugal challenge.

Decor Shopping

Shopping My Home

I hear designers and bloggers say this often and then watch them open up a full on mini store of fancy decor that they’ve been amassing for years from sponsors and I get discouraged. I know I didn’t have a Mary Poppins bag of items that was going to produce some fun decor BUT living that Covid 19 life and not wanting to browse store after store, I decided to rummage through some of my old stuff. I’m glad I did because I found some fun items I had totally forgotten about.

  • Picture Frames (all the frames in the pics except for the teal one’s at the top)
  • Baskets
  • Lantern with R (from our wedding)
  • Candles
  • Gratitude sign
  • Empty bottles (Jazzed them up with burlap I had)
  • Faux silver dollar eucalyptus bunch (cut down in 4 smaller bunches)
  • Succulent Diffuser
  • A few books

Thrift Shopping at Goodwill

Anyone that knows me knows Goodwill has been my jam for YEARS. It really became my secret little decor weapon when Target started selling off some of their items for a tax deduction. The amount money I have saved on brand new, never used curtains, table clothes, shower curtains, etc. is amazing. I knew this would be a good place for the hardback books (I considered dollar tree but their books are all the same shape, size, and sometimes color and I wanted more variation). For the books I looked under the usually ugly cover and checked the actual book and found colors that would fit the aesthetic I was looking for (black, whites/grays, blues, bonus if it had gold lettering) with a nice variety of sizes. For the other trinkets, you just never know what you’ll find there!

  • 20 hardback books (Goodwill) = $1 each
  • 2 Dinosaur salt & pepper shakers = $0.50 each
  • White milk glass dish = $0.50
  • Gold Candle sticks = $3, $2, and $2
  • Pale green/blue vases with black metal bases = $4 and $3
  • White Christmas house =$4

Clearance on Aisle 1 (Michael’s, Wal-Mart, and Target)

My favorite spot for brand new home decor items is Michael’s. I can’t pinpoint when they started upping their decor game, but I’ve gotten some great pieces there on major sale. There’s usually a 70% of sale every few weeks on some portion of their decor. If you visit frequently and stay the course, you’re bound to find some awesome things for super cheap. If you can’t wait for the sales, they ALWAYS have at least a 40% off coupon to use. My other go to is the Target Dollar Spot and Gabes (went here but I was not about that long line life that day).

  • Faux boxwood plant (Target) = $5
  • Hello Sign (Target) = $3
  • Plant stand (Target)= $5
  • 4 Pale green glass vases (Michael’s) = $1.50 each
  • 4 mini faux plants (Michael’s) = $1.50 each
  • White and wood plant stands (Michael’s)= $5 and $4
  • 4 8 x 10 pale blue frames (Wal-Mart) = $5 each

Total cost to style my shelves = $93.50

Shelf Styling

I’ve looked up many shelf styling guides, and they seem to usually have a more complex approach (the rule of 3s, the triangle, etc.). I did learn some tips from these approaches but ultimately I broken my process down into 3 areas.

Color and texture: when shopping for items, pick a color and texture palette that allows the pieces to look unified yet distinct.

  • The pallet was based on the room which includes greens, blues, white, naturals, black and gold (thank you 90’s fireplace insert that I used to hate but now love).
  • The textures were metals, fibers (baskets & burlap), woods, linens (books), and ceramics.

Spacing: create clumps (very technical design term, I know) within the shelves and ensure there’s enough “open space” on each shelf to avoid a cluttered look. Less can really be more in this case.

  • Start out with staple pieces first like big groups of books, or larger items.
  • Remove items that don’t allow for enough of the back of the bookcase to show through.
  • Smash together items (man I should teach a design class with this level of professionalism) and create distinct areas on one shelf to use “more” but still achieve a spaced out look.
  • Create height by stacking items on books.

Below I “smashed” things together to get a full look but still allowed “space” to show through with the books, white element, and bottle.

Below I created height with the cutest little dinosaur and faux plan (my son loves dinos).

Symmetry and Balance: for me I really crave a “mirror” style symmetry in my decor. It doesn’t have to be exact, but I find the balance pleases my eye (but you do you, boo). The items don’t need to be exactly the same, but generally I mirrored items with similar size, texture, or color.

  • On the shelves I balanced out by color, shape and size. If I have one stack of black books on the left, I mirrored that on the same spot on the opposite shelving unit. If I achieved height using a tall gold candlestick on one side, I balanced it out with a tall vase feature on the other side. If I had a natural tone wood/tan tone on one side, I mirrored on the other. Throughout all all the decor, I purposefully mirrored like but not necessarily exact items.

Below I used the white lantern and white house, similar candles and greenery and both a “natural color” from the wood and burlap.

built in tutorial for beginners. shelf decor and styling guide
built in tutorial for beginners. shelf decor and styling guide

You will need to do a bit of trial and error to get the right looks, so don’t get frustrated if your first or third pass isn’t just right. I recommend starting with the books as that’s usually what you have the most of and then start to layer in your other larger items from there.

The cherry on top of this shelf styling project was that I took the day off work, perused the aisles alone (after pandemic lock down was lifted), and enjoyed a quiet house with no kids or husband while I was crafting and creating in all my glory.

Blessings, Friends!


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