how to decorate built in shelves

*Disclaimer | Although this post does earnestly intend to help show how to decorate built-in shelves, it is regretful to report that it cannot in any way offer guidance on how to keep said built-in shelves tidy and free from wayward water glasses, wandering scraps of paper and any other household objects that don’t seem to know their place. The following photos are, admittedly, a portrait of the shelf’s state immediately after styling. Images of the unit five minutes later and beyond have been omitted due to the overly disturbing state of disorganization to which they so quickly succumbed.

Whew! OK. So now that you know the awful truth behind this post, I can guilt-free get on with my tips for how to decorate a built-in shelf. A little backstory : the other day I realized that it’s been a year since moving into my place and I had yet to truly take advantage of the architectural aspect I was most stoked about: these glorious, rustic, “Tell Tale Heart”-esque built-in shelves. Scooped out of my bedroom’s weathered brick wall, the earthy wood frame and planks made the perfect place for a lil’ country corner in this city apartment. Honestly, just the bare back of these shelves felt like decoration enough, with the cement brush strokes plastered on in such an unexpectedly painterly way. Anyways, 12 months without any artistic effort on my part seemed like a real shame. So, here’s a quick look at how I decorated my built-in shelves last Sunday morning.

1. Assess The Existing Shelf Situation

cluttered shelves

For educational purposes only do I share the above photo of my unkempt built-in shelves before styling. Things were getting messy. Change was clearly necessary. If you’ve already got a ton of junk crowded onto your shelves, take a moment to figure out why it’s not jiving with your own personal feng shui. For me, the culprits were the absence of a color scheme, lack of white space and too many small knick-knacks.

2. Take It All Off

exposed brick built in shelves
It was tempting to simply edit the above existing situation, but I knew to get a new vision, I had to remove (and dust!) everything before actually decorating the shelves. This also really helped me edit down. It’s much easier to meet my minimalism goals when I’m intentionally adding pieces to a blank slate instead of removing items from the already-arranged unit.

3. Begin With Big Pieces First

how to start styling shelves

I found it helpful for the first pieces I positioned to be the bigger ones of the bunch. This ensured I wouldn’t have to find a spot to squeeze them in in the end. Also, they helped get the creative ~flow~ going , serving as anchor points for other items on the shelf.

4. Arrange, Step Away, Repeat

shelf styling up close

I’d like to say I had a more deliberate method for how to decorate these built-in shelves at this point, but honestly things quickly devolved into a trial and error situation. I had trouble visualizing an entire end-goal all at once, so piecing it together helped. Also, I wanted to create some mini vignettes throughout the whole thing that would feel cohesive together, so this allowed me to focus on one area at a time.

5. When In Doubt, Try The Zig Zag Method

zig zag bookshelf decorating method

This happened naturally for me, but I found a no-fail way to create fluidity is to stagger clusters of items vertically. I strayed a little, but if you look from the top left corner downward, I placed taller items slightly off-center from the focal points of the shelf above. The move makes for a more balanced appearance.

6. Snap A Shelfie (Or Four)

built in shelfie

I honestly can’t judge how anything I create looks until I photograph it. Something about seeing it isolated and in two dimensions helps me pinpoint if it’s working or not. So once you feel you’ve reached the final point in decorating your built-in shelves, take a pic and review.

plants on shelves

decorated built in shelves
Ahh, doesn’t that feel better? Ultimately, built-in shelves are a major part of a wall and as such they are like built-in artwork you don’t have hang! (Or leave unframed, leaning depressingly in a far-off closet until you figure out what size 3M Command Strip you need to buy). Consider them an opportunity to go all hip-art-gallery curator and include objects that you simply enjoy seeing. How you decorate your built-in shelves should be uniquely you, after all  🙂