Shelf Styling 101

Shelf styling is one of those things that seems way easier than it actually is. If you’ve ever needed to style open shelving, whether it was in a kitchen, bedroom, or living space, you’ve probably run into this. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as sticking all your knick-knacks on a set of shelves.

Luckily, there are some tips and tricks to become a master shelf styler. We asked one of our stagers, Charlotte, to share some of her tips for styling shelves. Not only has Charlotte been a home stager, she’s also worked in visual display at home decor retailers (aka the mother-lands of open shelving). Read on for her insights!

FYI: Haven also focused on this topic during a Tuesdays @ Two session. You can watch the full YouTube recording here!


Allow for negative space “empty air” to avoid shelves being too busy.

USE NEGATIVE SPACE: Negative space is the “air” around objects, but it’s absolutely necessary for styling shelves because it gives your eye a place to rest and helps build a rhythm. We’d argue that the negative space can be just as impactful as the right accessory!

Step back and make sure your items make a visual pathway throughout the space, rather than being stuck on one shelf.

MAKE A PATHWAY: Try to vary where accessories are placed on shelves so that the eye is led on a strategic path from one cluster to the next. Draw that strategic thread using an every-other-shelf pattern, mixing up placing accessories in the middle of the shelf versus the far end, etc. Similar to using negative space, a pathway helps your eye move around the shelves instead of getting stuck somewhere with a lot of objects!

ADD VARIETY AND CREATE LEVELS: For a more organic feel, switch up heights on the shelf, textures, colors, and types of objects. For a more symmetrical look, use objects that are similar and build vignettes from both sides equally.

Balance is important, but it doesn’t mean it has to be perfectly symmetrical

BALANCE IT OUT: Every object carries a “visual weight”. As you’re styling, step back and try to imagine the middle of your shelves as the middle of a teeter-totter or a scale. Is one side going to be heavier? This could be from using a lot of darker objects in one spot, or maybe there’s a much larger number of books on one side versus the other. Balance doesn’t have to mean exact amounts of objects on either side, just work with your color scheme and objects to make sure your eyes don’t get stuck in one spot.

USE BOOKS: Books are the easiest way to fill a shelf, and everyone has them at home! Create interest by lining them up by height or color, or strategically facing books with textured pages backward (page side out). Also play around with lining them up or stacking them, and don’t be afraid to take book jackets off if you love the color underneath!


First, assess your space limits and consider the rest of the items in your room.

ASSESS YOUR SPACE: Take a moment to measure your specific shelves, get an understanding of what can fit, and figure out a color scheme you want to work with. You can decide on a color scheme based on what you already have in the space, or you can go just neutrals to match any decor. Whether you’re going monochromatic black and white or building a color scheme around your decor, this is a great way to start and helps prioritize which items will be displayed versus stored away. It automatically unifies your shelves and makes switching items around as you work a lot easier.

Have all items you want to use ready to go and nearby.

GATHER YOUR SUPPLIES: Keeping your color scheme and space in mind, gather all the items you’d like displayed in one spot so you can see everything you have to work with. You can even go a step further and organize the items you have by type and size. This isn’t necessary, but can make the next steps a bit easier.

Stack books on top of each other or line them up next to one another. Group like colors for a burst, or vary them for a more subtle color impact.

PLACE BOOKS AND MAGAZINES FIRST: Especially if your shelves are going to be holding a lot of books, it’s good to start here since they will probably take up the most room. Play around with stacking them on top of one another or placing them side by side. You can get some good height and a color impact by using stacks of books strategically.

Large items like tall vases and baskets should go in before small items take up their available space.

ADD IN ORGANIZATIONAL ITEMS AND LARGE OBJECTS: Thinks like trays, large vases, tall plants, and any sort of jar or basket you have for storage go next, since they also will take up some room.

Use books to raise up photo frames or planters to fill vertical space on shelves.

LAYER IN ART, PHOTO FRAMES, AND GREENERY: Feel free to place smaller frames or potted plants on top of book stacks to fill out the height of a shelf. Add instant height with larger framed artwork near the top of your unit or on larger shelves.

Add your smallest items last, and feel free to tweak and play around!

ADD IN YOUR SMALL ITEMS: Place whatever smaller objects you have left. Use things as bookends, stack on top of books, or collect in a tray, basket, or jar.

PLAY AROUND: Personally, we don’t know anyone who gets this perfect on their first try, but that’s the fun part. Set up an option, take a photo, and then try some others. You can reference back to your images to see what you like the best.

How have you styled shelves? Did we miss any tips? Let us know or send us a photo!


*All images are property of HAVEN Home Staging and/or have been used with permission*

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