How to Style a Shelf Like an Interior Designer in Just 6 Steps

You know the impeccably styled shelves inside the impeccably styled homes on Instagram and Pinterest and websites like the one you're on right now? They didn't happen by accident. Behind every beautifully styled shelf you'll find (not literally) a professional interior designer, or at least a naturally skilled amateur, who has selected and arranged every item just so, and created a sense of harmony and functionality where there would otherwise only be a haphazard assortment of stuff gathering dust and inspiring exactly no-one.

"Shelves can be one of the harder spaces for people to style," says interior stylist and decorator Claudia Stephenson, whose stunning Sydney home is a testament to her curating skills. She says shelf styling is an intuitive process, and one that involves a lot of trial and error—which is probably why can be so fun to do.

"I think different shelves call for different styling," she says. "The shelves themselves can dictate placement and curation, with chunky wooden shelves styled differently than a slim marble shelf."

Whether you're working with a vintage Ladderax wall system or a simple marble mantle or even a space-saving floating shelf installed in a narrow hallway, Claudia says a well styled shelf will elevate the mood of any room.

"A well styled shelf should make you happy every time you walk past it," she says. "For some that might be a child's clay creation sitting atop a stack of swoony art books or a tonal collection of objects... Each individual will be drawn to something different."

To decide what items to put on the shelf, first decide what the function of the shelf is. "If a shelf is purely decorative then ideally have things that aren't everyday practical things on there like books, ceramics, art, candles... However if it's a hall table situation, it makes sense to include those more practical items as well—like a key dish; just make it a beautiful one! You can also use practical items that have some weight, like a coin jar, as book ends."

Claudia says that a well styled shelf can help balance out a room and bring a wall to life. Avoid repetition and uniformity, Claudia says. "Unless you're a pro and can create a great cerami-situation en masse, avoid too much of one style of object." It's also important to avoid only using items that are 'on trend'. "Make sure that some the items speak to your individuality or family in some way." 

Elements of a well-styled shelf

As you're styling a shelf at home, there are four design elements to keep in mind:

Mood: "The items should be ones you love looking at," Claudia says, "items that make you happy or satisfied, ones that don't need to be used everyday."

Shape: "Aim for pleasing shapes created by the objects," Claudia says. This is where standing back and assessing your progress comes in. 

Texture: Opt for a mixture of textures. A glossy handblown glass vase beside an unpainted ceramic sculpture creates both depth and balance.

Tone: One element that benefits from consistency, rather than variation, is colour. "Ask yourself do you want to create a tonal earthy moment, or do you feel like you need some bursts of colour?" 

How to style a shelf like a pro

Here is how to style a beautiful, functional shelf at home like an interior designer:

1. Remove everything and give every surface a good wipe and polish. "I always start with a blank canvas," Claudia says. "Remove it all!"

2. Next, establish the purpose of the shelf. Is it decorative (form), or practical (function), or both? Once you've done this, you can start curating your items.

3. If the shelf's primary purpose is function (rather than form) place the most important item on the shelf—such as a catch-all for keys and coins—in the most convenient location on the shelf based on location and daily foot traffic. This item will act as an anchor for the rest of the items.

4. Now that you've started with function, add form. "If the bowl is low lying, add some height either with a book stack and object atop, or a decorative vase or indoor plant," Claudia says. "Remember you don't need to fill up every inch of space, so make sure each element has room to breathe, and that there is space between each item or cluster of items. At the same time, while it's important to edit, don't be afraid to overfill the shelf initially as you can always edit down. It's not always about having all your 'best things' on display all at once. I have a 'holiday cupboard' where things rest for a month or so until I get them out again to restyle a space."

5. If you have multiple books that need to be displayed, opt for multiple stacks of varied heights and orientations. "Build one small stack of four or five books with their spines facing out, and then a few standing against a bookend or heavy vessel to finish that cluster," Claudia says.

6. As you're placing the items, stand back and assess the shelves every now and then," Claudia says. "Are there differences in height? Is there textural interest? Is there too much of one thing, i.e. are there a lot of books and barely any sculptural objects? Continue to edit and shift things around until you feel satisfied." 

Enjoyed this? We've Stepped Inside the Homes of 68 Creatives—Here's What We've Learnt.

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