7 Essential Elements for Decorating Shelves

Decorating shelves is one of those interior design tasks that look easy. However, it takes some thinking and planning for a shelf to look ‘put together’ and balanced. I myself still get stumped decorating the shelves in my living room! But, after a couple of years of rotating the decor on my shelves seasonally, I have an experience worth sharing.

After spending a long afternoon picking and choosing items to decorate the shelves in our media center, I noticed a few patterns I always seem to follow. Each item I display on the shelves, some collected through the years, tells a story. Some other items I have are necessary but still the foundation for creating beautiful shelf vignettes.

GOOD TO KNOW: In this post, I explain what and why display certain things on your bookshelves. I have another popular post where I explain how to style your bookshelves like a pro.

What to Put on Shelves?

Friends, family, and readers frequently ask me what they should display on shelves. I am answering this question with seven essential elements I use to decorate our shelves at home.

I also dive deep into collecting things and displaying items with meaning. The items you use to decorate your shelves should speak to you and your family. They should have a story and bring back a memory or a why.

PRO TIP: There are no hard rules in interior design. You can display trendy items that look good and make you happy. But you should also always display things you love and have a story and meaning.

how to decorate shelves in the living room

Decorating our living room bookshelf in the past couple of years has helped me discover a few essential objects I keep displaying. Season after season. These items are infallible. They are guaranteed to make your shelves look professionally designed. So, here they are.

1. Books & Bookends

Books are the quintessential element to decorate a bookshelf. For obvious reasons. But your bookshelf does not have to be packed with books. A few can suffice. Of course, if you decorate bookshelves in a study or a personal library, you can and should add all the books you have.

Side Note: This is a dream of mine. I would love to have at home a separate study behind closed doors, with a bookshelf full of my favorite books. I have a -rather small- book collection in my master bedroom.

The books on your shelves don’t necessarily have to be famous novels or expensive leather-bound antiques. For example, most of the books on my living room shelves are…ready? they’re fake!

These faux books were handed to me in 2014 when I styled a vintage chic wedding held at Ernest Hemingway’s Home. We had many to spare, and I kept some with blue and off-white covers.

But I also decorate with real books. Like this Shakepeare’s Sonnets book, I picked up at my local Home Goods in 2008! I’m nowhere literate on Shakespeare’s romantic plays and poems. It was the color and the vintage look of the book that drew me. You can see smudges and coffee stains from all these years, which gives the book so much character.

decorating shelves - old books

In the image below, you can see I used larger (real!) coffee table books to decorate the media center’s top center shelves (above the TV).

Along the same lines, you can’t have books without bookends. You can use them on the same shelf or break the rules and, like me, put one on each side of the bookcase for a dramatic look. I use vases (more on that later) to hold the books on the opposite side of the same shelf.

Right bookcase
Left bookcase
decorating bookshelf
Right bookcase

2. Greenery (Faux or Live Plants)

One of the most inexpensive ways to decorate shelves (and living rooms) is with plants. Your shelves should always have something ‘alive.’ Well, not necessarily alive, but at least something green. Faux potted plants such as succulents and eucalyptus are here to stay, so you should put them on your shelves.

Since I don’t have the best luck with live plants, I prefer faux plants. Even if I did, I wouldn’t want to pull them from the bookshelf to maintain them. I had a real ivy once trailing from the top shelf of my bookcase, but it ended up dying for lack of water and light. My fear is also ruining the furniture with dirt, water, and moisture.

I purchased this faux potted white orchid (similar) many years ago in a blue chinoiserie vase. It’s so old, I can’t remember the year. Who knows? Maybe I purchased it the same day I purchased Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Why have I kept this orchid for so many years? Because it speaks to me. I know it sounds cliche, but it brings me joy. I love the blue and white motif on it, and it’s timeless. You can see it displayed over my faux fireplace in this old post.

3. Vases, Vessels, and Ginger Jars

Like books, vases (and vessels) are no-brainer items you can put on your shelves. However, you should remember that there’s a distinction between the type of vase you would use for a flower arrangement and the type of vase that should go on your bookshelf.

Here are some tips for picking the perfect vases to decorate shelves.

  • Ginger jars are a classic. They look better when they’re displayed with their lids on. If you add flowers to them, display the lid next to the jar.
  • Place larger vases on the lowest shelf or at least at eye level.
  • If you are going to fill a large vase with flowers (faux or real), place it on a shelf by itself and nothing else to prevent the bookcase from looking cluttered.
  • You can place a small vase with flowers paired with larger objects behind it.
Single Bud Glass Vase and Tiny Blue Bud Vase
  • The smaller the vase, the better. They usually look great paired with other medium-sized vases or other objects.
  • Single bud vases are perfect for decorating shelves.
  • Small ceramic vases look great when they are a bit elevated over books.

4. Bowls and Filler

Bowls make a great statement on shelves. They’re usually round and deep. However, elongated wooden dough bowls have become popular in recent years. I have an inexpensive dupe dough bowl that I display on our bookshelf on certain occasions.

But, I found myself enamored of two particular bowls. I say enamored because I use them to decorate my shelves season after season. The only thing I do is change the filler in them. These bowls are special because they’re neutral, well-crafted, and intricate. They are timeless pieces to decorate shelves.

As I mentioned before, bowls can be round and deep. Or not! The carved wood bowl (similar) in the image below is not deep by any means, but it’s just the perfect size to hold three filler balls and still make a statement.

decorating shelves
Threshold Carved Wood Bowl (discontinued)

Unfortunately looks like the carved wood bowl has been discontinued. This new textured ceramic bowl from Threshold is a good choice.

My latest shelf decor purchase is these beautiful chinoiserie porcelain balls. These balls are the perfect example of timeless decor I will keep for years. Another bowl I often use to decorate the bookshelf is this white-washed mango pedestal wood bowl.

What is the Best Filler for Bowls?

When it comes to filler for bowls, you have several options. Depending on the season, you can choose from porcelain or wicker balls, potpourri, pumpkins in the fall, lemons in the summer, and pinecones in the winter.

Wicker Balls with Pumpkins
  • Porcelain orbs – These are similar to mine. I purchased mine at Michaels, but they’re in-store only.
  • Wicker filler balls – Rattan balls are inexpensive and come in various colors.
  • Moss filler balls – Faux moss balls are perfect to use in the spring and add the greenery I mentioned earlier to your shelves.
  • Faux Succulents Bowl – All in one.
  • Potpourri – I like this potpourri because it comes with a vial of scent, so you can refresh it once it fades.
  • Cotton Rope Balls – These nautical balls are perfect for coastal-themed bookshelves.

5. Textures

Textured items are often an oversight when decorating shelves. One fail-proof way to know if and where you need texture on your shelves is by taking a few steps back from your bookshelf. If you think your shelves are missing something, it’s probably texture.

Shelf decorating falls flat when it lacks a variety of materials and textures. You should always aim for a balanced mix of wood, glass (or porcelain), metals, fiber, etc. Regardless of your decorating style, I believe that too much of one thing is too much. Balance in materials and texture brings bookshelf decor to a new level.

Wooden beads with jute tassels are a perfect and trendy way to add texture to your shelves. I have used this set around the home for a couple of years. Again, an item that keeps coming back to decorate my shelves and living room. You can see how I used them here when I decorated my living room for fall last year.

The chippy and porous look of these distressed metal coral bookends add a lot of texture to the flat white bookcase shelves and the solid blue books. The greenery of faux or real plants mentioned earlier adds texture and other objects like candles or sculptures (see next two items).

decorating shelves

Another way to add texture is with one big statement piece like woven flat baskets. While they’re specifically designed to sit flat on a surface or to be hung on a wall, you can lean them against the back of the bookshelf as I did with mine.

I have had this set of white wooden lanterns for quite a few years. I was drawn by the texture of the rope handle, which adds a lot of character to the flat white window panes. When set on the white shelf, these lanterns stand out precisely because of the texture of the rope.

what to put on shelves
Wooden Lantern (Similar)

6. Candles

Candles are abundant. Any home decor store has at least one aisle full of candles. There are so many colors, scents, vessels, and textures to choose from that picking one becomes a challenge!

You can choose tapered candles and display them on candleholders or -my favorite- single jar candles. I prefer jar candles that are short because they are easy to tuck in empty spaces on the shelves.

Candles look great over stacked books. When I stack candles on books, it is for mere decoration. As a word of caution, if you want to light a candle, always take it off the shelf and place it over a counter or a table where you can watch it while it burns.

7. Objects and Sculptures

Lastly, you will need small objects or sculptures to fill in corners or small shelves. Medium or large size objects that are heavy enough can also be used as bookends.

There are no rules on what type of objects or sculptures you can use to decorate shelves. The object or sculpture you choose should be your personal preference. I would only advise you to use them scarcely throughout the shelves. The bookcase starts looking cluttered when you add too many sculptures or objects on the same shelf.

what to put on shelves

Finding balance when you put things on shelves is tricky. You should always take a few steps back and admire the shelf for a few minutes. The human eye is inclined to spot symmetry and gravitates toward groups of odd numbers. With that in mind, here are a few examples of small objects and sculptures you can use to decorate shelves.

How to Make Your Shelves Look Balanced

Just as there are no hard rules on what you should put on shelves, how you place those objects doesn’t have a rule either. However, there are certain parameters you should always follow when decorating shelves, so your shelves look balanced and symmetric (if you have side-by-side shelves as I do).

I have an extensive post where I break down the triangle formula for decorating shelves. While I do not always follow the triangle formula down to a T, I always take those steps back, admire, and move my decor around until my eyes see balance. It’s all about practice and trial and error!

happy decorating, Flavia