Easy Steps for Arranging Bookcases

One of my favorite spaces to re-arrange are bookcases, because the transformation is usually dramatic. They can also be difficult to master.

Think of bookcases like a dining room table set for a party of eight: you wouldn’t just stack the dishes on one end, stand the stemware on the other, and have silverware poking out of the floral centerpiece like a porcupine. Using color, shape and weight, you’re spreading things out, creating symmetry, balance and visual appeal.

The following steps are for two bookcases that flank a fireplace, but can be applied to a single bookcase as well.

Gather everything you might consider displaying: framed photographs, accessories, baskets, plates and platters, small mirrors and artwork, and of course, the books. You may not use everything, and you may borrow a twig ball from a bowl, or a ceramic bird from the guest bedroom table.

Work with contrast: Dark items will pop against a light bookcase, light items will pop against a dark bookcase. Clear glass items may need something behind them to avoid disappearing.

Stay with your color scheme: Coordinate the colors in your bookcase to your room’s color scheme. Red accessories in a room of cool blues and whites, greens and silver will look like tennis shoes with an evening gown. Eliminate random colors or finishes. Distribute your color scheme throughout the two bookcases.

Match shelf height: Avoid varying the shelf heights, and match the left to the right. The exception is if you have a collection that is small, and it would be lost on a foot-high shelf. (Smaller items can sit on a stack of books, too, to fill space.)

Mirror for balance: As you begin to place items, try to mirror left and right shelves. If a left shelf has two books lying flat on the right with a large framed photo on the left, do a reverse version on the opposite shelf: books on the left and a framed photo on the right. It doesn’t need to be an exact match, but the visual weight should be the same.

Crown the top shelf: The top shelf is a focal point, so if you have a pair of larger items—vases, artwork, lanterns—consider centering them on the top shelf, alone.

Work from the center: If you don’t have a lot of items for the bookshelves, concentrate on the center of each shelf and work outward. Just as matting and framing allows artwork to be the focal point, the empty space on the shelf to the right and left allows the grouping to be the focal point.

Distribute books: Avoid filling shelves edge-to-edge with books. The full shelf will be too heavy, you’ll run out of books, and the remaining shelves will become cluttered as you try to fill the emptiness with random items. Instead, divide the books among most of the shelves. This serves to both distribute the weight and tie together the overall display.

Start with the books: Make good use of hard-back books first. Consider removing dusk jackets, to quiet the colors and visual impact. Pay attention to the color of book spines, strategically placing them for your color scheme. Very quantities of books: stand a group of six books on both right and left shelves. Stack three books flat on both right and left shelves. Use two horizontal books as a bookend for a stand of books on both right and left shelves.

Break up the displays: Avoid the same set-up on shelves above or below each other. Don’t stand five books directly above or below another stand of five books. Instead, place two framed photos above or below the heavy stand of books.

Vary shelf quantities: Don’t display two items above or below a shelf with two items. Vary it: one, three, two, five, two, three.

Prioritize important shelves: Use your best items on the highly visible, eye-level shelves. The lower shelves hidden by furniture can hold less-attractive items such as photo albums, or a basket of children’s books.

Layer: Use plates, platters, small framed art, and baskets to widen a vignette. Lay a couple of books flat to keep a standing item from sliding. Tucking a corner of the standing item behind the books will do the trick.  

Get creative: Use a short-sided basket or old box to contain a vertical grouping of paperbacks or DVDs. Stand a small mirror along the back to add light. Add a small lamp to add actual light. Add a potted plant near a window and weave greenery into the arrangement. Stand a pretty coffee-table book upright, like a photo.

Match personal photo frames: A collection of mismatched frames will look chaotic. Choose first the frames that work with your color scheme, then switch out the photos so your favorites are displayed. (Ask for new frames for your next birthday.) Consider how the colors in each photograph add or detract from your scheme. Consider reprinting favorites in black and white for a classy and calm vibe. Group photos with similar frames together. If one shelf has a pair of silver frames, the flanking shelf can have more silver-framed photos, or a pewter platter/bowl, to balance.

Step back and evaluate. How is the weight distributed? Four books grouped together is the same visual weight as a vase, basket or potted plant. Is one shelf heavy and another too busy or lightweight? Can you lay a couple of books on their side and stand something small on it, to give it more weight? Does anything jump out as out of place?

When a set of bookcases flank a fireplace, the fireplace is part of the overall visual. Avoid filling the mantle and hearth with items when it’s flanked by bookshelves. Your “busy” is on the right and left. Have one large focal point on the mantle and little to nothing on the hearth. This gives the eye a chance to rest between the masterpieces you’ve created on either side.

If these steps only served to bumfuzzle you, no worries! Just give me a call and I can help. We can also do this via FaceTime.

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Copyright © 2022 by Cynthia Gentry Black, Home Staging by Cynthia, LLC in Kansas City.
All rights reserved. No portion may be shared, reused or republished in any format without express written consent of the author.

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