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5 Tips for Styling Shelves

by Magnolia
Published on February 20, 2024

A wooden shelf is filled with accents and decor.

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of open shelves around here. Practically, we love that they provide extra space for storage and organization. Creatively, they offer the opportunity to put our stories and personalities on display.

Still, with all of the possibilities open shelves hold, styling them can feel like a daunting endeavor. How do you strike the balance between full, but uncluttered? What is the right mix of functional and aesthetic pieces? The good news is that styling shelves is an art, not a science—meaning you can figure it out as you go and have some fun along the way. If you’re looking for a place to start, here are some general guidelines Jo and our Design Team like to follow when there are empty shelves to style.

A black cabinet with shelves is filled with Magnolia decor.
Two checkered shelves are topped with plants and Magnolia decor.
Two shelves are topped with art, florals, and canisters from Magnolia.

01: Consider the Space

Start by thinking through where the shelves are located and what purpose they will serve. The function of the room will help you choose which type of items to display.

For example, shelves in an office might include books related to your work and inspiring art, while shelves in a living area might include framed family photos and a record player. If your bathroom has shelving, it could hold storage containers or essentials you use to wind down at day’s end. Just remember, there aren’t hard and fast rules here, so if you want a record player in your office or books related to your work in the living area, go for it!

A shelf in the kitchen is topped with art, plants, books, a pitcher, and more decor from Magnolia. A hook rail is lined with kitchen pans and a tea towel.

02: Find the Balance

Instead of filling your shelves with just books, look for objects of various shapes, sizes, and heights. Finding pieces that share a color palette can help create a cohesive look—and you can also have fun playing with hues that pair back other areas of the room.

In addition to layering books, you might also display art, plants, photos, and other objects that mean something to you. This helps keep shelving visually interesting.

Open shelving is filled with curated decor—like books, taper holders, art, and more.

03: Embrace Negative Space

Overfilled shelves can sometimes appear cluttered. Instead of filling each shelf from end-to-end and top-to-bottom, leave space between and above objects. This creates an intentionally curated look. Likewise, try to vary the negative space on any given shelf.

Pair taller objects, such as vertically stacked books, with objects of a lower height—perhaps an open bowl filled with vintage matchbooks or a tray topped with a favorite candle.

A wooden wall shelf is filled with kitchen pieces and decor. A hook rail is lined with kitchen linens and pot holders.

04: Group Objects Together

Shelves feel most cohesive when items are grouped together. Decor groupings don’t have to be the same kind of objects or even closely related, simply placing pieces in close proximity to each other helps a shelf feel curated, rather than cluttered and random.

Practical pieces can double as decor, too. For example, stacking mugs, bowls, or even crocks and canisters on a kitchen shelf is a beautiful way to blend extra storage with style.

05: Play Around

It may take a few tries to get things looking right, and that’s part of the fun! Experiment with grouping objects in different ways, move pieces around, and add or take items away as you get a feel for what best suits your space.

Sometimes it can be helpful to step back for a big-picture view—or even take a break for a few hours and come back with fresh eyes. There’s no hurry, and you can edit as much (or as little) as you’d like.

Of all the reasons why we’re fans of open shelving, perhaps our favorite is that it brings meaningful decor to eye level. We hope these five guidelines can serve as helping starting points in your own styling journey. At the end of the day, it’s all about elevating pieces that spark joy—and tell your story. Ready, set, curate:

5 Tips for Styling Shelves
Still Life Fruit Study from Magnolia.
Fluted Green and White Distressed Vases from Magnolia.