Bookshelves: An Ongoing Love Story

Originally posted on
March 30, 2018

by Dana Simpson


Working as a design consultant, one of my favorite (and least favorite) tasks is to fill bookshelves in beautiful and meaningful ways. What and where to place things on shelving, especially when you have many to fill, can be a daunting task. Here are a few bullet points and inspiration photos to help you get started.


1. Start with empty shelves: When beginning a project, if there are already items in place, I suggest removing everything from the shelves and assessing them. I recently did this in my own home and used the opportunity to “tidy” in Marie Kondo style.


2. Organize books and collections of items that may group well together and develop a “staging area” close to the shelves but not competing with them. This allows you to see the items and know what you have to work with as you build your design. One option here is to group books by general color. You can do this within book types to keep things organized (cookbooks, fiction, design, non-fiction can be in separate areas but arranged by color).


The shelves below were in a newly renovated basement game room and wine cellar. The clients had nothing but a few books to contribute and wanted the shelves to add some warmth and character to an otherwise new space. The antique and vintage studio pottery was mostly collected at an amazing local resource, Montage Antiques in Millerton ( By grouping like items and giving the special pieces room to shine, we were able to deliver something that adds warmth and looks collected over time.



 This next photo illustrates the first phase of a project in which the clients again had nothing to start with, and needed to collect items to get the ball rolling. Here we see the space without books or photos. The clients were not in a rush and we decided to allow them to collect items and books to fill the rest. For the initial install, the collections below provided enough to make the space feel occupied and lived-in.



3. Basic Rule #1: Start with more substantial, “solid” items on the bottom shelves and get more open and airy in your design as you move upward. In many cases the bottom of shelving has closed cabinetry which provides this right away. In others, when shelving is open on the bottom, I like to fill shelves with books and baskets.


4. Basic Rule #2: Shelves don’t need to be “full”. Sometimes giving items room to breath is needed for the design. Don’t worry if you can’t fill a shelf and find an item or grouping of items that can hold their own. Conversely, if you have too much and need to fill the shelves, remember Rule #1 and build from the bottom up getting lighter as you go.


In these photos of a recently completed library (painted Ben Moore’s Newburg Green) we were able to give the client his desired “man-space/game room” by using his own personal book collection and mixing in vintage books from the Millerton Antique Center (Doodletown Antiques) along with some unique collections. The decoys and oil cans were also purchased in Millerton (Montage and Millerton Antique Center) and the center photo by Val Schaff is available at Hammertown.




5. Basic Rule #3: Collections are cool. This can mean anything from a collection of family photos to vintage items (see pics for examples: silhouettes, trays, old oil cans, studio pottery, artifacts, cameras, anything that means something to you).


6. Basic Rule #4: HAVE FUN You need to enjoy the process in order to enjoy the end result. Try not to get overwhelmed and make sure you have the time and energy you need before starting. Having just completed my own library shelving (see photos below) after a much-needed paint job required me to remove everything, I can attest to this first hand. I made sure to reserve an entire weekend to complete the task and enlisted my daughter to help me curate and organize. We had fun together and even though it was a lot of work, I LOVE the end result.


Here you can see the “after” pics of my own recently-painted library shelves. Hopefully, you will think I followed my own set of rules :) It is still a work in progress of course…any home is…but I am very happy with the results. I just ordered some amazing ochre velvet to cover the teal chairs in the last photo.




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