The Anatomy of a Shelf

Happy Saturday! Today we are going to talk all about the anatomy of  shelves, what to put on them and how to style them. Like the coffee table, shelves are a microcosm of styling where all of the principles will come into play on a small scale.

You’ve seen it. The effortless collections of beautiful things, arranged in perfect vignettes all over Pinterest, Instagram, and magazine covers. How do you do that?? What should go on your shelves?! What are the proper ratios?? How do you make sure it all goes together, while also being personal and meaningful?!? Ahhh!!! CALM DOWN! Once again, simple rules break down this process into something supremely manageable. Here are some now:

If you remember in my last post in this series “The Anatomy of a Coffee Table Top” we talked about the rule of 3’s which is that the eye likes objects in groups of 3’s which feels the most balanced. We also talked about the vertical + horizontal + sculptural rule, which means that you should have something horizontal to ground the space, something vertical to add height, and something sculptural to tie the two together. Like so:

Vertical horzontal and sculptural


Source: 1 / 2 / 3

This vignette satisfies both the rule of 3’s and the VHS rule.

Before we get started on the steps, I want to talk about what to actually put on your shelves. When it comes to styling a shelf you can technically use anything that fits! There aren’t any hard and fast rules about what can and can’t go on a shelf, however here are a few things that are helpful to have around when trying to fulfill the rule of 3’s and the VHS rule. Items that are commonly incorporated are:

  • Books: I really hope this was obvious. When looking for books you can easily buy pre-collected vintage books in pretty much any color scheme you can think of, which sounds convenient, but the price tag is shockingly prohibitive! I would therefore suggest taking your time to build up a collection – it will be much cheaper in the long run, not to mention fun! Plus, who doesn’t want an excuse to thrift shop??
  • Plants: This is my favorite thing to put on shelves. They provide color and life as well as freshening the air. Low light plants like ivy are hard to kill and can grow out in many directions, changing the landscape of the shelf in a pleasant way. Plus, you can stick them in some really pretty pottery!
  • Statues and decorative objects: This part can get really wild! Here is where personality comes out and things get quirky. If you have any historical family items, or travel souvenirs you want to display, this is the perfect opportunity. Personal opinion that my husband doesn’t share: the quirkier the better.
  • Baskets, Bowls, and Boxes: These are handy for fulfilling the “horizontal” element of your vignette. This is also a great surface to display those decorative objects, or plants on. They also tend to be more visually heavy which makes them great for grounding the vignette (but don’t tease them about it).
  • Art: art is another great place to get some quirk in, but it also can add a vertical element. This is a great opportunity to incorporate color and personal touches.
  • Pottery: Next to books, pottery is probably the most popular thing to put on bookshelves because it can really fill out the space and add verticality, or horizontality. A tall shelf is obviously the most safe place to display any treasured, delicate pottery. Collections of pottery can be pretty baller, especially if its handmade or vintage.
  • Lamps: Lamps are the least common way to fill out your shelves but if you have an outlet near by and it can fit, it is a great way to literally add warmth and dimension to a shelf vignette.

So there are some of the building blocks of shelves! Time for the steps to actually arranging your shelf vignettes! Keep in mind that these steps are just my guidelines to get you started and there are plenty of other perfectly successful (and perhaps more efficient) methods out there that I haven’t found yet.

step 1_

Determine your palette. “Palette” here is referring not just to colors but also textures, and the energy or style of the room. Is it a globally themed room? Is it pretty monochrome? Traditional? Gather items that fit within that theme. Here are 3 different directions you could potentially head but this is completely up to your personal style: 

beachy minimalist (1)

Beachy Minimalist: 1 / 2  Edgy Modern: 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 Warm Traditional: 1 / 2 / 3


step 1_ (1)

The next step is to pepper rectangular objects horizontally and vertically throughout the shelves. You can put as many or as few as you like, but make sure not to put them directly above each other so that nothing looks lopsided. These items are more visually heavy and will be the grounding points of your vignettes.

Shelf Styling (2)


step 1_ (2)

Mix in art and pottery. Again, don’t let things get too lopsided, try to balance out the heavier items, adding something vertical or horizontal wherever it is needed to fulfill the rule.

pottery and art shelf styling (1)


step 1_ (3)

Add in plants, decorative objects, and figurines. As you can see, these really can be anything. For the decorative objects, I have added some round circle things (?), a collection of little house figurines, a brass duck, a camera, and a magnifying glass. I tend to go heavy on the plants so I have something on every shelf but one or two will be sufficient.

Step #4 (1)

step 1_ (5)

Fiddle! Get obsessive about details. I give you permission. Fuss over and polish your styling until its perfect. This is the part that you imagine when you think about styling your shelves. This is also a multi-part process:

Step 1: Move something.

Step 2: Stand back.

Step 3: Stroke your chin thoughtfully.

Step 4: Feel superior and artsy.

Step 5: Move it back to where it was before.

You’d be amazed what this exercise does for your self esteem!

But really, fiddling is the most important part of shelf styling. You have all the right elements, in the correct scale, texture, and colors, all in the general area that they need to go, and you are almost there! Now you just need to shuffle things around until they feel right, adding and subtracting items as needed. Don’t be afraid to nix items that aren’t fitting in well, scrap everything if you need to!

So to recap:

#1 Determine your palette. Gather your items.

#2 Pepper rectangular objects horizontally and vertically throughout the shelves.

#3 Mix in pottery and art, filling in the horizontal, or vertical items needed.

#4 Add in plants, decorative objects, and figurines.

#5 Fiddle! Fuss over and polish your styling.

Miscellaneous guidelines:

  1. Make sure the vary the materials of the objects on the shelves. If you have natural wood shelves, make sure to separate a natural wood bowl by using a book or tray.
  2. If you’re dealing with a shelf thats super long and stretched out, make sure to arrange the vertical items in a way that flows well and adds height so that it doesn’t look accidental.
  3. When trying to child proof shelves, include some linen or wicker baskets on the bottom shelves to hold toys and stuffed animals, and keep more delicate items on the top shelves.

There you have it! Shelf styling. Leave a comment below if you have any questions at all! I leave you with some purse and simple shelf inspiration:

93785893274b66ed2e121b7869a6a4cb  efee3925bd168d15fd5dd643a35ba1c5bb7b54bbb53cdfe3d5496d33ff3f8a7a  5ac1c63bbe75a42e28492bd382c4157db6f6d438a45b3c2121f471a05320d4b6  f440e63d4c753bae79ef7c339bd528bf721b9cbb528347a3041c3a1d1551a433

1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7

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