Are you a book lover? As a bibliophile myself, I love decorating with books. When I’m working on a home design, I almost always figure out ways to incorporate beautiful reading materials into the room.
There's something so comforting about books. Using old books for décor feels like including dear friends in the design. Books have personality. They take us to faraway places. They teach and inspire us with new ideas and beautiful images.
If you’re wondering how to decorate a bookshelf, organize your in-home library, or mix reading materials into your décor, here are some ideas for styling your home with books.
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8 Tips for Styling Bookshelves and Decorating with Books
Whether you have an in-home library or just want to include a few books on a nightstand or a coffee table, there's a wide range of options for decorating with books. It's essential to keep the room from feeling overloaded. Books can feel heavy and messy, especially if they aren’t thoughtfully selected for display.
Choose the books that work with your design and the ones that are most important to you. Sometimes it's best to group books that complement a room—cookbooks in the kitchen, favorite bedtime books on a child’s nightstand. Other times, books can become part of the room design itself. Here’s how to include books throughout your home.
1. Choose Your Shelves
If you’re wondering how to decorate a bookshelf, start with the shelving itself. The types of bookshelves you select for your living room wall, office corner, or in-home library will set the tone for the rest of the room design.
Open, airy shelving, floating shelves, or sculptural shelves will feel modern. Antique barrister bookcases, cabinetry, or built-in shelving will have a formal feel. The bookshelves should complement the room's design with ample space for all the books you'd like to include. Consider lighting as well—how will you illuminate your shelves?
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One nice aspect of using cabinetry or built-ins is that doors can hide all sorts of less attractive items, allowing you to display only the books that compliment the room and are cohesive with the rest of the bookshelf décor. Of course, the other side is that cabinetry can feel heavy and take up a lot of space depending on the size of the room.
2. Watch for Special Books
Once you’re ready to start decorating with books, it’s time to curate your collection and winnow down to the books that feel right for the space. A big fan of gorgeous decorative books for the coffee table and art books, I've found that it's essential to look beyond the dust jacket when selecting books for a room design. Many books look entirely different when the jacket is removed.
If you’re stacking books or grouping them together, look for books with a similar color scheme (more on that shortly). Several complementary photography books or antique books will look beautiful when gathered on an end table, stacked on a shelf, or resting on a coffee table.
I also encourage clients to choose books that are significant to them when they decorate with books. If you have a special hobby or are a fan of an architectural style, look for books that interest you. If you're unsure what to look for, antique botanical and gardening books are often an excellent choice (and can complement almost any décor). Poetry, photography, interior design, art, philosophy books, and classic literature are often great decorating selections.
Photography: Jennifer Lavelle
3. Organize by Color, Size, or Type
One interesting way to decorate with books is to organize them in groupings by color. Not only does this have a very modern, clean feel, but it's a great way to add some brightness to a room without overpowering the space. Choose books that match or complement the color scheme of the room décor and then arrange them in clusters by tone.
Another classic option is to arrange books by size. This works well if you have many books to organize and arrange (such as in an in-home library). It's also a good idea if built-in shelving is at a set height or if you're decorating a bookshelf that's not adjustable. Keep in mind, stacking and leaning books in groups feels less formal and can add visual interest to the display.
If you have several rooms to work with, organize books by type to fit with the room. For example, art and decorative books for the coffee table in the living room, novels in the bedroom, reference books in the office, and cookbooks in the kitchen. Once you've split up your books by type, group them by size or color to create a clean, organized feel in each space.
Photography: Caroline Sharpnack
4. Put Inspiration on Display
What are your favorite books? If certain books really inspire you or speak to your heart, give them a prominent spot in your home. Decorating with books is about sharing what you love and designing a space that captures your personality and style.
Consider rotating a collection of favorite books in a prominent spot in your room—like a coffee table, mantle, or sideboard. You can even lay a beautiful art or photography book open to a particular page to show off a favorite work. Share a book about your favorite vacation spot, so you can transport yourself back to the destination whenever you leaf through.
If you adore a classic author or poet, look for the highest quality binding you can find of their work. Curate a collection of old books for décor and then display them on the mantle or put them on a prominent shelf. When decorating bookshelves, you may also want to include complementary items without going too "theme-y." For example, books about travel may look nice grouped with a small memento from your experience.
5. Pages Forward
One of the somewhat controversial trends in decorating with books is to turn the pages forward (spines to the back). I personally really like this look. It keeps your bookshelves cohesive and uncluttered. The books look attractive without overpowering the room.
If you choose to turn books around, be sure to watch for pages that are similar in condition and tone, especially if using older books that can turn yellow and even brown. If you go for a less deliberate display—mixing books of all ages and conditions—the look can feel a bit messy and rustic.
Of course, it depends on your décor style too. I've seen designers remove the covers altogether and tie books with twine for a "manuscript" look. In certain contexts, it completely works! Play around with books to find a display that fits your décor style and feels appropriate to the room.
6. Stack Up
When in doubt, stacking books is always an interesting way to decorate a bookshelf. When books are lined up in rows on the shelf without any breaks, it gets, well, a little boring. Add stacks of books as bookends or turn some books in neat stacks to break up the shelf. Nestle other beautiful and interesting items into the display as well, being sure to stagger heights.
Another favorite trick of mine is to use stacks of books as mini display platforms throughout the house. Books add height to any vignette and create a lot of visual interest. Turn stacks of books into a "side table" by the couch or put a stack atop a dresser or sideboard.
If you’re decorating with books in the kitchen, stack a few books on open shelving or in glass-front cabinetry. Yes, it will take away from the formality of a china cabinet, but it makes the shelving feel more authentic and personal.
Judging a book by its (ugly) cover? Some books don’t have the most décor-ready covers. Or perhaps you have a favorite book, but the worn cover detracts from the shelf. Re-covering books can be a great way to keep everything looking cohesive and deliberate.
When you re-cover a book, remove the dust jacket. You may wish to use the jacket as a template for the new cover. White paper, brown paper, or vellum make beautiful, muted covers that can tone down any book and help it blend in with the rest of your library. You could also look for art paper to cover books.
Another option is painting the covers or removing them all together. As I mentioned above, this can create a manuscript feel that looks appropriate in certain environments. Of course, you could go the easy route and turn the book around (spine to the back, pages forward) too.
8. Weed Your Bookshelves
A jam-packed bookshelf can look cluttered and chaotic. As hard as it can be to part with books unless you have a sizeable in-home library, you will probably have to weed through your bookshelves regularly. You can often donate or even resell books that are in great condition, so think of it as "rehoming."
When you regularly adjust and decorate your bookshelves, it's a fun way to revisit all those memories and items you hold dear. If you work from home and use books in your Zoom background (as many of us do), changing it up can feel like an instant refresh.
I always intersperse some visually interesting items on my bookshelves—pieces of artwork, vases, even interesting natural things like driftwood, rocks, or plants. These pieces of décor tell a story and bring the composition of the bookshelf together. Along with stacked books and traditional bookends, these items can help you prop up books too. Plus, they're relatively inexpensive and fun to swap out and rearrange frequently.
I'm always looking for new and fun books for my collection. Plus, I’ve found that beautiful books make some of the best gifts. I’d love to hear what books you’ve recently included in your décor and your favorite ways to decorate with books.