How to Decorate Shelves in 7 Easy Steps: Simple Decor Series

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Does shelf styling overwhelm you? Take the stress out of decor with these 7 easy steps how to decorate shelves in the Simple Decor Series!  Keep reading for 7 action steps you can easily take to beautifully decorate your shelves.


Do you like styling shelves?  Or does the thought of trying to decorate shelves make you feel overwhelmed?

I’ll be honest, it can be overwhelming to me and decorating is my JOB!  I finally wrote down the steps that I follow when I’m decorating shelves and it’s so helpful!  If you sometimes struggle with shelf decor, too, then I hope these 7 easy steps of how to decorate shelves will help you also!

Today is especially fun because it’s our monthly Thrifting with the Gals day!  I love joining up with some of my blogging friends to offer even more home inspiration to all of you.  Plus, since half of the decor (or more) on my shelves comes from vintage markets, antique shops, flea markets, yard sales, and thrift stores, it only makes sense to share today!

Don’t miss what the other ladies are sharing today too:

Okay!!!  Ready to decorate?  We’ve got a lot to chat about today with details and action steps to help you with your decorating.  Let’s get started!

How do you style a shelf like a pro?

Well, I can’t say I’m a pro.  However, if you consider lots of trial, error, and experimenting as experience, I’m your girl!

Here are 7 steps I follow when I want to decorate shelves in any room.  We will look at each step in more detail along with actionable tips for you to follow too.

  1. Clear the shelves completely
  2. Choose 3 items to inspire the space.
  3. Divide the shelves into sections.
  4. Add larger items first, focusing on balance.
  5. Repeat color, texture, and pattern.
  6. Add layers.
  7. Walk away and then edit.

How to Decorate Shelves in 7 Easy Steps: Simple Decor Series

Step #1 How to Decorate Shelves: Clear the shelves completely.

How do you decorate plain shelves?

To me, plain shelves are much easier to decorate than partially filled or cluttered shelves.  The first step you’ll want to take is to completely clear the shelving unit you’re working with.  I think this is the worst part of the job.  However, I promise it makes styling so much easier and all of the other steps will flow more freely!

As I clear the shelves, I like to put like items together.  This will help me with the other following steps and also make it easier to find things!

If there are things you know you no longer want to use or do not fit the space, go ahead and put them into donate/sell/toss piles!

Action Step 1: Completely clear the shelves and group like items together as you take them off the shelves.

Step #2 How to Decorate Shelves: Choose 3 items to inspire your styling.

This might be a little bit different concept but I find it incredibly helpful.  For example, in my dining room, I have a lot of smaller items on these apothecary shelves.  To help me decide the overall look I wanted for my summer decor, I chose 3 kinds of items:

  1. White vintage mortar and pestles
  2. Glass
  3. White wood

By choosing 3 items, it helped me to decide the overall style as well as which items to use and which pieces to store away for another day.

It’s not that these are the only 3 items you see on the shelf styling (we will get to more of that later on).  However, in general, over 90% of the items used on the shelves tie into these 3 elements.

Action Step 2: Choose 3 items that determine the overall color, style, and/or pattern that you’ll use in your shelf styling.  This will help guide your decorating more easily.

Step #3 How to Decorate Shelves: Divide the shelves into sections.

How do you decorate a lot of shelves?

If you’re staring at a large, blank bookshelf or maybe even a wall of shelves, bless you.  With Action Step 2, you hopefully now have an overall idea of how your shelf styling should go. However, getting started can feel challenging.

So, to help you get started, take Action Step 3:

Action Step 3: Divide the shelving into smaller sections.

My apothecary isn’t that large and the shelves are already naturally divided by how how the furniture is built.  Your shelves may have brackets or natural divisions, also, so lean into those.

However, if your shelves are just long and open, you may want to visually divide your shelves into sections.  A grid format can be really helpful.  If I’m working with a really large shelf, I will typically divide it into a 9 square grid, 3 by 3.

A larger shelf may need an expanded grid, however.

Pro Tip: Divide your shelf into odd numbers if possible.

As I say that, I do realize that my shelves are in a 2 by 3 format.  Since I can’t really do much about that, though, I just roll with it!  As you can see below, I think of mine in kind of a cross-grid format, balancing the top right with the bottom left and so on.

Essentially, in the next steps, you are going to place decor on your shelves within that grid format. This will help you keep an organized, balanced look to your shelf styling that doesn’t feel cluttered or overwhelmed.

Step #4 How to Decorate Shelves: Place large items first.

It’s finally time to start actually decorating your shelves!  This is so exciting!  Remember, nothing is too permanent and you are just playing around and experimenting until you get it like you want it.  I try to not overthink (if my husband reads this, he’s going to laugh out loud at that statement!) and just go with my first instinct.

First, you are going to place your larger items.  Keep your grid in mind and space out larger items.  You likely will not want all of your large items in one row or column.  I try to think of the larger items as not being next to one another.

For my 2 x 3 shelving unit, it may look something like this:


Keep in mind that you can add smaller pieces and layers (we will chat about that too) so this isn’t the final look.

However, placing those larger items first will help you create more balance in your overall shelf decor.

Action Step 4: Place larger items, intentionally spacing them out so they are balanced.


Step #5 How to Decorate Shelves: Repetition

How do I make my shelves look organized?

As you start placing smaller items on the other shelves, you’ll want to use repetition.  Repeating color, texture, pattern, and style will give your shelves a cohesive, organized look.

Remember those 3 items you chose in step 2?  Those are the colors, textures, patterns, and styles that you want to repeat throughout your shelf styling.

Even though no two shelves are exactly the same on my apothecary, the repetition of the white mortar and pestles, glass elements, and white wood accents are easy to recognize!

It is perfectly okay to add some unique elements in there too.  For example, the vintage beach sign is completely on its own and isn’t part of any of those 3 inspirational elements.  However, it is mostly white, so it does connect with color, as the wood of the sign is white.

Once your large pieces are in and you’ve added repeated styles of your 3 inspirational items, have some fun with those accents that really make a statement.  I’m getting ahead of myself, though!

Action Step 5: Begin placing smaller items on the shelves, repeating color, texture, pattern, and style.

Pro Tip: Even if you have a lot of decor on the shelves, the repetition will help it feel curated rather than cluttered!

Step #6 How to Decorate Shelves: Add layers.

NOW we can chat about adding those accents!

You may be looking at your shelves now, and if you like a vintage style like me, you may feel like they are just a little too “average.”

Adding layers will elevate your shelf styling from that “too perfect of a house” style (yes, I think that is a style, haha!) to that of a thoughtfully curated home.

In these summer shelves, you can see small layering details like a piece of coral resting beside a stack of mortar and pestles.  Perhaps the larger layer of the vintage art piece tucked behind the trio of mortar and pestles caught your eye!  Adding palm branches to a grouping of vintage crocks gives extra dimension to this styling as well.

Action step 6 is the perfect time for you to play around, move pieces around, add and take away, and experiment with some of your favorite accents that maybe don’t fit into the “3 inspirational piece” rule.

At the end of the day, what YOU LOVE is what is right for the space!

Action Step 6: Add unique accent pieces layered in front of and behind your decor.  Vintage art, mirrors, greenery, and small seasonal object are great layering pieces.


Step #7 How to Decorate Shelves: Walk away, then come come back and edit.

Rarely do I get my shelf styling just how I want it on the first try.  In fact, I found it most helpful to go with my first instincts when styling.  Then, I walk away before I have time to overthink it too much.  When I come back with fresh eyes a little later…even a day or two later…I am able to more easily see what works and what I want to tweak.

No matter what you may be decorating, this action step is really important!

Action Step 7: Walk away and don’t overthink.  After a couple of hours or even a couple of days have passed, take a look at your space with fresh eyes.

Pro Tip: If you find you don’t love it but can’t figure out what, take a picture to look at later.  Sometimes the camera catches the detail that I’m missing when I see it in person!  That sounds a little counterintuitive, but sometimes it is really helpful!

Need more shelf styling inspiration?

Over on my storefront, I put together a list with some of my favorite kinds of accents and accessories for styling shelves.  You’ll find some seasonal accents.  However, I’ve mostly included some favorites that can be used year round and with different kinds of decor.

From functional and practical to just plain cute, these shelf accessories can help you get your shelves styled easily!

How to decorate between seasons?

Below, you can see examples of these same shelves styled for different seasons and holidays.  Look carefully and note how often I reuse some of the same decor pieces!  You don’t have to replace everything for each season; rearranging and adding key seasonal touches makes all the difference!

If you’re wondering how to decorate shelves for different seasons, hopefully these pictures will give you inspiration.  Make sure to pin your favorites to refer back to during that season!

Check out my Simple Decor Series:

I have a growing library of what I call my “Simple Decor Series.”  These are tips and action steps to help you with some of my most requested decor areas.  I hope you find fresh ideas, decor help, and enjoyment from these posts also:

Now you know how to decorate shelves!

If you follow these action steps, give yourself lots of grace and patience, and just have fun with it, you are going to be able to create shelf styling that adds so much character and interest to your home decor!

Thanks for joining me for another Simple Decor Series post!  I’d love for you to share it with a friend if you found this to be helpful!

Don’t forget to click on over to the other Thrifting with the Gals posts to see the DIY ideas, thrift store finds, makeovers, and decor inspiration today!

Kristin from White Arrows Home

I’d love for you to follow me on social media!  You can find my home decor inspiration on Instagram, Pinterestand Facebook!  











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