Built-in wall shelves in a formal living room showcase a collection of fine art.

How to Arrange Items on Shelves

by Michelle Radcliff

Interior decorators and home stagers know the importance of good shelf arrangement, especially on large wall units and built-ins; it can have a dramatic effect on the room’s overall appearance. While poor shelf arrangement may result in a cluttered, chaotic look, a well-arranged shelf or bookcase that follows a few basic design principles can provide a balanced, aesthetically pleasing display of your family's favorite books, home accents, antiques or collectibles.


You can achieve a balanced display on a shelf by grouping items that are similar in size, color or form. Displayed items should also be in proportion to the length and depth of the shelf and to the other items on the same shelf. Choose items with similar visual weight. Dark colors and heavily textured knickknacks appear to have slightly more visual weight than pieces with light colors and smooth surfaces. Elements with strong visual weight may look best displayed alone, such as a large sculpture. Include empty space as part of a balanced shelf arrangement -- this helps you avoid a cluttered look, especially when decorating multiple shelves on the same wall.


Create visual interest by layering tall items behind short ones. Creating a clearly defined foreground, middle ground and background adds dimension and depth. Photographs and framed artwork provided interesting backgrounds for small display items or a short stack of books. Stacked books can also be used as a platform to raise the height of smaller objects or to make them more noticeable. However, keep functionality in mind when layering decor on a shelf. Don’t place items that you will frequently move or use in the back, because you'll quickly tire of arranging and then rearranging decorative items placed in the front.


Multiple shelves should have a deliberate color scheme. If the rest of the room has a neutral color scheme, consider a monochromatic, complementary or analogous scheme on the shelves, based on the colors of books or decorative pieces you plan to display. If the room is already full of pattern and color, keep the shelf arrangement toned down with neutral colors and an occasional bright or bold accent hue.


Asymmetrical groupings in odd numbers tend to make the most visually appealing displays. However, to avoid a chaotic or cluttered look, unify displays with similar colors, textures or forms. A variety of height and size keeps the look interesting. A themed grouping of similar objects such as an antique bottle display or a grouping of athletic awards, trophies or educational degrees also brings unity to the shelf. If the items look almost identical from a distance, break up the monotony with an occasional vase, sculpture, basket or art-glass piece.

Line and Form

Books displayed on shelves create strong vertical lines, which you can vary by altering the way the books are placed. Create diagonal lines by leaning some of the books and horizontal lines by stacking the books. When shelves also serve as storage, keep clutter down by placing small items in decorative baskets or boxes. Cover repurposed boxes, such as shoe or clothing boxes, with contact paper for a unified look with similar colors or patterns.

About the Author

Michelle Radcliff owned a retail home furnishings business for eight years. Radcliff offers decorating advice on her blog, Home Decorating News, is a regular contributor on interior design at LoveToKnow.com and earned certification as an interior decorator from Penn Foster College in 2013.

Photo Credits

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