Over the past decade of helping homeowners and business design and decorate their spaces, one of the things I am often tasked with is decor. From art, tables, walls, and all the other things that can get homeowners stumped, it can be overwhelming when choosing those items to help make a space fill more complete.

One of the biggest requests I get over and over? How to style shelves! Whether it’s in the kitchen, living room, bedroom or office, shelf decor can be one of the hardest parts of decorating to figure out.

The trick with shelf decor is finding the perfect balance between stuff and space. Too many items can make a shelf look cluttered or over-crowded, while too few items can make it feel empty and incomplete.

With that said, here are 11 simple ideas for shelf decor that anyone can use. This list includes many items you can find any just about any home decor shop, including our own!

1. Plants

Plants are such a fun way to add color and texture to a space. Mixing and matching plant types, along with their pots, is a great way to fill up space and provide a little personality to a room.

I love the look and low maintenance of succulents. They come in varying shades of green, and often have pink, red, or yellow mixed in. They are low maintenance, and come in varying sizes, so they are easy to work with.

Remember when choosing plants to think about the light they’ll get and where they will be within easy reach to water. And if they do require water, make sure to get a pot with the drain plate underneath!

Decorating a room with little or no light? Consider a faux plant! Our Spring 2022 decor box included a faux hanging plant that is perfect for shelf decor.

Check out some of the shelves below to see how plants of all sizes can be used on shelves!

2. Pictures

Picture Frames are a great way to add art or a personal touch to your space!

Frames, along with the print inside, are a very subjective thing to work with. I encourage you to find frames that are fun or unique. Add brass or chrome, white, colors, or black. You can create symmetry by using frames of the same color and shape/style. Or, you can mix it up with varying colors and textures.

Family photos or art are meant to reflect what you love, so feel free to put either in those frames. I do recommend choosing all color or all black and white, if you are using photos.

Also keep in mind that while square and rectangular frames may be easier to display, there’s no reason to limit yourself to those shapes! Round and oval frames can help break up the monotony of  the straight lines of the shelves and nearby walls.

We’ve collected some examples below to show you how simple it is to incorporate pictures into your shelf decor!

3. Geometric Shapes

Geometric shapes are another fun item to add to any shelf. Think globes, pyramids, rings and more!

Many times the location of the shelf will dictate what shape makes sense. For example, I love adding a globe to office shelves because they add a little touch of sophisitication. And in kitchens or dining rooms, adding bowls and plates is both a convenient and easy way to add shapes to a shelf.

Just remember to not overdo it with these as just one or two pieces will go a long way. When choosing these items, stick with the color scheme that you are basing everything else on. If you love brass, go for it! Black, white, and colored pieces are everywhere these days, and it really is a matter of taste.

Check out a few examples below of using geometric shapes to help decorate shelves!

4. Candles

We absolutely love putting candles on shelves! Not only do they come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, they are also a functional element because they provide scent and light!

When it comes to picking candles for a shelf, think big and think funky. A large, simple candle in its own jar may do the trick. For example, our Summer 2022 decor box included a full size candle from Glassell Candle Company. One of the reasons we picked them is because the jars were a black matte finish, and we knew they would look great in any space and provide both beauty and function.

If a large candle jar isn’t for you, consider a candleholder. We love this approach because you can pick candles of different lengths and colors to get even more creative with your shelf decor.

For example, in our Winter 2021 decor box we included two cement and wood candlesticks with long, white taper candles. A year later, in our Fall 2022 decor box, we included a black resin candleholder in a funky curved designed with short candles.

Just remember, if you are planning to actually use the candles while they are on the shelf, be mindful of the space! Leave enough clearance to ensure neither the flame nor the smoke will damage the surrounding shelves or decor.

And of course, if you want the scent of candles without the flame, consider alternatives such as diffusers or scented wooden balls. Both of these are great alternatives to burning a candle while still helping to fill in empty spaces on shelves!

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5. Books

As our world becomes more digitized, books are becoming a rare site in many houses. But anyone who knows me will tell you I love books, and putting them on display is a great way to decorate your shelves.

Are you someone who loves symmetry and when things just make sense? Turn the spines out and display your books in a ombré fashion. You can choose one color, a variety in descending order, or go for monochrome with blacks, whites, and neutrals.

You can keep the jackets on, and sort by color that way, or, you can remove the covers and display the hard covers in a pattern. For some, the look of the spines turned inward is appealing, as it creates a very neutral scene, full of texture.

There is also no reason your books should be in the same layout. Consider arranging them in a mix of standing up and laying down to create a some visual interest.

If you are the type who prefers e-readers and don’t have a lot of books on hand, you can always go to a used book store or library sale. This is a great way to find classic reads in old school colors and designs.

Along the same lines, bookends are a great way to style your shelves, even if you don’t have books! Our Fall 2022 decor box included a set of marble bookends that are perfect for styling any shelf!

6. Pottery

We kind of take for granted that our world is full of pottery: plates, bowls, cups, pots and so much more! Don’t confine yourself to thinking these items are only for eating, and start thinking of how to use them on your shelves!

For me, nothing helps perfectly fill in shelf decor like a beautiful bowl. There’s just something about the symmetry and softness of the curves juxtaposed with the hard edges of a shelf that always looks great.

Of course, pottery isn’t just things made of clay. Bowls and plates also come in wood and other materials, and this can be a great way to introduce natural elements into your shelf.

Check out some of the examples below that show how a great piece of pottery can make a shelf look more complete!

7. Memorabilia

As we all get a bit older, chances are we’ve collected a few items that mean something special to us. Tickets to a show. Balls or other equipment from a sporting event. Diplomas or certificates of achievement in our chosen fields. Autographs from the people we idolize and adore. Family heirlooms that have been handed down.

Whatever it is, shelves are a great way to memorialize the moments that mean the most. Not only does the shelf provide a safe place to store these items, it helps put meaningful moments in time on display. In doing so, pieces of our past and reflections of our personality become part of the space. They become constant reminders of important dates in our lives, and help create conversation when friends and family are around.

Just remember when it comes to storing memorabilia on shelves, consider the safety of the item. For items with signatures or that are particularly old, exposure to light and air may deteriorate them over time. Make sure you take proper precaution by putting items in cases, or positioning out of direct sunlight if necessary. And if you have little kids who may be in the same space, make sure your items are out of sight and and out of reach from prying hands.

8. Art

Art is one of most personal choices we can make when it comes to decorating our home. In fact, in my experience nothing causes more discussion and disagreement between couples when I help them decorate their home.

Luckily, decorating shelves gives you a great opportunity to display multiple, small pieces from a variety of tastes. This allows everyone in the home to show off their own personality and make an imprint on the decor.

When it comes to artwork on shelves, the number one rule of thumb is scale. While you obviously don’t want to include pieces that are too big for the actual shelves, you also don’t want to include pieces that will dwarf the other items.

Small sculptures are a perfect accent on a shelf. Their 3D nature will create depth and highlight the entire dimension of the shelf. When combined with a painting or picture, it’s the perfect pairing.

But don’t just limit yourself to sculptures and paintings. Photographs, charcoal drawings, watercolors, and any type of 2D medium are also great choices for shelf decor. This is also a great way to support local artists or even the budding family artist. And because artistic styles are so varied, you’re almost certain to find a style to suits your personal taste and perfectly fit on your shelf.

If you need some more inspiration, check out the gallery below for some ideas on how to include art on your shelves!

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9. Baskets

Baskets provide great utility in any room, and there’s no reason you can’t include them in your shelf decor!

Of course adding baskets to shelves provides a ton of function by giving you more storage in the room. This is particularly valuable in high traffic areas such as mudrooms, playrooms, offices, and living rooms.

But there’s also no reason baskets have to be functional. They can absolutely be just for looks, especially if you pick something with great coloring and patterns that compliments the rest of the decor.

Regardless of how you use the basket, you still have some choices to make. First, you have to pick a material. Baskets made from metal and wires work great for a sheek or industrial look, but they also may expose the contents. On the other hand, baskets made of cotton or other fabric create a softer look, and will do a better job of hiding their contents so your shelves won’t look cluttered.

And you can always go somewhere in between the two by using baskets made of wood or rattan. These provide a rigid look while also brining organic materials into the space.

Below are some examples of both functional and non-functional baskets on shelves to give you some ideas!

10. Mirrors

Mirrors are a great way to make any space feel bigger, and I absolutely love using them to decorate shelves! And there are two primary ways to incorporate mirrors into your shelf decor.

First, you can include small, standup mirrors mixed in with your other items. This is a great opportunity to play with shapes and scale to create some drama on your shelves. If most of your items are boxy or have hard edges, try a round mirror. Likewise, if most of your items are curved, try and square or rectangle mirror.

Your other option for decorating shelves with mirrors is to use them as either the back of the shelf or as the shelf itself. This can be a much harder look to pull off because the larger mirrors will reflect more light and objects. But when done properly, it can create a really nice and upscale look!

Checkout some of the examples below for some ideas of how to incorporate mirrors into your shelves!

11. Trays

Our final tip for decorating shelves is trays! While I really love trays on coffee tables and other areas of the home, I also think they were great on a shelf.

The key with using trays on shelves is that you typically need to pair them with another item. Their low profile means they won’t create a ton of visual interest and may get lost. Consider putting some taller items from this list on top of the tray to make them stand out.

Bonus Tip!

Sometimes decorating shelves is more than just finding stuff to put on them. If you’re having trouble finding the perfect finishing touch for your shelves, consider some of these ideas:

  • Include lighting in the form of spotlights or up lighting. This is an especially nice touch when the shelf includes artwork or memorabilia that you want to make stand out.
  • Add a background. Consider adding a wallpaper, tile or other material to behind on the wall behind the shelves. This is a great way to introduce color and texture into the shelves and compliment the items you are displaying.
  • Use negative space. Sometimes hanging items in between the shelves can create a dramatic effect and really make a room pop. This is most easily done with floating or custom built shelves.

Conclusion

Congrats for making it this far! Whether you have floating shelves, custom built-ins, or stand alone units, the tips we covered here will work for just about any type of shelf in any room.

And remember, you don’t have to stick to just one type of item. The ideas above are absolutely meant to mix and match so don’t be afraid to try several different tips on the same shelf!

Let us know if we missed anything or if you have any tips for decorating your shelves!

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