What to Put on Shelves in a Living Room

Do you have rows upon rows of empty shelves in your home with no idea how to fill them? 

Light wood floating shelves on a white brick wall

Before you run out and buy every decorative object you can lay your hands on, you need to understand that deciding what to put on shelves in a living room is one of the biggest home decor dilemmas around.

While it might look as though the Instagram 'shelfie' inspo you've saved was thrown together at random, shelf styling involves a lot of thought and planning. What's more, you shouldn't feel as though you have to stock up on pretty vases and candles to line your bare in-built shelves. When it comes to shelf decorations, anything from vintage cameras to wine bottles can work if you style them well. 

And I cannot go any further without giving a shout out to my UK friend Martha Roberts who is the Queen of the Shelfie!  Her blog about how to stage shelves will make you happy and give you lots of wonderful ideas.

Want to know the secret to well-styled shelves? Keep reading to find out what to decorate your living room shelves with!  

Lean Artwork and Photos 

Framed family photos make perfect shelf decorations, but there's no need to stop there. 

In a world where we usually hang pictures up, leaning your favorite artwork against the wall is an elegant and stylish way to break the rules. After all, the most effective styling tips often encourage us to play with expectations and try something new.

Built in shelves with cabinets below.  Artwork, books and yellow accent vases sit on the shelves.

You might also want to use this same display method for other forms of two-dimensional home décor, such as vintage postcards and stylish stationery. These decorative pieces are perfect for filling the sometimes tight spaces between built-in shelves. You can also use them to create depth and contrast by placing different-colored objects in front of them.  

As well as the style benefits, displaying art on open shelving offers a practical solution for renters who want to decorate but aren't allowed to make holes in the wall. What's more, it's a lot easier to play around with different combinations and groups of artwork to see what works best with no hammers and nails involved. And, you'll never have to worry about wonky paintings and uneven spacing either!

Add Organic Elements

The sharp angles and straight lines of shelving bring definition and direction to a cozy and inviting living room. But adding some organic elements to your shelves softens these edges while helping to tie everything in with the rest of the space. 

Wooden crate shelves with plants and other decorative items.

The kinds of organic elements you choose will depend a lot on the height of your shelves. If your shelves are close together, you may want to use small potted plants, moss balls, and succulents to add life to these tighter spaces. In contrast, tree branch cuttings, fresh flowers, or pampas grass are all perfect for bringing drama to larger spaces and open shelving.  

Of course, organic doesn't have to mean plants. You may prefer to add decorative stones, crystals, bones, or coral. Likewise, wicker baskets, wooden boxes, large shells, and nacre trays all provide a touch of the organic as well as somewhere to display smaller items or keep home office essentials safe and hidden from view.  

Express Your Personality and Values

Following styling tips and decor ideas can help you make your shelves look good. But it's far more important to fill your shelves with items that mean something to you. 

Shelf with various decor on it

As a recent study into the science of a happy home found, cultivating a home that is unique and personal to your tastes and values is one of the most effective ways to create a space you're happy in. And where better to show off your travel souvenirs, proud DIY accomplishments, and favorite collectibles than your living room shelves? 

Your choice of shelf decorations might not be to everyone's taste but they'll speak to your personality far more than any bland or trend-led home decor could. So, before you stock up on beige candles and vases, consider how you want your shelves to reflect you. 

Dedicate a Space to Entertaining

Do you love to entertain at home? If so, the shelves in your living room could be the perfect location to set up a dedicated space for your entertainment of choice. 

For example, if you love mixing drinks for your friends and family, why not turn your built-in shelves into a makeshift bar? Line the high shelves with champagne flutes, martini glasses, and whiskey tumblers. Mix in a few cocktail shakers and bottles of wine to create interest through contrast. Then, the bottom shelf could be your mixing station, complete with a silver tray, ice bucket, and a selection of popular liquors. 

An alternative entertainment station idea is to dedicate your shelves to your record collection and turntable. You could use higher shelves to display your vinyl collection and place your record player on the bottom shelf.

half of a record player is showing and then a wooden box filled with records

You might even want to lean your records on the shelves like artwork as a way of creating an eye-catching display with your favorite covers. When friends come by, your arrangement is sure to get you all talking about music. And what better excuse is there to spin some of your favorite tracks?!

Incorporate Unexpected Touches

Another way to decorate your shelves in a creative way is to play with expectations and functions.

For example, in the same way that people expect logs in a fireplace or beauty products in your bathroom vanity, they expect your living room shelves to be full of books, family photos, candles, and a vase or two. 

Floating shelves above a sofa with fun colored bottles and various items.

The instant you line open shelving with designer shoes, vintage cameras, or your collection of retro Coke bottles, your shelves become a style statement. 

Decorating your shelves with items like these pushes the boundaries of home decor and our concepts of form and function. Here, you show your aesthetic appreciation for items beyond the realm of vases and other standard shelf decorations. Also, your rebellious shelf styling choices are sure to act as a talking point whenever guests visit, who'll no doubt be curious and intrigued by your chic yet oh-so-unique styled shelves. 

Leave it Empty

While we're on the subject of unexpected ways to decorate your shelves, how about leaving your shelves bare? 

If you're trying to go for a more minimalist aesthetic, built-in shelves are likely more of a hindrance to your choice of style direction than a handy storage solution. But, chances are that even the most dedicated minimalists would still find bare shelves a little too minimal. 

Teal walls, with a single built in bookcase in white.  The shelf has 2 large white vase and books on the shelves.

One way to avoid filling your shelves with unwanted clutter is to fill them with color instead. Painting shelves in a contrasting color to the wall can work here. Or, you could try leaving the shelves the same color as the wall and painting the spaces between in a vibrant hue.

This solution allows you to make a feature of your shelves rather than leaving the room looking unfinished. Although, you'll want to ensure these bold shelving ideas don't clash with the existing living room color scheme. Choose a shade that complements the room's color palette or bring out your chosen shelving color around your living room by adding new accessories like rugs and throw pillows. 

You can then fill a central part of the shelves with a dramatic plant, mirror, or other large decorative feature. The colorful surrounding shelves then become a means for this central piece to make a bold impact without detracting from the room's minimal look. 

Play With Formations, Layers, and Lines

Although you should give careful consideration to your choice of shelf decorations, the 'how' can often be almost important as the 'what' when it comes to styled shelves. 

For example, arranging décor items in odd numbers tends to work better than an even-numbered collection. In particular, using the power of three is a good rule to follow when decorating everything from living room sideboards to shelves. 

And you can forget lining items up in rows. When displaying a trio of trinkets, play around with their formation and spacing. Placing the taller items toward the back of the shelf and the smallest at the front is a simple yet effective shelf styling trick that adds interest in an instant. 

All white items against a white wall, white pot with a small cactus, small white vase and an empty white picture frame.

Deeper shelves offer the chance to play with layers even more. While you should avoid overcrowding, you can create contrast by mixing up sparser areas of shelves with layered sections. Lean artwork at the back then arrange a trio of souvenirs at the front of the shelf. Or overlap the corner of a bold print with a delicate vase or a unique candlestick. 

There's no rule that says all your shelf decorations have to sit on the shelves either. Trailing plants, textiles, and sculptures can all help blur the straight lines of shelving, adding a new dimension to your home décor. You could even hang pictures from the shelves themselves. As well as breaking up the shelves, these mounted art pieces play with expectations and add visual interest. 

Get Creative With Your Reading Collection

Books are one of the most popular items to decorate your shelves with. But there are far more exciting and interesting ways to display your every-expanding reading collection than the stuffy home libraries of the past. 

Rows and rows of books can often look too oppressive and heavy for most modern living rooms. To create a more dynamic display, break up your books with smaller trinkets and souvenirs. You can also use stacks of horizontal books as a pedestal for smaller decorative items. 

If you're short on shelves and have a lot of books to display, there are ways to play down their impact for a more minimalist home décor approach. One of the easiest ways to do this is to face the colored spine toward the wall instead of out. 

Rainbow colored books organized on a shelf by color

You should then break up the consistency of this monochrome effect by stacking your booking in alternating compositions. Line up some books vertically then place stacks of horizontal books between these for contrast. But remember to bundle books in odd numbers and arrange the stacks in different heights for extra visual interest. 

One final styling tip for having fun with your book collection is to organize books by their spine color scheme for a bold color-blocking effect. You could run through the colors of the rainbow, from red to orange and so on. Or you could go from white to black with lighter shades giving way to darker hues. As for the odd books that don't fit your color scheme, turn their spines in so you can only see the cream pages. 

Create a Makeshift Mantel

Do you love the traditional style of a mantelpiece but don't have the space for one? How about recreating the look with your living room shelves? 

Use the lower shelves to store classic books, boxed items, or another similar kind of non-distracting home décor. This is a great way to minimize the impact of these sections and draw attention to your feature shelf. 

Simple shelf on a white brick wall with different tones of blue items

The shelf at the height of a traditional mantelpiece can then be the star of the show. If you want to go for the classic mantelpiece look, you could add a clock in the middle of this shelf and then symmetrical details on either side. These could be vases, candlesticks, or any other traditional mantelpiece décor.  

To complete the makeshift hearth effect, display a piece of art or a mirror above the mantel shelf. This will ensure that all eyes are on this shelf as the central and most decorative feature. 

Your Guide to What to Put on Shelves in a Living Room

As this guide shows, there are a lot of different possibilities to consider when deciding what to put on shelves in a living room. 

But, while the aesthetics and practicality of your shelving decor will always be an important factor, your main aim should be to style your shelves in a way that feels unique and personal to you and your home. 

For more interior design inspiration and home styling tips, feel free to get in touch today!

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