Shelf Help: Strategies to Style Your Open Shelves (And Keep Them Looking Neat)

published Feb 7, 2017
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(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Ask anyone who’s lived in rental apartments with questionable design decisions, there’s definitely a different vibe between embracing trends because you want to and embracing them because you have to. (“White appliances are hot again!,” they say. So why can’t you look at your circa-1996 kitchen and get excited?) So it follows that you might have a very different experience trying to style your open shelves—which, you know, you need for actual storage—than somebody who just added them into their kitchen renovation as a place to display seven cookbooks and a vase.

When open shelves are just a necessary part of your apartment’s storage plan, you end up forced to fill them with your things. And I don’t need to tell you that can get kind of messy. You have two options: You can get rid of half your stuff, or just get better at styling it.

(Image credit: Minette Hand)

Make Use of Baskets or Boxes

Notice a particularly clutter-filled area of your shelf? Take everything in that space and tuck it away inside an opaque, decorative basket or storage box. Voila! Your shelves are tidier already. If you’re worried about the utility or convenience factor of hiding the things you use every day in baskets, consider filling the baskets with things that will be used at the same time, like a basket just for baking supplies in the kitchen.

(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

Group Like Items Together

Your messy shelf might just be in need of a visual “filing” system. Put like with like on your shelves—grouping things by shape, utility or even color. Gather glassware together in one place, a few antique knick-knacks in another, then arrange your books by color all around.

(Image credit: William Strawser)

Focus the “Weight” On the Edges

If you’ve got some breathing room on your shelf, you can find a lot of balance by pushing the visually heavier groupings (think: stacks of books) to the edges of the shelves, and keep the pretty, lighter things down a vein through the middle.

(Image credit: Emily Ogden)

Layer, Layer, Layer

So your shelves are filled to the brim and you find yourself stashing books horizontally on top of more books just to make room for everything. Your method now might be to have that row of books take a big step back—literally push them as far back on the shelves as they will go—and style a few contrasting objets in front. Keep the back layer of the shelf filled with all you need, but work to keep the front layer tidy and well-edited all the time.

(Image credit: Sandra Rojo)

Leave Some Space Empty

I hear you: If you could afford to leave any empty space, you wouldn’t even need this help. But I’m going to encourage you to just take one thing off—grab a few things off the shelf and try your best to find another place for them. Because that open space, as tough as it may be to get it, sends exactly the right message: “I don’t need to fill these shelves, so know the mess everywhere else is intentionally artsy and bohemian and exactly how I want it to look.”