6 Designers Gave Me Advice For Organizing My Messy Bookshelves—Here are 7 Tips that Worked

updated Nov 7, 2022
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A pair of built-in bookshelves, with a gold-framed mirror mounted on the wall in-between

I don’t consider myself an interior decorating expert, but I do know what I like. And while it doesn’t always turn out exactly how I planned, and I still switch things up quite a bit, I can usually piece together secondhand finds and more modern pieces in a way that makes me happy. Things don’t always come together right away, though. I recently let go of the idea of the “perfect” room, and I’ve been happier ever since.

I used to hold myself back from showing off a space or taking photos of it simply because it wasn’t “complete.” Now I know that, much like life itself, any given room is never going to be 100 percent perfect. The work-in-progress is worthy of celebrating, too. 

So when my fiancé and I moved into our current row home in Philadelphia, I gave myself some time to figure things out. I knew eventually that the spaces would come together, and I resisted the urge to spend money I didn’t have on furniture just to fill in space. It would happen eventually, I told myself.

Except when it came to my bedroom, it didn’t. The two large built-in shelves that greet me when I wake up each morning and go to sleep each night just never looked quite right, and it bothered me. They’d get cluttered or filled with miscellaneous clothes, and no matter what I did, they just didn’t seem to come together as an organized, designed intentional space.

I realized this might be a situation to call in some pros. How could I switch things around so the space was more functional, prettier, and easier to manage? (And do it all on a budget!) Here’s what six experts suggested.

1. First, Remove Everything

Ashley Moore, founder and principal designer at Moore House Interiors, suggested that I start this process by first getting rid of everything that was already on the shelves. “Remove all clothing, hair accessories, or other random items that don’t belong,” Moore says, suggesting to move on to books next (we’ll get to that). 

Moore wasn’t the only expert to suggest this starting point, so I followed the expert advice. After months of moving everything around, this was the first thing I did. Already, I could see more possibilities on the shelves (though all the books still did overwhelm me).

2. Add Large Baskets to the Two Bottom Shelves

Moore also suggested choosing specific bins to serve as any needed additional storage. This way, the clutter always landed in those bins instead of all over the shelves themselves.

Maggie Griffin, Founder & Lead Designer Maggie Griffin Design Styling, proposed a similar solution for the bottom shelves, in particular, suggesting I put two large baskets there to collect any cords, etc. I took her advice.

We did need the extra storage (and motivation to not leave cords, clothing, and accessories on every single shelf). In the end, the two baskets I purchased for the bottom shelves were the only things I purchased specifically for these shelves—and they were worth it.

3. Add Greenery

Like any good millennial, I love using house plants as decor. Almost every room in my house has at least one plant, but for some reason, I had never thought to use plants in my bedroom as well—that is, until almost every expert suggested adding some in. 

“Add in greenery if possible, with a small plant in a pretty ceramic pot,” Michelle Lisac, Founder & Principal Designer of Michelle Lisac Interior Design, suggested. 

Katie and Kari of The Home Sanctuary suggested plants as well, noting that they were their favorite ways to add pops of color to a space and suggesting this 3-pack of easy-to-care-for plants on Amazon as an option for the shelves. In the end, I was able to plant some propagations I had had for a while in some old pots I had lying around. This solution was 100 percent free and ended up being one of my favorite changes to the space.

4. Group Books More Thoughtfully

I have a lot of books. I should probably consider passing some of them on to new homes, but for now, at least, they’re staying put—and in my house, these shelves are the only ones that make sense for storing them. The advice from the experts about all my books varied, though.

Some suggested only using a few on the shelves, others suggested grouping them by theme. Some noted that placing the spines inward would add some balance, others suggested arranging them by color. In the end, the main solution I ended up going with was one from Katie and Kari.

“Another great option would be to store books in the top shelf of both wall units, which would bring cohesions to the shelves,” Katie and Kari suggested in their email, also providing a very preliminary sketchy of what it might look like, which I appreciated.

Ultimately, these top shelves had the most space (they both extend further on each side then you can see from just looking at them). Placing all the books on those top shelves meant that the rest of the shelves then only had room for a coffee table or other special display books. My favorite part of organizing the books this way, though, is exactly what Katie and Kari mentioned—it made the shelves instantly more cohesive and connected.

5. Add Things That Aren’t Photos or Books 

I knew that I would need to add things to the shelves that weren’t photos or books, but part of me worried that anything I tried would look too stilted or cold—like a hotel room instead of a lived-in space. I wanted the bedroom to be warm and bright, filled with memories of my fiancé and my favorite people and trips. Luckily, the experts gave me some good advice for exactly how I could work different types of items into the space. 

“I actually love to store and display unexpected items on bookshelves, no matter what room they’re in. I currently have a giant silver punch bowl on display in my living room built-ins,” interior designer Stephanie of Olive + Tate suggested. “If you have engagement/wedding gifts, family pieces, or favorite travel souvenirs that deserve to be out and about, then consider storing them on the shelves.”

I didn’t want it to look like a hotel or a room stilted for an Instagram photo, and I also didn’t want to purchase any other knick-knacks. So, for this too, I didn’t buy anything new. I moved around some items that we already had at home, like an antique bowl full of my favorite polaroid photos, a carved wooden elephant, and our collection of travel coffee table books. 

6. Consider Groupings of Three & Small Vignettes 

My elephant sculpture and polaroid photos are things I’ve always had and loved, but it took some advice on exactly how to display them for them to work. Both Lisac and Katie and Kari noted that grouping items by three would help to add some symmetry to things.

Another tip that really helped me was from Katie Stix, IIDA (Partner, Design Director, LEED Green Associate) at Anderson Design Studio, who suggested moving items around the shelves by creating little vignettes. “Try flipping 3-4 books horizontally and place a small accessory on top,” Stix suggested. For some reason, this idea of small vignettes stuck with me and made it easier to arrange sets of items.

I experimented with alternating items by groups of threes and twos, and ultimately it created a better balance than the shelves had ever had before—not to mention it was a much more effective way to display some of my favorite things.

7. Play Around With The Space Between The Shelves

Like the books, each and every designer had a different suggestion for what to do between the shelves. Some suggested keeping the mirror and adding a table or mirror underneath, others noted that a dresser would work. Many noted that the possibilities for this space were endless, which overwhelmed me a bit. 

In the end, though, what I took from the designers’ advice was that it’s OK to play around with the space—that there wasn’t just one perfect solution. And as much as I loved the gold mirror, a decision to switch things up was ultimately made for us when we realized the very heavy mirror had not been secured to the wall at all. We had plans to add a dresser to the space instead, but as it wasn’t in the budget, we implemented another plan. 

Striving for balance, simplicity, and the solution to the lack of a full-length mirror problem in our bedroom, we hung a long mirror and balanced it with a cascading plant. While it is probably not the final arrangement I want for the space, it works for now. And surprise, surprise, furniture and mirrors have suddenly become a lot easier to think about now that the shelves themselves are more organized.

Of all the feedback from the six designers I interviewed, the above suggestions were only the very tip of the iceberg in terms of creative solutions for the space (both organizationally and aesthetically). All of them inspired me to think differently about the space, even if I didn’t put every single tip to use. The experience reminded me that sometimes reworking an element in your home is as simple as starting from a blank canvas and placing things differently. 

There was a long period of time when being frustrated by a design element in my house meant I would start from scratch—buy all new furniture that I couldn’t afford or spend time hunting for meaningless knickknacks and decor. I spent months waking up and feeling frustrated by the chaotic and cluttered appearance of my built-ins. Turns out, all it took to change things around was $20, some expert opinions, and one Sunday afternoon spent rearranging things.