5 Mistakes That Make Your Shelves Look Cluttered, Not Curated

published Oct 17, 2023
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If you find yourself constantly swooning over designers’ perfect “shelfies” and get frustrated that you just can’t seem to replicate it at home, you’re not alone. Setting up a perfectly curated and design-friendly shelf can be harder than it looks. Whether your shelves have a mix of books and knickknacks, or are more spacious to highlight a feature item, we discovered the secrets designers swear by to get picture-perfect shelves every time.

Five pros weighed in and shared the most common mistakes that people make that result in cluttered-looking shelves, as well as how to prevent these errors. Here are the five major “don’ts” to keep in mind as you get to work arranging your books and trinkets. 

Mistake 1: Displaying Too Much at Once

It’s normal to want to maximize shelves’ storage potential, but keep in mind that in order to create the most aesthetically pleasing setup, not every item needs to be directly on display. “If you need a particular shelf to look put-together while also being practical, throw some baskets in there that hide the everyday clutter yet keep necessary things accessible,” offers Maggie Dillon, the founder of Maggie Dillon Interiors

Here, it’s OK to play favorites. “Typically, if our clients have an extensive collection they love, we’ll talk to them about which pieces are the most important to them,” says Laura Hodges, owner and principal designer of Laura Hodges Studio. And remember that you can always restyle your shelves over time, if you wish. As Hodges adds, “It can be good to display part of the collection and rotate them out with the others occasionally.”  

Mistake 2: Not Giving Any Breathing Room

Building off of Hodges’ comments, you don’t want to style your shelves to the point that they appear to be cramped. “Whether it’s a vertical bookshelf niche or several grouped arrangements along a floating shelf, it’s important to consider negative space to strike a perfect balance that doesn’t feel cluttered or heavy,” says Rachel Browne, owner and principal designer at Browne House Interior Design. You want to ensure that you’re leaving an equal amount of breathing room, or negative space, on each shelf so that the overall look is consistent and not uneven, Browne says. 

Mina Lisanin agrees. “Embrace the concept of ‘less is more,’” says the founder of ML Interiors. “Leave some room on the shelves to allow the eye to rest and appreciate the displayed items. This helps create a sense of balance and harmony while also making it aesthetically pleasing.” 

When determining how to create groupings, simply follow Kerri Pilchik’s rule of placing like with like. Alternatively, when related items are spread out among various shelves, this “makes the eye not know where to look,” says the founder of Kerri Pilchik Design

Mistake 3: Forgetting Cohesion

On a related note, you’ll also want to make sure that you’re following a cohesive color palette, theme, or style — such as modern, rustic, vintage, etc. — when styling your shelves, Lisanin notes. “Randomly placing items with no visual connection can make your shelves look disorganized,” she says. “Having a unifying element will tie everything together and create a more harmonious look.” 

Mistake 4: Only Displaying Books

While office and library bookshelves are indeed meant to house books, the most aesthetically pleasing shelfies contain some artful accent pieces, too, Pilchik says. “Intersperse boxes or ceramics to keep things interesting and prevent shelves from looking too ‘heavy,’” the designer advises. “Lean small pieces of art to create height or fill a shelf that is too sparse.” 

Mistake 5: Disregarding Good Lighting 

Don’t forget to pay attention to lighting once your shelf is styled. “Good lighting is crucial for showcasing your shelf decor effectively,” Lisanin says. “Bad or overly harsh lighting can make even a well-styled shelf look unappealing.” To remedy this, she suggests using small spotlights, table lamps, or LED strips to brighten things up and highlight special pieces.