House & Home

Style a Beautiful Bookcase or Two

Posted November 15, 2015 1:35 p.m. EST

An oldie but goodie – there’s a well-known interior decorating story which is still making the rounds. Someone walks into a bookstore, looks around carefully, and asks to buy a certain set of volumes. The bookseller remarks, “Oh, that’s one of my favorite authors. The customer replies, “I don’t care about reading them. I just want some books to match my decor!” Well, at least he was honest.

As someone who grew up in a home that contained more than 1,000 books (yes, I counted them all one rainy afternoon), I believe that a book is more than just a pretty face. But I also think that books and the bookcases that hold them can add a great deal to the eye appeal of any room. In that spirit, find out how to style bookshelves attractively to form a fitting framework for your books and the words of wisdom, entertainment, and inspiration they hold.

The Most Beautiful Bookshelves

Choose bookcases that will make the most of your rooms. For example, in a small living room or hallway, tall skinny bookshelves are recommended. They use the limited space most efficiently and also draw the eyes upward, distracting from its less-than-epic proportions. A pair of bookshelves will also work well to frame an outstanding architectural feature, such as an elegant fireplace or a magnificent view window.

Built-in bookshelves are especially handsome. They can serve to disguise an awkwardly shaped room, such as when your ceiling is not entirely level. Real custom carpentry, crafted from a lovely wood, gives the most luxurious feel. If you are the DIY type, though, you can mimic the custom look with flat-pack furniture like IKEA’s justly popular Billy bookcases.

Safety first: Anchor any non-built-in shelves securely to the wall to avoid the risk that they might topple.

Your Own Additions

Would you like to add your own personal touch to the bookcase you just bought? Or perhaps you want to repurpose a vintage thrift store find which is somewhat the worse for wear. In the latter case, start by taking a clearheaded look at the material your bookshelf is made from – you can always hope that it will turn out to be a high quality natural wood. If so, show it off by stripping and varnishing.

On the other hand, bookcases that are not in such good shape may benefit from a coat of paint. An attractive effect is to contrast the back wall with the rest of the piece. Paint, stencil, or line with your favorite scrapbook paper.

A well-known (inexpensive!) carpentry upgrade is replacing the old hardware with a more contemporary style, for a dazzling instant upgrade.

Let yourself go and experiment by adding crown molding or beadboard – these super trendy embellishments will look just as great on the outside of your bookcase as on your walls.

Books Books Books

Of course, the main reason to install bookcases in your house is to house your reading collection. Decide how you want to arrange your books to make them the most accessible to you. Ordering by author name or theme is the most conventional way but you may find another system to suit you (yes, even by jacket color).

Your bookcases will have more esthetic appeal if you don’t cram the shelves with volumes. Intersperse the books with small displays of tchotchkes, pretty rocks, artwork, or photos; the uncrowded space will give a nice light, airy impression. Add a lively touch with a few potted plants.

Place a part of your book collection horizontally and the rest vertically to create an interesting contrast. This is a way to make a clear distinction between different subjects, too.

When there are young children in the household, they’re likely to invent a really exciting game called “Whatever you put on the bottom bookcase shelf, I’ll take out and throw on the floor. Whee!” You may as well resign yourself to using that space for their board books or toys.

Laura Firszt writes for

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