Interior Style

How to Style Open Shelves

Hello Friends and Happy Tuesday!

In today’s pro tip post, I am sharing advice on an area of home decor where many often struggle.  Open shelving is a growing trend in home decor and I am seeing it pop up everywhere, from kitchens and bathrooms, to the built-ins framing a fireplace.  The challenge for many is striking that perfect balance of filling the space, yet not allowing it to feel cluttered.

Before we jump into the styling I want to lay out the 5 simple steps to style your shelves like a pro:

5 Easy Steps to Styling an Open Shelf:

  • Start with a clean slate
  • Gather items and mementos to place on the shelf.  Gather twice as many items as you plan to use 
  • Follow Your Rule of 3s
  • Define Your Base
  • Add & Build Layers

Below is a look at my open shelving unit BEFORE.  It is a large piece that can be seen as soon as someone walks in our front door.  I filled it out using some of my favorite vintage finds and personal mementos, but it didn’t have that cohesive, finished look I was going for.


The first step is to start with a clean slate.  In this case I removed everything from the shelf. It’s also a good time to dust if you are like me and tend to forget that household chore more often than not…


Next, go for a treasure hunt through your home!  Look for knick knacks, personal mementos, plants, anything that might add personal character and charm to your shelf.  *Super Pro Tip Be sure to collect twice as many items as needed for filling the shelf.  The extra items will allow for more options and creativity in your shelf styling.


So now your shelf is clean and clear, you’ve gathered all your items, and it’s time to style! This may also be the time where the confusion and indecision sets in.  What goes where? How do I fill up all that space?!

Here is your magic trick to escape frustration:  Follow the Rule of 3’s.  In general, I don’t follow many “rules” of home decor, but this one is a huge help in styling your home!  This article from Apartment Therapy , “The rule guideline of threes say that things arranged in odd numbers are more appealing, memorable, and effective than even-numbered groupings.”

In this case, the Rule of 3’s also helps break down the size and scope of styling this shelf. As I stated earlier, this shelving unit is large in size, and has extremely long shelves. Instead of looking at the unit as a whole, I envisioned 3 separate columns, which I highlighted below with the red dotted lines.


Because the eye is naturally drawn to the center, define the base of your shelf building here.  I started at the bottom shelf because I knew the suitcases were staying there.  The sombrero bookends were a recent find that I wanted to showcase, and the row of books with blue and white bindings add a brightness to the dark shelf and bookends.

I increased the height of my potted plant in the middle with a couple more books.  On the top shelf is one of my favorite wedding photos in a stained glass frame made by my mom.  The glass vase was a recent clearance find at JoAnn Fabrics for $7!


Now that you have a defined base, it is time to add and build more layers into your shelf. The rule of 3’s can also apply here, but don’t stifle yourself with too many “rules” or guidelines.  This is the fun part where you can move and arrange and play with all the fun items you have to work with.

I got to the point in my photo below and realized I had 3 gaps in my styling.  The glass star is floating in space all alone.  The top shelf became a challenge because the rounded edge of the unit limited my selection to short, smaller items that wouldn’t be cut off or blinded by the metal frame.


I layered in a picture frame behind the star.  The small buddha head statue with a book placed underneath became the perfect height to fill out the top left of the shelf.  And lastly, the vintage decanter and mini globe bank completed the space on the top right.

When looking at the final after photo, you can envision the 3 columns, but also notice there are 3 separate groupings on each of the top 3 shelves.  The suitcases at the bottom anchor the whole collection.


We will finish with a last look of the before and after side by side.  You can see the after photo has a much more cohesive, curated and sophisticated look.  Items are highlighted and showcased rather than arranged haphazardly to fill space.

So what happens with all those items I didn’t use on this shelf?  Well I have open shelves in my kitchen as well as my home office that are in desperate need of styling so I’m packing up the leftovers and hauling on to the next styling session.

I hope this has brought some insight and inspiration to use at home!  It definitely gave me the motivation I needed to tackle all the other open shelves that are lacking in character right now.

Questions or comments on the rule of 3’s?  Is it something you use in your home already? Would love your feedback in the comments below!


2 thoughts on “How to Style Open Shelves”

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