I will be honest with you: I feel a little funny writing this post. Why? Because I don't really believe in rules when it comes to decorating, and the title of this long read suggests there are rules. I believe more in following your instinct, allowing your space to evolve and trusting your eye to create what's right for you. This is what I always explain to friends and family who ask for my help when styling up their own personal spaces. But I appreciate that it's not always easy to know where to start when you've got a blank space staring at you. It can be really intimidating, and that's the last thing you want to feel in your home. My hope is that this will inspire you if you're stuck in your home.
I love open shelves, and I love the quiet act of curating them, of thinking through how I want to feel when I look at them, and then how I want them to look, searching for the pieces that will bring them to life and add a meaning to that particular room in that particular home. In the image of my living room shelves above, I hope that above and beyond the look of it, beyond the objects, you recognise the feel of it. That this is a calm, light lived-in space, nothing too cluttered or chaotic. Laid-back. That it feels like a home. That's the feeling that I've wanted to create.
In our previous home we replaced wall units and old-fashioned free-standing bookcases with open shelves and I was amazed by the sense of full-height openness this one act created. Suddenly an uninspired and mundane kitchen space that blocked off unbelievably high ceilings became a dramatic open-plan room that flaunted its best features, felt alive, energetic and vigorous.
Now, our present home is filled with open shelves almost everywhere. In this home, the feeling I seek to create is less of the rigour of our first flat, which was incredibly bright and dare I say it, young, and more of the calm and thoughtfulness that I think we could all do with as we grow into being a family of five. So the shelving in this house is not about creating drama or wow-factor impact - it's much more relaxed than that, and I believe that's echoed in the styling, or rather un-styling of it too (I've changed nothing for the shot above; it is what it is). I am much less likely to buy something just for the sake of putting them on show on the shelves.
I know lots of people are scared about installing open shelving and I've heard people deliberate over whether it's just too much hard work; the dust, the pressure to curate, nowhere to hide things. (I've deliberately left the cables on show in the photo above and not edited them out - after all, it's a real home).
But in your home, nothing should feel like hard work; it should be effortless. And if that means a few cables are on show, then so be it. With open shelves, that you can see all around you, you don't want to be reminded of hard work. If you approach and plan your interiors as a whole with thought first, styling second, then there's less pressure for it to purely live up to something wholly aesthetic.
let's START WITH THE SHELVES
For me, open shelves means symmetry and structure, and with it, the promise of order and neatness and - yes - calm. I especially love classic Swedish String shelves for creating this. They are an investment cost-wise, but they are beautifully minimal, deceptively lightweight-looking for what they can hold, and serve as an elegant, simple backdrop for almost every kind of interiors style. I would highly recommend them.
In our home, we replaced a large wall of heavy, built-in, thick and imposing wooden and wonky Edwardian shelves with floor-to-ceiling String shelves as above and the effect was magical. A lightness appeared as if out of nowhere.
Focus on feelings, not just on styles.
Before you turn to Pinterest to style your shelves, think first about how you want to feel when you look at them. Write down the words that describe these feelings and keep them next to you while your browse for ideas. I do this when curating for the Our Story Time shop - I write down the feeling I want to create, the feelings I want my customers to have before I source products, so that there's an unmistakable atmosphere when you shop with me. So for my summer collection I wrote down words like heady, fragrant, romantic. You can do this for your own home too - so, "calm, content and inspired" might lead to a minimal, plant filled shelf space or "happy, spirited, uplifted" might be more eclectic and colourful, filled with memories collected on far-off travels.
Once the thought is there, the rest will follow, so it will never feel like it's too done or too magaziney or too much like somebody else's home you once fell in love with on Pinterest. Instead, it will feel effortless. Lead with thought above style, and your home as a whole will feel loved in, lived in, relaxed. It will feel like you.
ten tips: HOW TO style open shelves
Declutter first... The beauty of open shelves is in the curating. You don't want to start from a point of overwhelm, so have a thorough declutter. Be prepared to let things go.
...Because less is more - Don't be tempted to overcrowd your shelves. Just as what is left unspoken can be almost as meaningful as the words said, so too an empty space. It simply allows your belongings to breathe, to take up place, to say something.
But don't be too precious Don't obsess over purely decorative pieces, because then you'll lose all sense of reality. Homes are made for living, for comfort, for memories. There is beauty in the functional too.
Don't rush it Think of the gaps in your shelves as little pauses. Even when I've styled shelves for others, family and friends, I leave spaces for them to take their time to fill themselves, because it is always going to be more meaningful when you've taken your time to choose what to put there..
Create storage within your shelves With open shelving, you have no where to hide your "stuff"; remote controls, post, chargers; the fiddly essentials of life. This is what scares so many people - everything is on show. So shop for aesthetic storage that makes it easy to organise your life. Think beautiful handmade baskets, trays, vintage trunks, pretty boxes.
Think in layers by which I mean, think about overlapping, stacking and grouping to create little tableaux that will make your style dance. Easy layers include books stacked horizontally, not just vertically and plants next to the inanimate.
Keep it balanced Avoid shelves from looking oddly top heavy. So mix it up - I keep all my paperbacks together for practicality but then for style, I group hardback books in little collections throughout the overall shelves, and like to layer them up horizontally, as mentioned above, to make them more visual. You'll know when you've got the balance right - your gaze will stop jumping abruptly from one shelf to the other, and instead you'll just be able to take it all in.
Create surprises I have a little collection of small, simple wooden animals - a reindeer, a fox, a squirrel - tucked away beside a stack of hardback interiors books. Without fail, they're the things that everyone wants to pick up and touch. They're curious, unexpected. Add something a little intriguing to draw people in. I would love to add one of these embroidery hoops for just that reason.
Don't think of shelves just as bookcases or else you'll never add any detail to create the style you would like. Prioritise some space for prints and photographs to bring in memories and meaning.
Vary the details If all the prints on my top shelf were the exact same size in the exact same frames, it simply wouldn't look natural. I want our shelves to reflect feelings of casual and laid-back living, so the different sized frames (as an example) add to that airy atmosphere. Don't over think anything - that's what stops it from feeling like you or looking natural.
OPEN SHELF INSPIRATION FROM ELSEWHERE
These shelves are a little busier than I have at home, but the pale book spines handily keep it in check. I love the lived in feel, the books not quite straight. Nothing is over styled, everything is natural, homely, loved. And yet there's some clever subtle styling at play with so much depth - the vintage tumblers in front of shelves, the Monstera leaf, the cluster of apothecary bottles.
These built in shelves balance books, plants and ceramics beautifully. I especially love the little cluster of white, creamy and earthy ceramics placed just there in the middle row. I love that they are placed just off centre, adding that element of surprise. These shelves look a lot more deliberate and styled, that's true, but it's still not overdone. The mix of textures - the baskets, the dark wood - is grounding but also so visual and tactile, I just want to reach out and hold something.
(image credit: Amber Interiors)
Baskets for storage, stacks of books, plenty of breathing space, varying heights. This little display has it all, but even more that that the choice of colours and textures really gives off a calming earthy vibe. The only thing that I'm surprised is missing is greenery - though it does look like there might be a big potted plant just hiding in the corner.
(image credit: The Glitter Guide)