When I visit friends’ homes, I love to look at their bookcases because what I see captured on these shelves gives me a rare and wonderful glimpse into my hosts’ hearts. The best bookcase displays, in my opinion, are those that tell a bit of their owner’s story.  Here are some tips for using your collection of books, accents, artwork and personal artifacts to create an arresting display that celebrates your life. When I design bookcase displays, my mission is to craft a visually gripping scene that spotlights a collection of items, each of which helps tell the story of the people who live there. To do so, I often use different combinations of these four elements:

1. Books

This may seem obvious, right? But not all bookcase displays need to include books. And not all displays need to treat books in the same way. One approach is to make your books the main attraction. That’s what you’ll find in my home. Dan never met a book he didn’t have to read. So my home is filled to the gills with books. Unless I want them stacked from floor to ceiling, I have to pack every bookshelf I own.

Even then, I like to break up the endless sea of spines with a few accents or artwork. One of my tricks is to lean artwork against the books, like I did with the framed butterfly specimens in the photo above. I’ve also hung artwork from the bookcase shelves.

Another approach is to treat the books in the bookcase as a backdrop for artwork and accents. That’s what we did at Nell Hill’s recently when we covered the books in our displays with plaid paper. I discovered the idea in a decorating magazine that featured an inn in Scotland. The books in the inn’s library were covered with tartan plaid fabrics. I thought the idea was so inventive, I had to try it at Nell Hill’s. It looked marvelous!

If you want to downplay your collection of books and spotlight your collection of accents, try covering your books, like a friend of mine did in  her home, pictured above, treating them as art elements to mix with family photos and collectibles. If you’re rolling your eyes at the thought of covering dozens of books, try this:  Turn your books around so the spines face the back of the case. You’ll be left with a textured backdrop of creamy white pages against which to create displays.

2. Accents

The key to creating a great display of accents in your bookcase is to not overdo it. Don’t pack the shelves too full. Instead, edit mercilessly, ensuring each object you incorporate works well. Look at the forms and shapes of each piece you pick. Do you have an interesting mix of sizes, styles and textures?

Avoid using too many smaller pieces because when you work in lots of little objects, they get lost and can make the display look busy. Or, if you have a few smaller-scaled pieces you are really excited to display, group them together on a tray so they become one unit.

If you want your display to be about half books and half accents, try creating groupings of books and groupings of accents. I really like displays that include bulky items like lidded baskets or wooden boxes because they add some weight and serve the dual purpose of providing storage for things like loose photos and papers. I’m also crazy about using pottery, statues and potted ferns in my bookcase displays. Here is a shot of a new display at Nell Hill’s:

3. Artwork

I like to include artwork everywhere I can in my home because it adds interest. Bookcases make an idea spot for smaller pieces of art. Usually, I group the artwork with other accents, allowing the art to serve as a backdrop, giving the tableau yet another lovely layer. Get creative when picking art for your displays. Try a beautiful plate or tray propped up in an easel, an old engraving or a botanical.

4. Artifacts

Your personal artifacts are among the most important ingredients of a great bookcase display. They help tell the story of your life. Work in some framed snapshots of the people you love, memorable life moments and places you hold dear. Maybe it’s a shot of your first birthday party. Or a great black and white photo of your children. Or an old portrait of an ancestor. Or a picture from your favorite vacation.

Next, weave in some specific objects that are special to you, like a family heirloom, a piece from one of your collections or a keepsake from your travels. (For lots of ideas on decorating with family heirlooms, be sure to read my Feb. 20 blog.)

Next Week … They are soft and squishy and loaded with style. Find out how to use the star power of accent pillows to warm up your home.

P.S. Don’t miss a bit of Nell Hill’s news – stay up to date on my favorite finds, new arrivals at the stores and all our special events by checking the Nell Hill’s Facebook page every day. You don’t have to have a Facebook page yourself to look in on the fun, but if you’re already on Facebook, “like” us today!

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14 Responses to “How to Style Bookcases that Tell a Story”

  1. Lisa Fernandez Says:

    I love that you blogged about this because that has always been a distinct detail that I have always noticed in your books, your store and your home. We recently built a Den for my husband and I was so excited after being an avid reader and follower of Mary Carol Garrity’s books, all of them. So needless to say I was so excited that my husband had built ins built all around the den. I had so many plans, I bought little frames, busts, figurines thinking of this very detail to enhance them. And what happend? My husband took most of the things out that I had placed and said in a very kind and loving way, nope. Oh well. We have to pick our battles right?
    Hee Hee. Love the bookshelves Mary.

  2. katherine Says:

    Thanks for the tips! It can be intimidating to fill empty bookshelves to create a balanced and interesting display. I have “tweaked” mine multiple times before I was finally happy with the way they looked. I thought they might be a bit too crowded until I saw one of the photos you posted (the one right above, “3. artwork”). I love it – particularly the turquoise accents!!

  3. Ana Maria Says:

    Dear Mary Carol,
    Those cows!………… I love them! The cow prints on the 3rd photo, the ceramic cow and peasant on the 4th photo and the plain one on the 8th photo… where can I find them? I looked on your online store but didn’t see them. Please, please share!

    Love your decor, have all your books and my friends say that you and I were separated at birth!

    Ana Maria

  4. Sarah Says:

    I love the look that is created by the addition of the “tartan plaid book jacket”, however, It spoils the ease of seeing the title and author! I want to browse
    the titles… and I find it interesting to see what others are reading. So, I have
    chosen to use only the center of my units to mix in art objects, collectibles, etc. It works. Still, I love all the ideas and tips that you share. Thanks!

  5. Linda Riley in AZ Says:

    *** ISSUE: “STILL-NEW” built-in bookcases in new study, w/ fab partners desk in middle… STILL not “THERE” yet, w/ how I want to do it all to look, live and speak “US”~~~ SOOOOO, all ideas are welcome!!!

    I DID do a “re-arrange” of a few shelves “on MY side” last week (“testing” the look n’ feel), placing/displaying a large majority of allllll my design/architecture/home, dog, animal, ocean life and heath books… by COLOR… (Guess I’m blessed to have sooooo many of these books to make it feel “finished”~~~ it USED to be they were “hidden everywhere”, w/ a few stacks here n’ there to raise objects or share a particular subject at the time)… Want to explore this a little more on my husband’s side, with his collections of golf, hunting, military, etc…

    ANYHOO MC, maybe this idea will help some of your readers who are still looking for “that” look/feel… hope so… It’s alllll SO FUN to do anyway, huh???

    Linda Riley
    (formerly of Ft. Leavenworth… the POST not the JAIL! Grins!)

  6. Jennifer Crawford Says:

    I love bookcases! They are great for books and more. Thank you for the great tips on how to mix it up. Mine are full of books, photos and fun accessories. Great idea to use a pretty cover for a new look. Thank you!

  7. Rachel Waldrop Says:

    I love the various cow figurines in several of the photos. Are they available in your shops? I live in Alabama but would gladly call and order them over the phone if need be.

  8. bc Says:

    Would you share where the tartan plaid paper came from? I love it, it reminds me of Burberry :)

  9. Lucy Says:

    I just love everything about these photos. So much to study in each photo. I would like to know if you have the blue/white stand with cane’s in it?

  10. Nancy Says:

    Bookcases can be overwhelming, even for experienced decorators. I learned a method years ago in an interior design course. Think in a t pattern. The most important item featured in the center, building up and out from there. Using similar themes throughout (colors, pattern, shape) draws the eye all over, such as the cows in Mary Carol’s example. Nice job!

  11. Mary Carol Says:

    Ana Marie—Unfortunately we are all out of the cow items—prints and ceramic. However, we do get them in the stores from time to time. Please check again!

  12. Mary Carol Says:

    BC—We have the tartan plaid paper available from Europe in our Briarcliff store ‘now’. If you are not local we can probably ship it. $1.50 a sheet—just call 877-746-4320 for more info.

  13. Mary Carol Says:

    Lucy—We do not have the blue and white umbrella stand in at the moment –only white, however, we get those in periodically—Please check back.

  14. sandy m Says:

    If you came to my house you would see all of your books (autographed) in my main bookcase, along with Charles Faudree books (autographed). He has a new book coming out in July.So when are you doing a new book?

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