How to Decorate a Shelf

I realize that sometimes decorating a house, can be overwhelming and difficult while you are trying to find things that go together or deciding what to match or not match…and how do you do that?? All the while looking for guidance from magazines and designers whose style reflects your own but only to realize it would cost you a fortune to imitate what they do, or you just can’t find the same pieces. AND the biggest headache, I’ve heard a lot of people say is how to decorate a shelf and finding enough random things and make them all come together to form a unified look within a space instead of plunking things out just to fill the shelf space. How do you make it look like they belong and have a purpose for being there? Believe me, it does take some work and I’m still not an expert, but I have learned a few tips and tricks along the way that has made the process so much easier.

The first time I really made an effort at it, it took me over an hour to decorate a small shelf, no kidding! But once you get the basics down it will become so much easier finding and deciding what goes together and what doesn’t. The most important thing to remember throughout the process is to stop, think, and make a plan! Think about the look you want to make, think about the things you can use, whether you already have it or if you need to get it, think about the colours and textures, think about placement. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people who have gone out and bought a bunch of things that they like, come home to use them to decorate and realize they actually don’t create the look they wanted, and they don’t all go together. Then they end up going back, returning and exchanging at the store, 10 times before they finally end up getting the project finished. Save yourself some time and think about it first. A carefully thought out design will always shine through something that has been thrown together. I’ve taken a few of my previous posts where I had to decorate something I’ve built or refinished, to show you the steps I used to pull things together to create a beautiful, unified, and well thought out décor design.


Determining the colour scheme first will help you search out what things to get. For example, the peony hutch I refinished already had a lot of pattern and colour going on in the background, so I didn’t want to use a lot of colour in my decorating because it could get lost in the look or create a chaotic looking mess. I decided that I wanted all my objects to be white so the focus would still be drawn to the peony pattern but there were still all these lovely things in front of it to enjoy. First, determining the colour helped me know where to start.

Another thing to remember for colour is there are 1000 shades of red or green or blue, etc., so pick shades of red or blue or whatever colour you decide that are within the same tone or family. Absolutely get varying shades from dark to light because it will create depth and contrast.

My stencilled hutch had cream and charcoal grey to show just that. A little pop of colour thrown in here and there will stand out so much more against a more subtle or
neutral color palate rather than a whole bunch of bright, bold colours used all over.


You absolutely must use different textures when decorating, it’s what makes everything interesting. Use a woven basket, stack blankets and pillows that are different fabrics, place pressed flowers into a wooden frame, tie twine string around ceramic vases, stack old books or sheet music, use natural elements like rocks, plants, and wood. Wood, paper, metal, glass, fur, fabric, use it all in different and interesting ways, it just helps keep things interesting instead of looking flat and dull.


I love things in contrast. If you have masculine pair it with feminine, if you use hard then also use soft, if you have bold keep it next to pale. On my stencilled hutch I placed a woven grass matt under a flower pot. On my peony hutch, I used a really cool piece of old driftwood in front of a beautiful framed gold feather then a delicate cotton bloom bouquet under a glass dome. Contrast keeps everything balanced and even.

Stacking and layers:

Who says that things can’t be grouped together or stacked in front of each other? If anything, I think it looks better than having everything spaced and spread out. A stack of books is much more interesting with a little something, something placed on top of it like I did on my pipe shelf. And pictures look so good with a little overlapping of one another like I displayed on my stencilled hutch. On my peony hutch, grouping objects together totally works, but when they are grouped in odd numbers.

Go above and beyond:

Just because the shelf is decorated doesn’t mean you should stop there. Keep going by adding a rug or a basket or a plant around the hutch or next to the shelf. It keeps the eye moving to the area of the room rather than just stopping at the shelf. My peony hutch even had stacked rugs with contrasting textures!!
Whoa, I just went advanced here! Did you notice that encompassed five design tips?! (beyond, contrast, layer, texture, color).

Heights and levels:

How is anything supposed to stand out if everything is placed at the same height as each other? It’s not, that’s why you need to cut out the boring and pump up the dynamic. My peony hutch is the perfect example because everything is white. I must rely on height to make each object stand out. If you are grouping something in three’s, then make them all different heights. If you are layering, then make it taller than what’s next to it on the shelf. Think of a mountain ridge against a skyline, as you follow it with your eyes you are constantly moving them up and down helping you keep point of contact with every inch of the ridgeline. Same on a shelf, you want your eyes to constantly be drawn over every level to see everything that has been carefully selected instead of the eyes passing over because it couldn’t stand out.

Hope this helps you figure out how to tackle decorating your next shelf or hutch or whatever!
Remember, plan and think about it. Try putting something in place, standing back, and analyzing how it fits. This doesn’t need to be overwhelming and make you go crazy, but like anything, it takes time to develop and learn. Patience young grasshopper!

Cami TannerComment