Shelving can often be an overlooked part of home decor. But with some small tweaks and upgrades, you can transform your basic shelves into an eye-catching display that adds visual interest to any room. Read on for clever ideas to give your shelving a stylish punch.

Use Color to Add Pizazz

One of the easiest ways to jazz up your shelves is by adding a fresh coat of paint in an unexpected hue. For a fun and funky look, try painting your shelves in a bright, saturated shade like coral, turquoise or lime green. For a more sophisticated vibe, go for muted tones like navy, charcoal gray or soft sage.

You can paint the entire shelf a single color for maximum impact. Or just paint the edges and backs of shelves to allow the natural wood grain to still shine through. Painting the wall behind a shelf unit a contrasting color to the shelves themselves will also make them pop. Have fun playing with different color combinations until you find a pairing that excites your eyes.

Incorporate Lighting Effects

Well-placed lighting on and around your shelves can add ambiance and drama. Opt for adjustable recessed can lights above open shelving to create a spotlight effect. Under-cabinet lighting strips are ideal for highlighting what’s on your shelves with a soft glow.

For open shelves, consider placing stylish table lamps on some of the shelves to cast localized pools of light. Sconces make a good lighting option for drawing the eye to shelving flanking a fireplace or TV.

You can also install LED strip lighting along the edges of shelves or on the backs to create a cool halo illumination effect. Dimmer switches allow you to adjust shelf lighting for different needs and moods.

Display Collections Creatively

The items you choose to display on your shelves have a big impact on the overall look. Avoid simply lining up objects in straight rows, which tends to look flat and monotonous. Instead, creatively arrange collections in neat little vignettes for added visual appeal.

Display books of varying heights, sizes and colors in artful piles. Group candlesticks and vases together in pleasing asymmetry. Stack decorative boxes at different angles. Arrange framed photos in overlapping clusters instead of stiff lines. Let some everyday objects like baskets or potted plants live on shelves alongside your prettier pieces. Play around until you find shelf arrangements with depth, movement and style.

Add Warm Wood Tones

The natural beauty of wood can infuse shelves with rich, warm character. If your existing shelves are painted, strip them down to reveal the wood grain underneath. Use wood stain to alter the tone if desired – options like walnut and espresso evoke a cozier vibe than basic brown.

For new shelves, choose real wood options like oak, maple or pine over composite boards whenever possible. The imperfect knots, whorls and variations in real wood add lovely rustic texture. Distressed wood shelving with intentionally worn edges boasts timeworn charm.

You can also bring in wood tones through accessories like woven baskets, ceramic vases, animal figurines or flower pots placed on shelves. Let their earthy materiality play against sleeker objects.

Power Up with Patterns

Why keep shelves relegated to solid colors? Energize plain shelves by introducing eye-catching patterns. For DIY pattern application, use decorative paper, wallpaper, contact paper, fabric or self-adhesive wallpaper with prints like florals, geometrics, stripes or abstract shapes. Just measure carefully before adhering patterned materials onto shelf surfaces.

Or choose shelves that come pre-finished with patterns built right in. Options include lattice-style wooden shelves, perforated metal shelves, shelves with carved geometric cut-outs, and bracket shelves with Scrabble tile lettering. The bolder and brighter the pattern, the more punch it will add.

Rethink Traditional Materials

Shelves made from unexpected materials can provide an intriguing twist on tradition. Metal piping, scaffolding planks, and salvaged barn wood lend industrial edge. Repurposed crates and shipping pallets inject weathered warehouse charm. Chain link fencing offers open airy shelves with built-in visual texture.

For a natural touch, bring in branches, logs or bamboo as indestructible shelving. Or get creative with more unique organic materials like terracotta tiles, stone slabs, seashells or cork boards. Let your shelves reflect your personal tastes and design sensibilities.

Add Architectural Interest

Many shelf units come in simple rectangular shapes. But you can find shelves with built-in architectural details that make them more distinctive. Look for shelves with arched profiles, curved edges, creative cut-outs, tapered silhouettes, or staggered asymmetrical forms.

Floating corner shelves and leaning ladder shelves break out of the box with their angled configurations. Corbel shelves have extended support brackets underneath for added flair. Try incorporating a few unconventional shelves alongside some straightforward rectangles to strike visual balance.

Punch Up the Backs

Most people forget to style the back of their shelves, keeping them plain. But adding decorative backings can contribute to an anchored, finished look. Affix wallpaper, cork board, chalkboard or faux tin panels to shelf backs for colorful or textured appeal.

Construct a simple lattice backing attached to the shelves to boost dimension. Paint the backs in a contrasting color from the shelves themselves. Arrange overlapping frames, art prints or hanging plants as backdrops to ground the shelves. Treat the shelf backs as valuable display space too.

Layer in Texture

Glossy shelves look sleek and modern, but all that shine can also feel sterile. Introduce cozy texture by topping shelves with natural fiber baskets, nubby linen bins, rustic ceramic vases, or textured trays and boxes. Soft woven poufs, fabric-covered books and faux fur pillows also bring touchable texture.

For the shelves themselves, opt for real reclaimed wood with visible age markings. Wire mesh, wicker, concrete, galvanized metal and other materials also provide innate textural appeal. If shelves are already installed, simply add adhesive shelf liner in cork, burlap or embossed patterns for instant texture.

Play with Proportions

Proper scale is key when configuring shelves. First assess the wall space available and ceiling height. Very long, very tall shelves may overwhelm a petite room. On the other hand, tiny shelves floating in a vast wall can feel oddly diminutive. Choose shelves whose scale suits the room at large.

When it comes to objects placed on shelves, mixing up proportions looks more dynamic than sets of uniformly sized items. Combine towering vases with dainty bud vases. Flank small artworks with oversized sculptures or books. Let some items hang over the shelf edge to break up the straight lines. The interplay between big and small elements brings visual liveliness.

Add Designer Details

Take your shelves up a stylish notch with pretty hardware flourishes. Attach knobs, handles or pulls to drawers and cabinet fronts to update standard shelving. Opt for cup pulls, bar pulls, bin pulls or ring pulls in polished metals, glass, crystal, porcelain, or sculptural shapes.

Hang plates or artwork from rails mounted above shelves for artsy flair. Affix delicate brackets underneath shelves rather than just sides for a graceful support detail. Outfit open cabinets with charming glass doors to add a touch of sophistication. It’s the little touches that have the power to take shelving from basic to beautiful.

With some strategic enhancements and creative touches, you can transform any weary shelves into an eye-pleasing focal point that uplifts a room’s decor. Use these tips to punch up your current shelving or select new shelves with built-in panache. Showcase your style sensibilities through the magnetic shelves you design and display. Let your creative spirit run free and make your shelves a unique reflection of you.

FAQs About Punching Up Your Shelving

What are some quick ways to update old shelves?

Some fast and easy ways to refresh old shelves include painting them a new color, replacing the hardware, adding lighting, styling them with greenery and decorative objects, and applying adhesive shelf liner or wallpaper. Even just cleaning them or rearranging what’s displayed on them can make shelves look revitalized.

How much wall space do shelves take up?

The amount of wall space shelves occupy depends on their dimensions and configuration. For example, a shelf unit that is 30 inches wide and 72 inches tall will take up 21.5 square feet of wall space. Floating corner shelves often take up less space since they utilize angled unused corners. Measure your available wall area first before purchasing shelves.

Should all my shelves match throughout the house?

Matching shelves can promote cohesion among different rooms, but it’s not strictly necessary. Mixing up shelves with different stains, colors and materials from room to room can add more visual interest. You may want open shelving in casual spaces but closed cabinets in formal areas. Let each room’s aesthetic needs guide your shelf choices.

What’s the best way to arrange shelves?

The best shelf arrangements creatively showcase favorite items but still appear clean and organized. Place larger accent pieces first, then fill in around them asymmetrically instead of lined up in rows. Place items with height variations together, and leave some negative space between groupings to avoid clutter.

Should I hang anything above shelves?

Hanging lighting or decor above shelves helps anchor them on the wall. Possible options include pendant lights, wall sconces, rail systems to hang plates or art from, floating wall shelves, artwork, mirrors, or decorative wood molding. Even just painting a color block above shelves can make them feel grounded.

How can I make basic shelves look custom?

Even basic rectangular shelves can be made to look custom with easy DIY upgrades. Paint or wallpaper the backs to coordinate with your color scheme. Install trim along the edges for a framed element. Add molding along the bottoms or tops. Use brackets for support instead of plain sides. The right accents and details can elevate any basic shelf.

What are the most modern styles of shelves?

Some of the most modern shelf styles include floating glass or metal shelves, modular cube shelving systems, corner shelves with asymmetrical angles, wide single slabs, and sleek track lighting installed above or below. Minimizing visual clutter and embracing bold, simple forms is key to achieving a contemporary look.

How much weight can shelves hold?

The amount of weight shelves can bear depends on their material and construction. Sturdy solid wood or metal shelves typically hold more than shelves made from particleboard or plastic. Wall anchors also impact capacity. Check the shelf’s recommended weight limits before loading up books or heavy decorative items. Overloading shelves risks collapse or damage.

Where should I install shelves in a living room?

Good places for shelving in living rooms include flanking the fireplace, tucked beside an armchair or sofa, built into the wall of a media nook, behind or alongside a desk, and lining stair rails. Floating corner shelves are great to take advantage of empty angular space too. Just avoid dominating the entire wall with shelves.

What are stylish alternatives to basic bookcases?

Some chic options beyond basic bookcases include leaning ladder shelves, geometric free-standing units, wall-mounted shelves that appear to float, exposed brick shelves, pipes with reclaimed wood, mix-matched salvaged crates, corner shelves, and open cubby displays. Materials like metal and concrete also feel more modern than standard wood bookcases.


A stylish, well-appointed set of shelves can truly tie a room together and showcase your personal flair. Whether you opt for an eye-catching color, trendy new materials, strategic lighting or charming decorative accents, it’s amazing how small tweaks can give lackluster shelves serious pun