Six Secrets of Shelf Decorating that Work All the Time

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Shelf decorating is like making soup. You can have all the ingredients but it all depends on what you do with them. As in any recipe, you can improvise and create wonders if you know the rules and how to break them. Shelf styling or decorating is no different, darling. So, before you start placing your pretty things read this carefully drafted article with images from my own design work.

1. Use a Visual Triangle for Shelf Decorating

In interior design college, the rule of the triangle for shelf styling was a decorating bible. Perhaps, because the magical number “three” is something that humans are willingly accepting as harmonious. We are wired to think in threes. From the mind-body-spirit connection and, the three little bears’ fairy tale we find comfort in the numerology of the three.

As far as your shelf decorating the Rule of the Three goes like this:

When styling a shelf place a larger object next to two other objects that are smaller in size to create a visual triangle. Your eye travels from one object to another effortlessly. Here I will show you how I used the rule of the triangle in my own design work.

Let’s have a look how this works:

Design Work: Marina Klima
shelf decorating with objects showing triangle rule
Design Work: Marina Klima

Above is a display in my house. I collected some things and inherited others. I wish I could give you the site where I got them but there is no such thing. It all took me years.

Some I got in Arizona and the Mexican flea market. The books are from my college interior design days. Of course, my granddaughters’ photos must be there.

I united the objects by color, common theme, and texture – in this case, Mexican or Arizona vibes.

All the objects on each shelf form visual triangles. Textured white porcelain is dominant here. My favorite Frida Kahlo figurine on the upper shelf has a touch of red. The same shade of red in the stack of books. Also, I placed a beige tall vase inherited from my grandfather in the highest opening on the left. This vase was tall enough for that opening and beige never ruins any color scheme.

2. Create Collections With a Common Theme

The collections are great for decorating any shelves. But I hear you- you don’t have a collection, right? No problem. Frames with your cherished photos, plants in pretty planters, or books – all of that you can use as collections.

styled etagere with shelves decorated objects behind sofa
Design Work: Marina Klima
etagere with objects showing triangle rule
Design Work: Marina Klima, Photo Peter Rymwood

I credit a master photographer with the above photos of my design work. An etagere displays a collection of objects inspired by a “Chinese” theme. I remember that the client wanted a mostly Italian great room. Then I thought of bringing in some unexpected objects. I told her literally that she just went to China and brought in some souvenirs. She raised her eyebrows. “I’ve never been to China.” However, after I styled the etagere she loved it.

3. Arrange the Decor with Color and Texture in Mind

items for styling a shelf

Darling, if you ever went through messy construction then you know that after a period of displacement and total chaos comes the big fun of decorating with pretty things.

So in this project above, after we built the wall unit it was time to make it sing with the right decor.

The client wanted something pretty and earthy but not glitzy for the display.

I arranged the objects by texture, form, and size. Earthy objects with tons of interest are like toys that you want to touch and play with.

4. Display Elements Against a Contrast Background

photo from Marina Klima award winning design work. Living room with shelving styled.
Part of Award-winning project for ASID Excellence Award Contest, June 2017. Design Work: Marina Klima

I am proud to showcase one of the photos from my award-winning project. I received a bronze award from the American Society of Interior Designers for a dear client in Ridgewood, New Jersey.

We built and decorated everything here including a custom wall unit.

I remember sourcing the material for the wall unit back wall. I wanted it to blend with the marble of the fireplace that we built. Also, I wanted the decorative objects to pop against the light background.

Large cactuses are bulky enough to be on the upper shelf. A white asymmetrical object is next to them making the display look lighter. A metal, lacy spider web of the book ends on the second shelf in juxtaposition to a shiny planter. The two identical heads of HIM and HER are pretty and fun. Their outline is harmonious with the spider web of the bookends. A tall light blue vase is textural and its earthy color works with the color of the other elements.

Tip: Select a light background for dark objects, but if the objects are light, choose a darker background. 

styled objects for a wall unit
Design Work: Marina Klima
styled objects for wall unit showing triangle rule within wall unit
Design Work: Marina Klima

5. Show Off Unexpected and Fun Objects

You might have noticed that I like to introduce fun, playful decor with all my projects. You can follow my lead and create some conversation pieces in your space.

Design Work: Marina Klima

The exquisite hand-made iron ladybug accent lands next to the books. The ladybug is heavy enough that the kids have little interest in it. However, it is fun to look at, right?

head planter with flowers
Head planter

You will say, “A planter is just a planter!” Yes and no. Sometimes, you can play with its shape or select pretty plants for a plain vase.

6. Use Asymmetric Forms for Photo Frames and Other Objects

photo frame shaped as a cat with cat ears jar
Cat Frame. see details below

 Most of the shelves are rectangular, right? So, by using asymmetrical or odd shapes for the photo frames you will create more interest. What I mean by that is that a space around the objects, called negative space, helps to identify the forms of the objects you display.

Also, I believe that your favorite things need a space to breathe. I’d rather see you changing your displays than crowding too many things all at once.

wood ducks display
Wood Decor Accent. See details below
alternative forms for photo frames
BRASS FRAME GREY STONE PHOTO FRAME
Brass Frame Grey Stone Photo Frame-Horizontal-5×7

I hope you enjoyed this article.

Honestly, it takes me a couple of days to create each post and your input is like air to me to continue working, crating, dreaming, and helping.

Of course, I will be thrilled to see your comments here!

Have fun styling shelves with your favorite things!

Marina's signature

Shop My Favorite Accents for Shelf Styling:


Shop My Favorite Photo Frames




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