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Beautiful Bookshelves
ShelterStyle.com can transform your interiors using what you already have
Teaming up with interior designer Daily Howard, a clients living room became a magazine makeover project The Right Arrangement Makes All the Difference
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Beautiful Bookshelves
The Right Arrangement Makes All the Difference

by Joetta Moulden
photos by Hal Lott

Reprinted with permission of Houston House and Home Magazine

Who doesn't love a stunning makeover? Whether it is a tabletop makeover or an entire room makeover, quick transformations never fail to thrill.

For more than 20 years I have studied and written in-depth articles about interior design. Now as a magazine stylist, one of the questions I am most frequently asked is "how do I arrange my bookcases so they look right? I always seem to be disappointed with my results."

Interior designer Daily Howard of Daily Howard Interiors and I teamed up to transform a client's living room for a magazine makeover project. The room's pale bookcases were nearly invisible, filled with creamy white and glass objects that visually disappeared in the room.

The artwork over the mantel was too small and "safe" - lacking visual punch. And the room desperately needed softening and brightening with colorful fabrics to bring out and balance the rich colors in the Oriental rug.

Daily began the color transformation by selecting fabrics to coordinate with the existing blue toile fabric on the chairs by the window. A wing chair and ottoman were moved in from a guest bedroom and recovered in a red plaid linen, and a drop-leaf table was purchased to act as a multi-purpose game table/sofa table behind the beige sofa.

In front of the window, a round top was added to the occasional table, then draped with a family quilt. Additionally, Daily had an antique biscuit tin made into a lamp in her favorite color, red.

Once the big room-altering items were underway, the two of us turned our attention to the bland bookshelves. "Antique books, boxes, small framed drawings and paintings - even old musical instruments - make wonderful accessories to mingle with the books you expect to see on a bookshelf," Daily explains.

"It has been my experience that you can use glass or pale stoneware objects in cream painted bookcases, but to make them show up from across the room they must be placed in front of, or on top of, books or a dense wooden box to stand out," the designer says.

Styling bookcases in countless rooms has taught me this simple formula: alternate a vertical stack of books on an upper shelf with either a chunky box, a standing porcelain or tole plate or a stack of horizontal books just beneath it. That way, you can create both balance and visual interest at once.

A zigzag approach also is effective when arranging shelves. Tracing the letter Z, place a large accessory at the upper far left position of the top shelf. Then place another large object on the opposite, or far right position on the next lower shelf. Beneath that shelf, place a dense object or stack of books in the far left position, until you have zigzagged your way down the shelves. Reverse the zigzag pattern on the adjoining or flanking, set of shelves.

Lastly, fill in the Z-shape you have established with alternating stacks of visually dense accessories or stacks of horizontal and vertical books.

The most interesting look is to stack a few books horizontally, then place a porcelain plate or small framed drawing on a stand on top of the books. Try to vertically fill the shelf, pulling the items and books forward toward the front edge of the shelf as you go.

In a photograph, which is a terrific way to check on the balance of your design, your eye tends to go towards the voids, or empty spaces on the shelves. Most homeowners make the mistake of not putting enough items on their shelves for fear they might look cluttered - with the result being you can't tell if they have just moved in or are in the process of moving out!

Daily also urges clients to collect antique, earthy accessories that are of generous scale. "Small collections work well when grouped together on a tabletop," she notes, "but get lost entirely when tucked into a huge bookcase. A wonderful wooden folk art cottage or a large tole tray on a stand has much more visual impact on a shelf than a dozen tiny boxes," she explains.

Because the bookcases here were symmetrically situated on each side of the fireplace, we opted for an asymmetrical arrangement on the mantel. For interest, an antique framed pastel leans just in front of the larger framed antique lithograph. A smaller box and a well-proportioned vase of flowers placed atop a few antique books balances the leaning pastel.

The empty void underneath the sofa table is filled by stacked antique wicker suitcases. Their scale and texture not only look great under the table but the suitcases handily store fragile holiday decorations. An attractive antique red paisley shawl serves as a colorful, soft throw over the back of the beige sofa, and sparks up the once-neutral room.

"This room was crying out for color and texture and a general 'warming up,'" Daily explains. "Without adding a lot of furniture, it is plain to see that accessories are the star of this makeover, and illustrate just how important those finishing touches are to achieving the success this room exudes," she adds.

But the most important lesson in arranging bookshelves is this: have fun! Move things around and play with your arrangement. Take a photo of it and study your arrangement on paper. Don't feel like if you put something into a bookshelf one day that it has to stay there for the rest of your life!

Joetta Moulden's work as a stylist has been celebrated in the pages of Country Home, This Old House, Better Homes & Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Mary Engelbreit's Home Companion and a variety of other shelter magazines and books. Visit her website at www.shelterstyle.com or email her at info@shelterstyle.com.

Trade Secrets

  • DO mix in antique books and accessories with new coffee table books for interest.

  • DO stand up pretty porcelain plates, tole trays and framed antique drawings on top of books and position them in between vertical stacks of books.

  • DO create a zigzag pattern of large objects and colorful books from upper shelf to lower shelf, to keep the eye interested and moving from top to bottom.

  • DO vary the texture of items on the shelves. Among shinier porcelain items mix in woven baskets, painted wooden folk art, metal and wooden boxes and framed artwork to enliven the shelves.

  • DO think "large scale" when choosing bookshelf accessories and books. Coffee table books that are too tall can be stacked horizontally to fit. A single large inexpensive basket has more impact than an expensive collection of miniatures. Save the miniatures for a small tabletop where they can be stars in their own right.

  • DO consider painting the back wall of your bookcases a deeper tone or a contrasting color to make accessories "pop" visually.

  • DO tuck a small pot of ivy into an interesting cachepot, box or basket and tuck into your shelf arrangement.

  • DO, if space allows, consider placing a small lamp on a shelf. It adds a glow and warmth to the room.

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