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How to decorate a bookshelf and other flat surfaces

Styling flat surfaces like mantels, bookshelves, entryway tables, coffee tables, credenzas and the like is a great way to elevate the look of your home's design, but there's a fine line between styling these flat surfaces with intentionality and over cramming these spaces with too much stuff.

The fall-time images that dominate Pinterest with the overstuffed pumpkin-laden mantels is a great example of flat surfaces that have crossed the line into the land of 'too much of a good thing.' But how do you style bookshelves and mantels effectively, if those pictures are what you see as the example? How do you style coffee tables, piano tops and entryway tables in a way that is both beautiful and livable?

You stop overthinking it. Learning how to decorate a bookshelf and other flat surfaces is easier than you may think. Use these ideas to guide you as you decorate.

1. Start small:

Practice these techniques on smaller flat surfaces before tackling a larger surface area like bookshelves. Once you get comfortable using this formula on a smaller flat surface, then it's time to broaden your styling horizons.

2. Clean off the flat surface entirely:

Before you can begin styling your flat surfaces, you need to remove everything so you can start with a blank slate. Leaving items on the flat surface then styling around them can stunt the design process.

3. Decorate your bookshelf by adding layers and depth:

Adding layers to your flat surface adds a subtle nuance to your overall design, while adding depth to your space. In the very nature of styling your flat surface, you are using 3D objects, but when you place your objects in a straight flat line they can appear flat in appearance and 2D. 2D = not great. 3D is what the goal should be.

So how do you layer objects on a mantel or entryway table? Think about overlapping objects in the slightest of ways. Instead of putting objects side by side as if appearing in a straight line, overlap the edges just a smidge.

This is a picture of two floating wood bookshelves. They are styled with artwork, books, plants, and a clock.
Styled floating bookshelves

4. Add texture to your flat surface design:

Design becomes increasingly more interesting when the objects you are decorating with have texture. Texture, however, doesn't always have to be something that you can feel, but can be objects that have the illusion of texture, as well. Texture can be either overt (like tassels on the end of a cozy blanket) or covert (like a linen book jacket), but design with a lack of visible texture will most often fall flat.

This is a picture of a light pink piano that has been styled beautifully. Sitting on top of the piano is a glass lamp with a white and gold lampshade. There's a large picture of a mountain lake and a plant in a woven basket sitting on top of the piano.
Styled pink piano

5. Vary the height as you decorate your flat surfaces:

Varying the height of objects atop a flat surface will immediately elevate the look of your flat surface design. But think of the height variation in terms of a rolling hill rather than a steep mountain slope. Why does height matter? When all objects sit atop a flat surface at the same height, your styling appears 2D rather than 3D. Varying the height of decor objects allows opportunities for layering and depth to occur.

This is a picture of a floor to ceiling white bookcase with a black rolling ladder that is attached. The bookshelf is styled beautifully with books, plants, pictures, artwork, candles, and brass decor accents.
Styled bookshelf

6. The key ingredient for how to decorate a bookshelf? Add repetition:

Repeating design elements is the KEY to good design, so it should go without saying that the objects sitting atop a flat surface should be repeated elsewhere throughout the room. Take a look at the metals, wood tones, colors, textures, specific items, etc. and see if you can locate them throughout the room, but within the sightline of the flat surface you're styling. Keep in mind that when taken literally, repetition can cross over the fine line into the area of 'too much of a good thing' and you don't want that for your flat surface decorating.

This is a photo of a styled front porch. There are two bright yellow chairs sitting on either side of a white metal table. There are black and white pillows sitting on the chairs. There are large sticks in the corner of the porch that are heavily covered in moss and there's a plant sitting in a pot at the base of the sticks. There are a couple of plants, varying in height on the table.
Styled front porch

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