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How to Style Mindfully :: Free-standing Open Shelves

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

Well-styled open shelves are a great idea to add lots of interesting things and lend personality to your home. I personally love styling free-standing open shelves, seen here in my Rouge Hill home project. I've used the exact one to breakdown my process in seven steps. I hope you find this guide useful, let's get started...

Here's the short version:

Step1: Take a good look at the shelf and observe its texture, colour and shape/size

Step 2 : Use the Texture, Colour and Shape/Size info

Step 3 : Set your guidelines

Step 4 : Go shopping at home, online or in-store

Step 5 : Group objects by type, vary them in height and in odd numbers

Step 6 : Pair different groups at every level for contrast and repetition

Step 7: Style one level at a time

In my longer version below, I've broken down the above steps and used images with notes to clearly explain what I'm writing about. With this detailed guide, I'm confident that you'll be able to style your own shelves with ease...

Step1: Take a good look at the shelf and observe its texture, colour and shape/size

When decorating open shelves, the actual materials of the shelving unit gives us a lot of information. In this case, I've used a classic barn wood tone with dark metal. It informs us about texture - metal and wood, colour - natural neutral shades + matte black and shape/size - rectangular, sharp edges and cylindrical soft frames and size dimensions at 68" tall, 36" wide and 12" deep. It also has five levels to work with.

Step 2 : Use the Texture, Colour and Shape/Size info

+ Texture - The visual texture of wood grains tells us that we can bring in smooth objects for contrast or textural objects for repetition, or both!

+ Colour - Look closely and we'd see beiges, dark browns, light browns, and even hints of grey within the wooden tones. This gives us the colour family for the objects.

+ Shape/Size - This shelf is like most free-standing open shelves in shape. But let's not take that for granted. Look closely for more shapes and lines within the shelf and that can help guide the shapes of the objects.

Free- standing open shelf
Industrial book shelf with storage

Knowing the size of the shelf, 62" high by 36" wide and 12" deep helps us understand it'll take less space depth-wise. In this case, I wanted it to remain that way and not look bulky.

Step 3 : Set your guidelines

Do you notice that even before we've gone shopping for objects, we have a lot of information to guide us through the process? All this information has now become our guidelines.

"While looking for objects, I wanted the object to check at least one of the guidelines I've set out".

Step 4 : Go shopping at home, online or in-store

I've decorated these shelves with a mix of pre-owned, store bought and thrifted items. The search first began at home as things at home naturally have that 'lived-in' feel to them. It's also a great way to save money.

+ Home shopping - For objects at home; I went looking for photo frames, books, wine glasses with some connection to the chosen palette and/or offered a smooth texture. Chances are that when you look for objects with specific guidelines, you are likely to look at them differently and give them a new purpose on the shelves.

+ Online - When shopping online, I streamlined the effort for these shelves with our established guidelines plus a strict budget and looking online only after shopping the home. The goal with online for these shelves was to find wood-like objects since we didn't already own them. Note that we're not looking for a specific type of object like trays, sculptures etc. Instead, we want it to simply feel and look like wood. The combination of different types of objects will ultimately add that intriguing quality.

+ In-store - While shopping in-store, I went to different stores and just walked around. When some items called out, I took a picture and left without buying it. When I grouped the objects for the shelves, the ones from the store didn't make the cut and I saved a return trip to the store.

+ Thrifted - A lot of the objects are thrifted in this composition. It is hugely cost saving, but also environmentally friendly. Particularly, ceramic vases in thrift shops are a great decorative option since they normally aren't heavily used.

Free-standing open shelf :: Where we found objects

Step 5 : Group objects by type, vary them in height and in odd numbers

Now's the time to make various groupings of objects. Use a large flat surface, or even floor space, I used a dining table to lay everything down. I decided to group objects based on their type. Wooden trays and cups logically belong together, so they're kept together. Books went together, and so did all the ceramics. There's no wrong way to group objects but in this case, I went with a logical grouping on purpose. I wanted a very simple visual experience and make it very easy to take in the composition.

I added similar objects with different sizes as a group for an interesting effect. I also put the tallest objects in the edges and then others in a mixed manner.

Free standing open shelves :: Second level grouping

While grouping them, I kept to an odd number of objects within groups - an arrangement of one, three or five objects.

Step 6 : Pair different groups at every level for contrast and repetition

Remember to pair groupings that contrast with one another but also have similarities for repetition while placing them. Each level should be able to hold its own even without the other levels. That's when we've achieved a balanced composition. If they work as individual levels, there's a good chance they'll work all together.

Free standing open shelves :: Grouping guide

Step 7: Style one level at a time

Begin with one level at a time. If you have to make a composition of all levels at the same time, it could become very overwhelming. Address each level independently and work through them.

+ Level 1: The topmost shelf has a single purpose - to heighten the whole unit. That's where the thin and tall photo frames went. Putting them in a group of three takes up the entire space with no negative space.

Free-standing open shelves :: Topmost level

+ Level 2: The second level is most likely to get eye-level viewing. This level has a rounded mango wood tray left standing as one group, but overlapped with a second group of three little cups of the same texture. It will contrast against the porcelain the tea kettle of a different colour and smooth texture.

The kettle on the other side will add repetition to the wooden group through its rounded shape and that pop of colour. Note that we've given lots of negative space here because we want our eyes to take the time and rest between the objects.

Free standing open shelves :: Second level

+ Level 3: This level has softer rounded shapes with a vase with an intriguing face on it. Note that it is the only 'face' here, left alone on purpose. Object's depicting faces are very eye-catching so in this case I wanted to restrict it to only one. It is set right next to a collection of sculptures, similar in their neutral tones but also offer different textures like ceramic and marble. They also offer some intrigue with sharp and soft shapes all in one group spaced freely with lots of room.

Free standing open shelves :: Third level

+ Level 4: With this level, we're continuing with the smooth textures, interesting shapes and ceramic objects but throwing in some contrast to breakup the smooth flow. We've brought in some earthy browns via books placed backwards. We've also used round decorative balls as book-ends to add more earthy textures.

Free standing open shelves :: Fourth level

+ Level 5: The last level is the end of the visual experience and so we've made it simple. Similar to the topmost shelf, it holds a repetition of uniform objects and also three in number. These deep cobalt blue goblets were bought from pottery barn on sale many years ago and just taking up precious kitchen space. Now they add that beautiful pop of colour and smooth texture for these open shelves.

Free standing open shelves :: Fifth and last level

And that finishes up our detailed free-standing open-shelf guide. I hope these seven steps help you make the most out of your shelves and objects that you already own and buy. I'd love to know how it went so feel free to comment below. Find me on instagram @shastudioinc and when you're there, don't forget to follow! I'd love to get to know you.


This is my very first blog post...I'd love to hear what you thought about it. If you like my content and want to know more styling hacks for a specific styling project you are doing, let me know. Thanks for reading! - Sha :)

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