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.