When I told my mother I was getting a bookshelf for my home office, she very kindly offered her opinion: “All they do is collect crap.” Thanks, Mom.

She’s not wrong, though—bookshelves do tend to be a go-to storage space, and even the most neurotic of us (me) can fall victim to piling them with, well, crap. Expert advice was needed, so I talked to Samantha Potter, Vancouver-based designer and owner of Signed, Samantha. She offered helpful advice on how to style a beautiful bookshelf, proving moms everywhere wrong.

Samantha Potter Bookshelf
Credit: Samantha Potter

This bookshelf, styled by Samantha Potter herself, is a gorgeous mix of books, greenery and vases.

1. Think beyond books

Your bookshelf can be more than a library: think of it like an exposed space to display your favourite things. “As much as possible, I would diversify what you’re putting on your bookshelf,” says Potter. “I love layering in framed art or prints, vases, bowls, greenery, or decorative objects.” But don’t forget what room you’re in—the designer also warns against putting décor where it doesn’t belong (for example, don’t put glassware from the kitchen on a living room shelf).

falken reynolds bookshelf

This solarium bookshelf is all cool neutrals with pops of plant life.

2. Stick to one theme or colour palette

To avoid all those books, prints, and vases from looking chaotic, Potter recommends using neutrals as well as one or two accent colours when styling. “Make sure those accent colours are just that: accents,” she says. “You want your eyes to move to those colour pops—so if you picked a dusty rose, have a few objects placed on different columns and different rows to balance out your shelf.”

Maison de pax bookshelf
Credit: Maison de Pax

This bookshelf from Maison de Pax makes every day backwards day.

3. Get your books naked

Potter offered a few creative solutions for maintaining a neutral palette, including turning books backwards (which adds a certain mysterious flair, too) or taking the dust jacket off of hardcover books. “Once you remove the protective sleeve, you might just find a neutral coloured book,” she says.

southwest modern bookshelf

If you look closely at this enclosed bookshelf, you can see the odd-numbered groupings.

4. Arrange items in odd-numbered groups

This is an age-old design tip that seems to apply everywhere, and the bookshelf is no exception. “I often create mini groupings of item, and tend to gravitate towards odd numbers—3, 5 et cetera,” says Potter. In addition to this, she emphasizes the importance of incorporating items of different heights and textures and stacking books both horizontally and vertically.

sturgess bookshelf

This bookshelf styled by Sturgess Architecture is a lesson in restraint.

5. Don’t use your bookshelf as a junk drawer…

“You want the arrangements on your bookshelf to look intentional—like you’ve carefully curated and thought of each piece you want to display,” says Potter. “You don’t want the eyes to be overwhelmed when looking at it.” She herself begins by laying out everything she wants on the shelf, and often only ends up using 50% of it.

6. But if you can’t avoid clutter, find elegant ways to style it

Some mess is inevitable—a bookshelf is storage space, after all. Still, there are sneaky ways to keep it classy. “Do you toss your keys right onto the bookshelf? Grab a tray and make an intentional spot for your keys. Is it your mail and extra paperwork that’s sneaking onto your shelf? Find a basket where it can all hide, but still have a home,” Potter suggests. “Find ways to incorporate how you live into the design – if you know you’re going to keep storing stuff there, there is often a way to hide it.”

Ben Leavitt Bookshelf
Credit: Ema Peter

This open-backed bookshelf from designer Ben Leavitt's home displays artful objects that look good from all sides. To see more of this minimalism-meets-maximalism condo, click here.

7. Try a backless shelf

“Bookshelves with no backs are great to break up open concept homes and create distinct spaces in your home,” says Potter. If you’re opting for a backless shelf, she recommends decorating with items that look good from all angles, like vases, bowls, and plants. One-sided things, like framed pictures or prints, aren’t a good fit for this kind of shelf—they’ll look like an afterthought from the back.

Samantha Potter Bookshelf

Designer Samantha Potter (also on a shelf, to keep with the theme).

8. Switch it up when you get bored

According to Potter, shelves are a great (and affordable) place to start if you’re wanting to change up the look of your home. “Don’t be afraid to change it up for different seasons, holidays, or just because,” she says. She suggests swapping our prints or upcycling an old vase to make a space feel brand new. “Sometimes the smallest changes can make a huge difference.”