Photography & Styling

2 Ways to Use Built-In Shelves for Storage That's Also Decor

November  9, 2016

I have this big wall of builder-grade built-in shelves in my living room. When I first moved in, I felt overwhelmed by it, because I assumed I had to decorate the whole thing, which seemed like overkill.

Now I realize it's strongest as a combination space: decoration plus storage. A balance of practical meets pretty. I wanted it to be functional and hold my “stuff;” I wanted it to look stylish and like “me.” I needed places to hide some things, and places to display others. But what does that balance actually look like? It took me a while to figure out.

Photo by Liz Johnson

Here are two ways you could strike that same “style + storage” balance—depending on where there are shelves in your home:

Near an entryway or living room (since they’re usually close!

Here it’s about balancing a need to store all your “getting out the door” stuff (coats and hats, umbrellas, shoes, keys, bags), with an opportunity to set the tone for anyone entering your home. Add a nearby common area, and you’ve also got books, movies, toys, blankets—all the things that put the “living” in living room.

Photo by Liz Johnson

Here's what I included:

  • Somewhere to hang coats and jackets (I went with a dress form, but wall-mounted hooks would accomplish the same thing on a much smaller footprint);
  • Baskets for gloves, scarves, hats, etc.;
  • A tray for keys and mail;
  • A nice big mirror (to make sure you don’t have anything in your teeth before you head out);
  • An ever-ready market bag;
  • But also some layered art, striking flowers, and candles waiting to be lit to welcome guests;
  • Plus a fun “clock wall” to help keep you on time;
  • And dedicated space for cozy blankets.

If you’re near a fireplace, try storing some wood on a lower shelf or cabinet. If not, this would make a great space for a little bar. (Walk in the door and pour yourself a drink!) This set-up is more about hidden storage: baskets, boxes, file folders. I didn’t want hypothetical visitors overwhelmed by too much stuff, too soon.

Near the kitchen/dining area:

Here it’s about balancing the need for a lot of storage of often and not-so-often used stuff (for daily cooking or less frequent entertaining), with, well, a need for all that to look under control and stylish.

Photo by Liz Johnson

Here's what I included:

  • Neat stacks of well-loved cookbooks;
  • Canisters filled with dry goods;
  • Cutting boards, trays, serving pieces, extra plates;
  • Plus our growing cast iron and vintage cleaver collections;
  • Easy-to-grab cooking utensils and dishtowels;
  • And some framed art layered in.

This set-up is the opposite of hidden storage; you’re essentially looking at a pantry, where all the “ingredients” need to be visible and easily accounted for.

The big takeaway here is that storage and “decoration” don’t have to be mutually exclusive. (And it doesn’t hurt if the things you own are pretty enough to pass as decoration!) One trick I like to use is pretending I’m in one of my favorite stores. You know, the beautifully-curated boutiques, where you want to buy everything because simply walking in the door is an amazing experience.

I love the psychology of retail display: how things are grouped together to lead the eye around the store, how white space is used to elevate and denote quality, etc.—and I like to bring some of that into my home. Like stacking books vertically, in smaller centered stacks, instead of one long horizontal row. Or balancing denser areas with more minimal spaces, and repetition with an occasional break from pattern. Anything to keep my stuff from looking like… just stuff.

Tell us in the comments: What's your favorite way to add style to functional open shelves?

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