How to decorate shelves

I’m often asked about the best way to display ornaments and accessories at home. I’ll hear folk say things like ‘I just don’t know how to arrange stuff’ or ‘It never looks pulled together’. 

Let me say straight up that what follows are not ‘rules’ because there are no ‘rules’ with stuff like this. They’re just guidelines, some ideas of things that seem to work for me. When time allows, I like nothing better than to have a play around, experiment, try things out. Unlike paint colours or anything similarly semi or fully permanent, if you don’t like it you can just rearrange!

Where could I decorate? 

When I say ‘shelves’ I also mean any surface in your home suitable for arrangements of accessories. That could be the mantlepiece, bookcase, coffee table, side table, hall table or anywhere else you feel would benefit from some well-placed adornments.

What could I use to decorate?

Almost anything! From books to candles, plants to vases, trays to bowls, anything goes. Travel momentos work well as do most other collectables. Include photos, framed pictures and other pieces of art.

How could I decorate them?

  • Groups of odd numbers work well.
  • Use a variety of shapes and sizes together in a group.
  • Consider the heights of the accessories - a version of tallest at the back, shortest at the front will work well, either in a spiral or zig-zag. 
  • Use a variety of prints and textures in a group - shiny, matt, patterned, plain, smooth, rough etc.

  • Consider using something like this template to get you started


  • Include lamps or artwork as part of the display if they’re close by. Your eye will read it as one group.

  • Overlap items to create layers.

  • Add a tray or mat underneath a group to create an additional layer

  • Balance one end of a shelf with the other. Think of it as a set of scales where the combined visual volume of objects at one end is roughly equal to the other.

  • Give items a lift by placing them on top of a stack of books or an ornamental box.

  • Create a display of similar items - type or colour.

  • Consider displaying items against a contrasting background

how to decorate a shelf contrasting background

  • Lastly, don’t be afraid of leaving empty space. Minimalist or maximalist, you’ll work out how much space suits you.

And that's it! Hope this gives you some inspiration, now go and have some fun. Happy decorating! 

Images: A mix of my own and a selection at 


Written by Lynn McMurray

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