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This post will show you how to decorate an etagere bookcase, with tips for collecting and arranging items on your shelves.  


Why does decorating a bookshelf seem so complicated?

In theory, it seems like should be easy.  You set a bunch of knickknacks and books up there and voila – it all works and looks magically put together.

But it never seems to work that way, does it?

In our new house, we have an open living room/kitchen concept, with this small wall next to our fireplace that was just begging for something.  Something tall.  Bingo! A tall etagere bookcase would be perfect in this space.  

We bought this one and we are so happy with the quality and the beautiful wood shelves.  It was easy to install, too.  Highly recommend.  

But that still leaves six empty shelves that need to be decorated. 

Today, I’m giving you some simple tips for arranging these etagere bookshelves.  The truth is – it’s going to take a lot of rearranging until you get it right.  I guarantee you I will continue to fuss with mine after this!!

I mean, is decorating ever really done?

The process, in a nutshell — is to set your items up there, step back and look, and then rearrange as needed. 

Over and over again.  

How to Decorate an Etagere Bookcase – Step by Step

a marshall speaker on an etagere bookcase
how to decorate an etagere bookcase
view of an etagere bookcase decorated
a close up side view of an etagere bookshelf
Etagere Bookcase // Marshall Speaker // Framed Greece Print

Your first tip – It’s Important

Decorating an etagere bookcase is slightly different from decorating a regular bookcase with sides.  Etagere bookcases are all open.  You can see everything from every angle.   So it’s best to go somewhat MINIMAL.  

You need a lot less stuff on there.  Keep that in mind as we go!  

Start with a Blank Slate

blank etagere bookcase
Etagere Bookcase

If you are working with an existing etagere – it’s time to take everything off.  Everything.  If you are worried about losing a shelf that you just love so much (yes, I get that), snap a pic.  Now take it all down.  

It’s best to start fresh.  We need to make the whole bookcase work as one unit.  

Gather up your Books and Knickknacks 

Here are a few tips.  

Books – take the covers off.  It just looks neater and there might be a beautiful book hiding under that loud and distracting cover.  Gather up books in all shapes and sizes.  You will have to play around with what’s going to look good.  A thrift store like Goodwill is an AMAZING place to get awesome books for your bookshelves.  

Knickknacks – ideas for knickknacks include vases, bowls, antlers, seashells, driftwood, coral, potted plants, framed artwork, clocks, statues, baskets, and even electronics.  Yes, I’m calling our Marshall speaker a knickknack. Your kitchen can be a great source of knickknacks!  Scour your cabinets for little bowls and things to fill out your shelves.  Try not to go too small, too many small knickknacks makes for a cluttered look.  

a close up view of a decorated shelf etagere - a gold bowl and a white elephant statue
Etagere Bookcase // Marshall Speaker // Framed Greece Print

Again – thrift stores can be such a good, inexpensive way to pick up a nifty knickknack.  (say that three times fast:  nifty knickknack, nifty knickknack, nifty knicknananana blah.  You can’t do it! LOL.)

Again, you don’t need too much.  Remember – we need to go minimal here since you can easily overload these open shelves.  Keep things neat and tidy.  When in doubt, take something away.  

How to Get Started + Amazing Secret Tip!

view of an etagere bookcase decorated
Etagere Bookcase // Marshall Speaker // Framed Greece Print

Don’t worry about the whole look right now. 

Focus on one shelf at a time.  Think of it as one little bookcase.  One little moment.  

Here’s a good tip that helps me when decorating shelves.  

a marshall speaker on an etagere bookcase

Draw an imaginary line down the center of the shelf.  It’s much easier to create your vignettes this way. 

With this imaginary line, you can either choose to decorate two little moments on either side of the line, OR, choose one BIG moment to go in the middle of your line.  

(If you have a larger etagere with wider shelves, you can even create two lines for three little vignettes/shelf).  

Ideas for Vignettes/Moments (each counts as 1):

  • A small stack of books laying horizontal (three is good) + object/plant on top
  • A small stack of books vertical with an object/plant as a bookend
  • A stack of books and two bookends holding them in the middle
  • Two to three vases in varying heights
  • A leaning framed print with a smaller framed print in front or a small vase
  • A large piece of driftwood
  • A speaker or record player
  • A large vase with a graphic/punchy/aged look to it
  • A set of two decorative boxes stacked on top of each other

I don’t like rules in decorating except for one. The rule of threes.  Three books.  Three vases.  Things just look better this way.

Using these little moments, start crafting your shelves.  Each shelf should be different.  Maybe a shelf with two vignettes followed by a shelf with one big vignette.  

Step Back and Look

After you’ve filled out your shelves, step back and look.  What looks off?  What looks too cluttered?  What needs something?  

side view of an etagere bookcase

Try to create a zig-zag approach to your items.  A stack of books can be zig-zagged down your etagere.  They can also be stacked horizontal or vertical.  You can even arrange them with the spines backward if your spines are clashing.  You don’t want two sets of books directly on top of each other. 

The same with plants and framed prints.  The same items should be arranged left – right – left – right to keep the eye moving.  And mix it up with a single large vignette on a shelf in-between.  

Take a picture.  

For some reason, it can be much easier to see what’s not working through a photo.  Take your cell and snap a quick photo.  What do you think?  What seems out of place?  

Don’t worry – it’s going to take a lot of rearranging until you find that sweet spot.  And then you’ll wake up early one morning and accidentally start fiddling with your shelves again.  (Just me?)

Hide Cords like a Pro

If you happen to have electronics on your shelf, like a speaker or Alexa, you will need to hide the cords.  Everything is open with an etagere and unsightly cords will ruin the whole look. 

I wrote a post about how I hide cords, but I also discovered these little cable clips which work well.  

You can get them in black or white and they will do a good job keeping your cords tied to the bars of the shelf so you don’t see them.  

You can use larger objects and book stacks to hide outlets too, as I did here with this black vase. There’s an outlet behind it!

close up view of a small black vase on a stack of books
how to decorate an etagere bookcase - tips and tricks for arranging items like a pro

That’s all there is to it!  You can do this! It takes a bit of time and some rearranging, but you’ll have that etagere bookshelf looking real nice in no time.

Round 2

As you can see, I’ve updated this post with my second version. There are so many ways you can do this, and it does take a bit of zhushing until you get it right.

If you need even more inspiration, I have a whole Pinterest Board full of shelf styling pictures for you to peruse.  

Good luck friends!

Xo Karen