built-in shelf styling

by | Mar 9, 2022 | Decorating, Living Room, My House | 27 comments

As Jeff and I have been working through the house, knocking out little projects and giving rooms a refresh, I decided to play around with the accessories a bit.  First of all, the shelves needed a good dusting and that’s best done properly when everything is removed.  Second, I was craving a simpler, cleaner look.  I’ve been this way since I was a teenager.  I will fill up a space, adding layers and little things that I find, and then I’ll swing in the other direction and be ready for a less cluttered look.  This behavior definitely displays the tension between the collector in me and the neatnik.  So, I thought this little refresh was a good chance to talk about shelf styling and to take a look at how this corner of our living room has evolved over the years.

When we first moved in, I painted the living room built-ins white (you can read how to paint cabinets with professional results HERE), I decided to fill the shelves with some of my ironstone collection.  (You can read about ironstone and what it is HERE.)  I liked that this shelf styling displayed something I love to collect and the all-white color palette kept it look clean and neat.

built-in shelf styling | miss mustard seed

In early 2020, I decided to do some shelf styling and rearranging throughout the house just to play and try some new looks.  I moved some blue transferware pieces, books, and greenery to the living room built-ins.  This look was definitely cozier and more visually interesting.  The blues also tied in nicely with the fabrics and sofas.

built-in shelf styling | miss mustard seed

I found myself staring at those shelves in the corner and decided I would give them a good cleaning and try some new styling.  I took everything off, wiped down the shelves, and washed all of the ironstone.  I took a different approach to the shelf styling this time.  I wanted to get a cleaner look while still preserving some of the visual interest and warmth added by the books, greens, and natural elements.  I fiddled and played, which is a lot of what shelf styling is about.  And I landed in a place that I like…

built-in shelf styling | miss mustard seed

It feels tidier but still homey.  It looks neat, but not overly contrived.  It’s just a quieter version of its former self.  Perhaps a combination of the first and second looks.

built-in shelf styling | miss mustard seed

(I was disrupting the sunbathing that was going on with my pictures.  You can almost see “come on mom” in their eyes!)

While there are “decorating rules” that can guide you when styling a shelf, I really think it comes down to intuition.  It’s trial and error while you train your design eye and discover what you like.  Some people like a sparse look that features just one item.  Others like a collection of items that tell a story and draw you in for a closer look.  There is no right or wrong.  It’s just your preference.  I hope you can feel the freedom to try things and play with the stuff you’ve gathered to put in your home.

built-in shelf styling | miss mustard seed

The best part about shelf styling is that it’s the kind of decorating that is completely free (if you use what you have) and it is temporary.  You can change it anytime you want a change, so you don’t have to be afraid of commitment.  Try something out and leave it for a few days to see if you warm up to it.  If not, change it back to what you do like or try something entirely new.

built-in shelf styling | miss mustard seed

I’ve enjoyed playing with my accessories since I was a kid…shelf styling, dresser styling, stuffed animal styling, dollhouse styling.  I think I styled and arranged far more than I actually played.  That was my form of play and, in many ways, it still is.  So, I’ve had lots of practice over the years.  If it feels foreign to you, then just start with one shelf.  Put on some good music and allow yourself to enjoy the process of trying something new and learning along the way.

built-in shelf styling | miss mustard seed

built-in shelf styling | miss mustard seed

My shelves won’t stay like this forever, but for now, they feel right for the season and the space.

built-in shelf styling | miss mustard seed

If you want some more direction and specific shelf styling and decorating inspiration, there is an entire chapter on it in my book Feels Like Home.

You can also read a series on styling for the home, retail, and photography HERE.

Feels Like Home Book | Marian Parsons | Miss Mustard Seed | #feelslikehomebook


  1. Sara

    It looks beautiful both ways, because I collect antique ironstone and you have some gorgeous pieces! Thanks for sharing!

  2. beverlee lyons

    I am for simpler. This last year, I really got it simple, and my small home looks bigger, easier to clean and peace for me to come in to. Yay, you, it looks beautiful!

  3. Barbara C

    I love the new look. It is less busy but very cozy!

  4. Dara

    Your new look appeals to me. It looks more interesting as it shows the collector in you I think. I too am a collector. Also the addition of more colors, especially the warm brown tones, blends in withe the browns of the room wood pieces….just lovely

  5. Karen K from Buffalo

    Marian I wish I could show you my Rowe Pottery collection! I have way over 50 pieces & they are crammed into four of my wood shelves. I don’t know any other way to display them. I have varied the heights by using wood boxes & thrown in some pictures & berry stems. I don’t think I will ever have an uncluttered look unless I remove them & put them in totes. I do enjoy them as some of them are my late Mother’s. By the way, I am really loving that standing clock!

  6. Cathy Zuehlke

    I think it’s the change of seasons that triggers a refresh for me. Just as my clothing gets lighter and more pared down for spring and summer so does my home, then went autumn rolls around I start to layer my clothing and my home!

  7. Linda

    I love the cleaner simpler look you just created. It feels so calming and inviting.

    But what did you do with all the dishes and ironstone you had in the bookshelves previously?

    • Traci Welch Moritz

      That’s exactly what I planned to ask. My dilemma is storage.

      • Arlene

        Love this! It’s interesting, but also serene

    • Margo

      That was my exact question! I need to use my shelves for storage.

  8. Betty Bashaw

    Thank you for always sharing ideas and tips that you’ve learned. Playing is my kind of decorating. No stress, but a creative wonderland.

  9. Nancy

    Love love love the ironstone and transferware. Rich and unique. And the color against the white shelving is just fabulous.

  10. Ccr

    I like it with the mix of color and texture. My favorite

  11. Renee

    Love the new look……. Less cluttered and you can really see each special piece.

  12. Rita

    It’s nice to have a change of scenery. I miss the blue transfer ware, but I like the clean look as well. Thanks for the reminder that Spring is just around the corner. Time to clean those shelves.

  13. Cora

    Oh yes, that’s perfect! Much better, looks really curated now. Have you ever considered having the lovely portrait over the fireplace professionally cleaned and restored to it’s original color (I’m assuming it is an oil painting)? The results are really quite astounding.

  14. Casey

    It looks lovely, for sure. I like the blue transferware mixed in with the ironstone best. But change is good!!

  15. Sandy

    The shelves look so lovely and calming. Enjoy!

  16. Linda Ebright

    Love the new quieter look. I also did the same thing with some shelf styling in my home. When we moved into a new house I found there were SO MANY shelves! In one room, (supposed to be a dining room, but I repurposed it to a piano room) I did some shelf styling similar to your former shelves. I used a collection of tole painted trays, lots of browns and warm colors, green accents, basically all of my favorite things. The shelves were beautiful. Eventually I craved a simpler look, probably with a summer season approaching. I cleared off everything and started much simpler. I have stuck with this look, adjusting periodically as I pull stuff off shelves for other decorating, or acquire more goodies. Visually this is more pleasing to my eye. I still have a big box with all the “former shelf decor” in my basement. It’s been a few years, so it’s probably time to revisit that box!

  17. Kristine

    I loved reading about your ‘zig-zag’ of fuller versus simpler! I have gone through a similar phase of changing what appeals to me. I used to really admire blog pictures that showed ALOT of items vignette’d together. But then when I started to look closer, I realized there were randoms item that seemed just stuck in there to fill a space. (And I still do see that at times.) So watching this evolution of your different moods when styling the bookshelves, I realized there is lots of room for inbetween. If you’re taking a poll, this last styling is my favorite. I did notice this, and wonder about it: Do you always point your pitchers facing right? (Saw it in all 3 pictures!) I struggle with this, and my pitchers point in both directions…!

  18. monique

    All are nice, less is more sometime.

  19. Krista

    Always love everything you do, but I especially love this new, less busy look. The addition of the browns ties in with the other browns in the room, plus I think brown coordinates so nicely with blue and white. I’ve also been doing a more simple look as I’ve put away my winter decor and gotten out spring and Easter. It just feels fresh and calm for the new season.

  20. Barbara Smith

    Looks pretty! I have the same question as Kristine, above. The pitchers are pointed out from the fireplace. My instinct is to point them toward the fireplace and maybe like Kristine, have them randomly pointing both ways.

  21. Paulette

    I’m enjoying your posts as a new follower. I recently had a craftsman style entertainment center built in our living room with the center of this 20 foot expanse for our TV vs a fireplace. This gives me double bookshelves on each side for decorating. Some shelves are styled simply and some tell more of a story. And a few will change seasonally for that nod to Spring or whatever holiday is coming up. Right now it’s Galway dessert coffee mugs on a tray for St. Patrick’s Day, and nests, sprigs of green and a little lamb for the coming of Spring.
    PITCHERS … I also wondered about your pitchers. I always thought you are supposed to place them as you would use them with the handle to the right. ???

  22. Cynde

    I can’t decide which look I like the best, all three of your stylings are beautiful, makes me wish I had some built ins in my home. Love your collections, I started collecting ironstone, but California isn’t the best place to find antiques. I visited Stillwater once, it was amazing. Your blog post about that little town was fun to read.

  23. Jacqueline Davis

    I have some very similar built ins that I’m always shifting around and restyling. I do have a question – where do you store all the things you are not displaying at the time? This is my problem. Running out of space!

  24. Jan

    Hi Marian,
    I love your drapes in what I am assuming is your living room. They are next to your built-in. I am looking for blue drapes for my dining room. Could you please let me know where you purchased these drapes? Thank you for your help.


  1. Thistlekeeping - Thistlewood Farm - […] See all the built-in styling tips here. […]


Marian Parsons - Miss Mustard Seed

I’m Marian, aka Miss Mustard Seed, a wife, mother, paint enthusiast, lover of all things home and an entrepreneur, author, artist, designer, freelance writer & photographer.  READ MORE to learn more about me, my blog and my business…

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