18 November 2018Last updated


Bring your shelves to life

There’s more to shelving than functionality – carefully chosen in terms of design, location and display, it could also become a striking focal point in your home

Louisa Wilkins
11 Nov 2014 | 11:01 am
  • A view of a tree-like display shelf.

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  • Floating shelves give an old farm kitchen a clean, modern look.

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  • A home office with floating shelves and desk.

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  • Think outside the box and 'extend' your shelves with a lick of paint for astriking focal point.

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  • Shelves made of scaffolding beams and supported by cement brackets.

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Because shelves are the simplest, cheapest and most versatile form of storage, they are too often treated without the respect that their usefulness deserves, decor guru Terence Conran writes in The House Book.  ‘So before you place your order for timber, spare a little time to think about shelving. You will be amazed what a difference a little extra planning can make,’ he says. Consider these practical tips from the master himself:

• First decide what you want to store on the shelves, and which wall you will fix them to.

• Check that the wall is made of solid bricks or breeze blocks, as flimsy partition walls usually cannot bear the weight of shelves and their contents.

• Next, find out if any electrical cables are concealed in the plaster as it’s essential not to drill holes for the fixings in these areas. If in doubt, get expert advice.

• If you are reasonably sure that the contents of your shelves will remain the same, there is no point in fitting uprights and adjustable brackets. Use brackets screwed into the plaster at either end of the shelf in an alcove, or else lengthwise below it on a flat wall.

• On unplastered brickwork, glass shelves can be set into the wall between the bricks.

• If the shelves are long, you will need inconspicuous supports.

• Partitions, other than load-bearing ones formed by the supports, are not necessary unless the shelves are to form a display case. If so, make sure that the size and shape of each ‘box’ is relative to the object it will hold.

• If you choose standard shelves made from blockboard and chipboard (also available with wood veneers or white melamine finishes), buy self-adhesive finishing strips to complete the cut ends.

• A thick shelf with added hooks will store half the clutter in the kitchen. Square hooks on the side for cups and jugs are best in case the handles are wide, but fit round hooks underneath for the can opener, cheese grater, pans, egg whisk and slicer.

A close fit 
You’ll be amazed at how much space around the home is suitable for shelving. In Pottery Barn Storage & Display: Stylish Solutions for Organizing Your Home, the design team from the retailer shares these useful tips: 

• Create extra storage by installing shelves and cubbies beneath windows, in corners, above doorways and along hallways.

• A room’s existing architecture frequently offers unexpected opportunities for imaginative storage and display. A simple alcove, too shallow to accommodate a seating arrangement, might make a perfect self-contained library or compact gallery displayed on floating ledges.

• Narrow spaces between windows can be fitted with shelves to display your favourite ornaments.

• An unused corner of the room can be profitably reclaimed for storage with the addition of a slender curio cabinet or a vertical series of floating shelves arranged from floor to ceiling.

Clever display
It’s not just a matter of putting down a few items on a shelf and off you go – you can be so much more creative with display if you follow these hints…

• Displaying items in multiples, or repeating basic shapes, creates more interest and elevates everyday objects to the status of artwork. A single-coloured glass bottle may not catch the eye, but a shell full of them is bound to be admired.

• Think about connecting pieces in a display with colour and material as well as a provenance. All-white displays can contain an eclectic assortment of treasures and still look clean and unified.

• If a calming effect is your goal, arrange objects symmetrically in bookcases or on opposite sides of a window.

• If you prefer the unexpected, try an asymmetrical arrangement: a pair of shelves or ledges on one side of a sofa and a single one on the other.

• Floor-to-ceiling bookcases are ideal for large collections, and they can also help define a seating area or mark the break between a room’s active and passive zones.

Organising books offers a chance to combine storage with decor at every level of the room…

• Paint the shelf interiors in a rich colour to draw attention to your collection and add depth and visual interest to the room.

• Sort books according to their hue to make a colour impact. It’s an approach that offers a clean overall presentation and some interesting, and often unlikely, subject pairing.

• You can mix and match shapes, too. Rocks and other organic objects from nature are a nice way to break up geometric repetition of books on a shelf. Try topping horizontal stacks of books with a rock, a shell or a fossil.

• Make special books focal points by placing them face out so the jacket is on display, or fill an entire shelf with oversized books stacked flat.

• By stacking books vertically as well as horizontally, you can reclaim space in shelving units with adjustable shelves.

• Hardcover books should be loosely packed on shelves – with large books stored flat – to avoid overcrowding. Use bookends for even support and to help prevent covers from warping. Keep all books away from humidity, and leave dust jackets on to protect the inside covers.

Louisa Wilkins

By Louisa Wilkins