How to Design a Cohesive Bookshelf

Create a home for your books and collections with a little bit of personality.

By Darren Davis November 1, 2017 Published in the November 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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The experts: Lauren Hockema, K&L Interiors; John DeForest, DeForest Architects

Too often, the bookshelf—whether it’s built in or carried from home to home—eventually becomes one of two things: a landing zone for every random, orphaned decorative item or a spartan surface populated with just a candle, a wedding photo, and maybe a fancy edition of Pride and Prejudice. But practical storage doesn’t have to turn into a dusty bargain rack at a secondhand bookstore. And the clutter weary can organize a shelf that looks both clean and homey. A local interior designer and bookcase-savvy architect help you show off your personal library. 

Width and Depth

Longer shelves tend to sag under too much weight. So if you have a big collection of anything, ­DeForest says build—or find—a bookcase with divided shelving. For novels and paperbacks, a 10-inch depth should suffice. But for that big, 200-page Gustav Klimt retrospective, or large photo albums, go with 12 to 14 inches.

Consider Collections

Resist the urge to fill empty shelves with random things you own. For Hockema, open shelving “is all about accessorizing correctly.” Stack some books and place others upright. Then break things up with an intentional grouping, maybe framed pictures or a small cohesive collection. Plants work too, she says, but only if they’re small—like succulents.


When it comes to book storage, the most basic question is, Built in or freestanding? A large living room might be a good location to build out a bookcase around a fireplace or television, says Hockema. But furniture pieces will always be cheaper, more mobile, and a no-brainer for renters. Just remember to always anchor them to the wall.

Closed Storage

A leather-bound copy of Ulysses is more attractive than the paperback bodice-ripper bought at QFC. For bookshelves in highly visible locations, Hockema suggests a mix of open and closed storage. Handsome tomes up top, romance novels behind closed doors. 

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For one bookworm couple, DeForest built bookcases in the five places they read most, including the breakfast nook and nearwindows. “Observe how you live with books,” he says. This might mean a useful office shelf or books lined along a stairwell so you can “pass them like old friends instead of relegate them to a corner.”


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