Our Complete Styling Guide to Consoles, Bookshelves, and Coffee Tables

Ballard Designs' complete guide to styling your bookcases, consoles, and coffee tables

Picking out the right furniture pieces, fabrics, and rugs is only half the challenge of decorating your home. The second half, and sometimes even the most difficult part, is ‘styling’ your room. We think of ‘styling’ as a way to display the decorative objects that you’ve collected and love. It’s that final touch that takes your furniture pieces from simply something functional to something functional and beautiful. For all of us, the decorating objects we use to style our space may be different, but there are some universal strategies that will make styling your home easier.

We scoured our archives, surveyed our design teams, and questioned our stylists to break down all the steps and best tips for you.

Our complete styling guide to bookshelves, console tables, and coffee tables

One trick that Suzanne Kasler uses with clients is that she gathers all the client’s accessories — books, boxes, sculptures, framed photos, and any other mementos — into one room. That’s becomes the ‘shopping room’ which she’ll use when she’s pulling accents for each space. This makes it easy to see everything the homeowner has so she can strategically choose colors, textures, shapes, and heights to complement her design.

This is the same strategy professional stylists use when they’re adding finishing touches to a room. Stylists often have racks and racks of props and accessories, and they can easily see everything they have making the job much easier. Try this strategy in your own home!

Before we share examples, there are a few principals that are constant no matter what you’re styling.

  1. COLOR — Color is an obvious strategy when styling, and as a general rule, we recommend editing down your colors to three or four. Pull accent colors from the rugs, fabric, or art in your room, then limit yourself to using accessories in only those colors.
  2. SHAPE — No matter what furniture piece you’re styling, it’s important to have a mixture of shapes. If you have a very angular console table, mix in some round shapes, like lamps, sculpture, or art. Balance your accessories by using some angular items and some round/curvy items.
  3. HEIGHT — One of the most important strategies when you’re styling any piece is to vary your heights. This helps your eye move around which creates a more interesting arrangement. You’ll notice that if we have a tall lamp, we’ll likely use something shorter, like a stack of books for balance.
  4. TEXTURE — Mix lots of different finishes and textures across the furniture piece you’re styling. If you have glossy, ceramic lamps, add something with a chippy paint finish or a raw wood. You don’t want everything on your table to be either shiny/polished/glossy OR patina/roughness/grain. You want some of both.
  5. NEGATIVE SPACE — No matter what you’re styling, leave some negative space. Group items together (maybe a set of standing feathers on a short stack of books) and leave some areas of your table empty. This way, there’s a spot to put stuff down when you come in the door. It also keeps your table from getting too cluttered.

How to style a console table with accessories

Styling a Console, 2 Ways

For this look, we started by examining the colors in our Valentino Rug and our Portal Art piece — both of these pieces have icy blues, taupes, and grays. Those colors will guide the color palette of our accessories.

First, we brought in something tall with Bunny Williams’ Diana Bust which will anchor one side of the console table. The bust is a smooth, matte marble, while the table is rustic wood. Because these are seemingly opposite materials, it makes the combination of them interesting.

Next, we brought in a pair of standing sunbursts which lead your eye down and across the top of the table. The round shape works to balance the very angular shape of the console table and square painting. We used this same strategy when picking our Oval Back Louis Side Chairs. Because we already have two very angular pieces, chairs with curves balance those angles.

On the opposite side of the table, we used two vases of different heights to balance the bust.

Console tables with lower shelves can be tricky because you need items with just the right height to fit on the lower shelf. We used a tall stack of books and two baskets. The baskets are easy catchalls for blankets, pillows, dog toys, or even shoes if they’re near the front door.

How to style a console table with accessories

Shapes are so important to consider when you’re styling a furniture piece. Over this very rectangular console table, we brought in a large round mirror for balance. While a square piece of wall decor would work perfectly well, there’s a harmony to pairing curves and angles together. The one trick when you’re using a round mirror though is that you’re left with two gaps along the edges of the circle. Those gaps are where we’ll start filling in our accessories.

With a round mirror over a rectangular console, you're left with gaps. Start filling in accessories there

Just like our round mirror, our Double Gourd Lamp lends this great tension to the whole arrangement. Our console table has a rustic wood finish, our mirror has a chippy paint finish, and the lamp adds a new texture — a very glossy finish.

Once we had our three largest elements in place, we started adding in our accessories, focusing on a blue color way to complement our lamp. Now it may seem strange to suggest only decorating with one color book. We’re not suggesting you go out and look to buy only blue books, but if you’ve gathered all of your accessories together in one room, it’s easy to just pull items in your color palette. Another great way to reinforce your color palette without shopping specifically for new pieces — our stylist suggests opening a big coffee table book to a page that echoes your color palette and stand it up with the pages facing out. It’ll drive that color story home, and you don’t need to go purchase new pieces! It also takes up lots of room. We’ll use this trick again for bookshelves.

Chairs flanking the console table should break the height of the table

One important thing to note when styling your console table — a pair of chairs is a great way to extend the width of your table. If you’ve got a large wall, a console may not be enough weight to visually fill that wall, so chairs help add weight. They also create a beautifully symmetrical arrangement which helps ground your console table, especially if you have a more asymmetrical arrangement on top (like we do with our lamp and accessories). If you flank your console table with chairs, be sure the height of your chairs breaks the height of the table.

Styling a Bookshelf, 2 Ways

Styling a bookshelf can feel overwhelming because there’s just so much space. It’s a much bigger task than a coffee table or console, and it requires so many more accessories and books. But, there’s an easy strategy our stylists employ when they’re jazzing up the bookshelves for our catalog. Work in groupings of three.

Styling a bookshelf without books

If you examine each of the shelves, you’ll notice the groupings of three throughout. This is an easy way to break down such a large task into chunks. One grouping might be two books stacked horizontally with a flower arrangement on top. One grouping might be three books standing up with their covers facing out. Another grouping might be three standing disks. Create groupings of three, and leave negative space between them for a full but uncluttered look.

Tip: Listen to designer and blogger Sherry Hart talk about her bookshelf styling strategy!

3 ways to display books on your bookshelf

Create a more dynamic bookshelf by alternating the way you display your books. The different arrangement adds more movement than just letting books be stacked vertically the traditional way.

Of course, we like to bring in accents in addition to just books. A few unexpected accessories you can add to your bookshelf:

  • Small art prints leaned in the back
  • A stack of blankets
  • A low floral arrangement
  • A short footstool
  • Sculptural pieces
  • Baskets

Styling a bookshelf without books

Of course you can use a book shelf in so many ways aside from just storing your books. Use one in a breakfast room or dining room to store glassware and dinnerware, or use it in an office to decoratively store office supplies. We employed the same methods for adding serveware to this bookshelf as we did adding books, like working in groups of threes, adding height by stacking items, and considering texture, shape, and color.

We also treated our platters like books by stacking some together and standing some up facing out.

Heavier items like large vases and heavy baskets live on the bottom, and lighter items like a basket of linens live on the top.

Styling a Coffee Table

While mostly employing many of the same strategies, coffee tables serve a very different functional purpose than either a console table or bookshelf. They get a lot more use and abuse. Because of this, we like to leave more empty space than we would a console or bookshelf because you may want to put down glassware, remotes, or books you’re reading. A coffee table is much more of a drop zone, so it’s important to take that into account.

Styling your coffee table

Trays are a great place to start when styling your coffee table. It helps contain your pieces and make it easy to move groupings around your table in case you need to make room for drinks or appetizers. Once you’ve got a tray, add a couple of shorts stacks of books. Books are great because they add movement to your coffee table, but you can still place items on top of them.

Still keep in mind all of the principals we mentioned above, like mixing textures, shapes, and heights. A round tray on a rectangular coffee table adds movement, a glossy white vase adds a different texture, and stacks of books at different heights creates different vertical planes.

Often coffee tables have shelves underneath which can pose a challenge. We like to add a combination of pieces. Another stack of books is a great starting place, but covered boxes work well too. They can house remote controls or other trinkets you want to have nearby, but you can’t see in them. A low, wide basket is another handy piece. Fill it with kids toys, dog toys, blankets, or even pillows.

Simply keep these 5 principals in mind and you can style anything in your home:

  1. Color
  2. Shape
  3. Height
  4. Texture
  5. Negative Space

For more decorating ideas, listen to our new podcast, or browse our Pinterest boards for inspiration.

Did you like this post and find it helpful? Rate it below and share your thoughts in the comments.

 
Caroline McDonald

Caroline McDonald

Caroline lives for pairing together patterns, mixing furniture styles, and oogling over our newest furniture pieces. As you can imagine, her little 1920's craftsman is in a constant state of flux. Here on How to Decorate, it's her goal to help you turn your home into your own little slice of paradise.

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6 Comments

  1. Reply

    Jan

    March 1, 2017
     

    I just ordered the Salerno Console…I plan to put our large screen tv on it. What would be a good thing to display on the wall above it. I don’t want real modern. My walls are cream colored and we have a stone fireplace with a wood beam mantle. Please send me a recommendation.

    • Caroline McDonald
      Reply

      Caroline McDonald

      March 22, 2017
       

      Jan,
      I’d love to send you some recommendations. What are the other colors in your space. We have tons of art options, and a color palette will help narrow down the choices to go with your Salerno console!

  2. Reply

    Arlene Burke

    February 21, 2017
     

    Artical is great! LOved learning how,to handle accessories

  3. Reply

    Michelle

    January 6, 2017
     

    Great read and makes total sense now. Never had any direction of how to pull together bookshelves or coffee tables.
    Have loved the podcast also!!

    • Caroline McDonald
      Reply

      Caroline McDonald

      January 9, 2017
       

      Michelle,
      Thanks so much for listening. Glad you’re liking the podcast and you enjoyed this post!

  4. Reply

    M

    January 4, 2017
     

    I’m considering placing bookshelves in the niches that flank my fireplace. I love the Ballard bookshelf decorating ideas! Any do’s or don’t would be greatly appreciated.

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