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Whether displaying artwork, unifying a color scheme or creating contrast, bookcases are an excellent tool in any designer’s toolbox for adding design distinction to a space. Jonathan Savage of Savage Interior Design points out that the classic bookcase is a useful spot for displaying far more than books — not only are they a great spot to showcase your favorite objéts, they’re also a prime place to display your personal style.

“Bookcases are a great location to showcase a collection,” Jonathan says. “Whether it’s art prints or candlesticks or whatever you have that you want to display, I think a bookcase is always a good place.”

In the contemporary living room pictured below, Jonathan repeats the room’s black-and-white color scheme on the built-in shelves, turning a traditional architectural feature into a modern museum and a focal point. “The bookshelves are layered with found objects from around the world – collections of different stones, art and marble fragments,” he says. “It was truly a collection found and placed together, and it’s very well curated.”

This photo shows how well-styled bookshelves can make a space sing. Image: John Kneedy

Carrying the color scheme through to the bookshelves was an intentional decision that sets the tone for the space, essentially tying the whole look together. “It makes for a very modern, today kind of feel,” Jonathan says. Image: John Kneedy

The below room, too, proves that bookcases can be home to almost anything – not just books. In the case of this living space, contemporary bookcases are used to display collected art. It’s a favorite trick of Jonathan’s to hang artwork directly on the front edge of the shelves. “I always layer a bookcase with art on top, as you can see I did there,” he says. “Bookshelves can be more than just books, and I think bookshelves can be kind of boring with books alone. Adding layers and depth make for a more interesting space.”

Adding layers to bookshelves both depth and interest to a space. Image: James Balston Photography

When a client does have plenty of books to display, there’s still room for creativity. To create a harmonious effect in the bookcase below, Jonathan employed an ingenious trick. “I turned the spines to the back and layered them with the pages facing out,” he says. “If you’re an avid reader you probably wouldn’t want to do this, but when it comes to just pure style, I think it’s a really beautiful way of doing it.”

As for the bookcase itself, Jonathan matched the paint finish to the trim. “In this scenario, we painted the bookshelves in a finish that matched the trim of the room to make them feel as if they’re integrated into the space,” he says. “They become millwork rather than just regular bookshelves.” And again, he uses the outer edge of the shelves as a gallery wall, displaying artwork that adds character and uniqueness to the space.

A simple flip of the books to place their spines at the back of the shelves brings an entirely new and refreshing style to this bookcase. Image: Emily Followill Photography

In the room below, the built-in bookcase beside the fireplace repeats a dynamic design motif that’s used throughout the space: the starburst. Wallpaper on the back wall of the bookcase draws the eye to the objects on display while playing off the modern light fixture in a fun way. The legs of the coffee table continue the repeating motif all the way to the floor. “I think it depends on the look you’re going for and how much attention you want the bookcases to get,” Jonathan says. “A contrast bookcase stands out more than one that’s blended in, and depending on what you’re displaying, that can be even better.”

Note how the starburst theme is carried out in this bright room. Image: Ross Group Creative

There’s no hard and fast rule about what to include on a bookcase shelf — or how full or sparse to make it. “I’ve seen beautiful bookcases with only five objects in them. I’ve seen beautiful bookcases with 105 objects,” he says. “It depends on the look you’re going for. The fewer objects, the minimal approach, the more contemporary the bookcase.” In the example below, a traditional built-in bookcase is transformed to convey a modern aesthetic by its minimal arrangement. “I think that in the opposite case, the more you stack on there and the more layers you get, the more interesting and dramatic they can become,” he adds.

Also in the below example, glass shelving brings an overall lightness to the design. “Adding glass shelves is a good option, especially if they’re lit at the top so the light travels through the bookshelf,” Jonathan says. LED lighting is his favorite because it’s the most like natural sunlight, he adds.

This traditional bookcase enjoys a modern transformation thanks to the minimal objects on display. Image: Ross Group Creative

Other objects Jonathan suggests for including on bookcase shelves are open baskets, beautiful boxes, and even faux books that open to reveal hidden storage. “I think bookcases can be a home to anything,” he says. “There are a lot of different ways to address a bookcase – just think outside the box. Look for architectural artifacts, anything of interest that you find, and it will make the bookshelf more interesting.”

And, of course, books are always a good option for bookcase display, as well. “If you have a collection of books, I like to display them together,” Jonathan says. “The size of the collection will determine how they’re displayed. If it’s a large collection, you can space them out sporadically. If it’s a smaller collection I think they’re best together.”

Lastly, when artwork is in the mix, remember that tip to hang it front and center. Says Jonathan, “Let the art be the focal point versus the bookcase.”

When it comes to styling your bookshelves, Jonathan says to think outside the box. “I think bookcases can be a home to anything,” he says. Image: Emily Followill Photography

Find more design inspiration and peruse Jonathan’s portfolio at

This article is sponsored by Savage Interior Design. All photography provided by Savage Interior Design.

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