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Here’s what it takes to create that perfectly designed bookshelf

Nicole Brown’s diverse bookshelf is her living room’s “conversation starter.” (Jason Hornick for Express)

On Nicole Brown’s built-in bookshelves, novels and political memoirs mix it up with framed personal photos, sculptural knickknacks and pieces from shops around town. A pair of silver platters “were actually thrift store finds,” she says. “They were in bad shape when I bought them, but silver polish did the trick restoring them.”

By thoughtfully arranging the shelving that flanks the TV in the living room of her Chinatown condo, Brown has turned functional storage into a highlight of the space. “I think it’s a nice focal point of the room,” she says. “And it’s a nice conversation starter.”

Even the most basic Ikea bookcase can be turned into an eye-catching feature. The trick is not just jamming your college textbooks and paperbacks onto the shelves. Instead, take the time to create interesting arrangements to show everything off in a more pleasing way.

Start by thinking about scale. “So many people get bookcases that are way too short for their space,” says D.C.-based interior designer Shannon Smith, who has her own firm, Shannon Claire Interiors, and also works with clients through the interior design service Homepolish. “If you get something short and load it up with a bunch of stuff, it looks really bottom-heavy in the room and makes your space feel smaller. Thinking taller is definitely the way to go.”

Examine the shelving with nothing on it. Does it seem … well, boring? Painting or wallpapering the back of the bookshelves can add some drama to your displays. This is a good place for a color that’s complementary to the rest of the decor in the room, or plays off your wall color nicely. Brown painted the wall behind her dark wood built-ins a metallic gold. “It really pops and gives diversity to the space,” she says.

Then start adding your books to the shelves, working with the biggest tomes first. Don’t line them all up the same way. “Do a stack of horizontally laid books and then mix it up with vertically lined-up books with bookends on either side,” says Reston-based interior designer Darlene Molnar. Choose an organization system that works for you. Some people like to group books by color, others by size or subject matter.

“I love the idea of color-coding them, but that doesn’t work for me because I don’t have colorful books,” says Amy Rutherford, owner of Red Barn Mercantile in Alexandria, which sells furniture and other home decor and offers design services. “Sometimes it’s fun to take the book jackets off to make a more cohesive look. Or turn the books around so you see the pages and get a calming effect of whites and ivories. You can get as creative as you want.”

Once the books are in place, it’s time to start adding accessories. “I like to add sentimental pieces, like large pieces of art and framed photos, and smaller decorative items and plants to finish it off,” Smith says. Use smaller items like candles and knickknacks to fill out the space. “Mix in the smaller pieces so that it looks balanced and you have a different mix of heights on the shelves,” she says.

Don’t be afraid to hang or lean artwork against the back of the bookcase. Top stacks of books with smaller accents. And if you have a collection, whether that’s snow globes or action figures, group some together to display on a shelf. “One of my favorite things on my shelves is a wire basket of skee-balls from an amusement park I used to go to as a kid,” Rutherford says.

Scale also comes into play here. Mix up the sizes of books and accessories to make sure you have a blend of big and small. “You’re going to be seeing the shelves from far away in a lot of cases, so you don’t want everything to be tiny,” Rutherford says.

Resist the urge to fill in every last inch. “A lot of times bookshelves become collect-alls and end up looking cluttered,” Molnar says. “You should allow some of the shelves themselves to be seen. That negative space will make things seem a little less cluttered.”

The payoff for all of this effort? “The shelves become an attractive focal point, not a hodgepodge of stuff,” Molnar says. “And you’ll be able to find things if you know where they are and take time to arrange them to your liking.”

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