How to boost your bookcase credibility

Shelves and bookcases and how we organise them are trending large thanks to video conferencing in lockdown and our curiosity about what’s happening in the background, writes Carol O’Callaghan
How to boost your bookcase credibility

If you’re not brave enough to introduce wall colour to a room, try colourful objects on a shelf instead.
If you’re not brave enough to introduce wall colour to a room, try colourful objects on a shelf instead.

WHEN watching celebrities, commentators and political bigwigs being interviewed from their homes through grainy lenses in the last three months, what are you most likely to see behind them?

It’s a set of styled bookcases which are sometimes more interesting than anything the interviewee has to say or at least a distraction away from them.

This development just happened to coincide with the arrival of a review copy of Geraldine James’ recently published book #shelfie, which is a guide with plenty of eye-catching photos on how to pull off the perfectly styled shelf, incorporating everything from books and pictures, to ornaments and bits from the garden.

Titled with a hashtag, because it seems everything has to have one these days to be noticed on social media, it plays on the word "selfie" and is geared at interiors buff like me who actually think it’s fun to spend an afternoon in pursuit of perfect bookshelves.

But now that they’re trending as the must-have interior backdrop on TV, can we expect that shortly they’ll trickle down to us, setting the scene for our Zoom parties over a gin and tonic? And if so, which look do we opt for?

Is it the President Obama-style restrained bookcase with a bit of arty minimalism, or Cate Blanchett’s stuffed shelves bearing twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary sited right in our eyeline?

Whatever the choice, it seems this is the season of the credibility bookcase.

An anglepoise lamp trained on a set of shelves with collected vintage items highlights it by night.
An anglepoise lamp trained on a set of shelves with collected vintage items highlights it by night.

My own goal is tidiness foremost, although lockdown brings out the stylist in me to make my own shelves more stylish or help change the look of a wall.

Books and miscellaneous objects form key tools, but there’s an easy line to stumble over between achieving the professionally styled look and not knowing when to stop so the finish resembles a stall at the car boot sale as many an online "shelfie" bears witness to.

James says in her introduction,

For me, it’s not only about storage, but how each #shelfie can work as a style statement. They don’t replace art in a home, but are considered as living pieces of art in themselves, as a way of dressing an empty wall.

Shelves are also telling. We might place tasteful art and photography around our walls with care, but it’s the bits and pieces we have on our shelves, and books in particular, which give an impression of who we are, as anyone who has ever nosed into a bookcase while their host is putting the kettle on will attest.

Bookcases are now seen as a style statement.
Bookcases are now seen as a style statement.

James also offers simple headings to apply until you find your feet and feel confident about improvising.

These cover subjects like telling a story, placing art and ornaments and, my favourite, using the wall.


“It is always wise to have a theme or a story in mind, be it nature, collectibles, or nostalgic memorabilia,” she says.


“Create your very own gallery by displaying art or photographs in abundance on slender shelves with a ridge that helps to support them.”


“I like to hang a photograph or painting behind the shelf to give extra height and a backdrop to a display,” she says.


She also brings up the tricky topic of colour and how to use your objects to introduce it on a shelf if, like me, you can’t quite bring yourself to apply it to walls. For a novel alternative she paints the back panel of a bookcase to make the items on display pop. The effect is striking, especially her example of terracotta pots against a blue background.

As someone who did an enormous culling of books and ornaments just before lockdown, and with no regrets I might add, I’ve had the best fun with this book. It’s made me reinvent or simply freshen up what I have  — photos, books, vases, candles, candlesticks, pots and baskets — and as a work in progress it’s already dramatically changing the look of one side of my sitting room where a bookcase dominates.

I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the point of whipping out the phone to take a ‘shelfie’ for social media, but I’m happy enough to have created order and what I would call a better-looking arrangement. As for it being a credibility bookcase, I’ll wait for the verdict from the girls of my Tuesday night Zoom meeting.

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