Bookcase styling and other ways to drive yourself crazy.

I bet you’re all wondering what it is I did while I was on my television hiatus aren’t you?   What could I possibly have done all those long, lonely evenings without the mind numbing entertainment that requires no thought at all.  Well, for one thing I listened to podcasts but without visual stimulation they just made me sleepy.  Slink off the couch and into a puddle on the floor, sleepy.  And once I was on the floor I realized just what a poor housekeeper I am which sent me into a depression.  It also made me realize I needed a new rug which would cost money which depressed me even more.

Really this whole no television thing had no benefits at all.

I had to figure out some sort of activity that I could do while I was listening to these podcasts at night.  Something that would  keep me awake during them.    One evening nearing the end of my television hiatus as I was on the verge of drooling and doing that head nod thing I glanced over at my bookcase and found my answer.  No, not reading.  That would really put me to sleep.

I’d been watching my lovely, organized Billy bookcase get more and more disheveled by the year.  I’d squish in a newspaper clipping, or a book someone loaned me.  I’d push in a photo album that didn’t really fit, or start sitting books on top of books, shoving in half consumed cans of Diet Coke, hiding mail I didn’t want to deal with in there and before I knew it my beautiful bookcase went from this …




photo by Donna Griffith

to this …




Yeah, I rarely think to take a before photo.  Especially if what I’m doing is a spur of the moment I CAN’T TAKE THIS ANYMORE kind of thing.  If it’s planned, like I know I’m going to paint my potting shed, and think in my head, well this will be a good post, I always take a before picture.  But there are so many times I do things completely randomly, instantly and out of the blue that I don’t  think to myself … “Hey!  WOAH THERE.  This would be a good blog post.  You should probably take pictures.” No.  I just dive right in.

The podcast I was listening to during the 2 evenings and 2 mornings I redid my bookcase was Chicago Public Radio’s “Serial”.  It’s a murder mystery.  So I was lulled to sleep by a murder mystery.

The before shot of my bookcase that you see at the top of the post is one of my most Pinned, shared and linked to images.  It’s just a good example of a bookcase and it didn’t happen by chance.   It took AGES to get my bookcase to look good.  Many nights of putting things in, taking them out, moving things around, removing stuff, adding stuff and just a sprinkling or two of sobbing. Plus I’m pretty sure I ate a hot dog in there somewhere.

It took slightly less time to redo it this time around because I had all the basics.  I just needed to neaten things up a bit and give my view from the couch a bit of a change.  It isn’t a huge transformation but it’s enough that it makes me happy.




The 2 biggest changes I made were to vary the shelves so they didn’t line up perfectly into squares like they do in the first photo.  And then I also made sure to create a bit more breathing space in the lower portion of the bookcase.  So the books have more space around them and aren’t so dark and heavy looking.  Just being able to see more of the white bookcase between the objects and books makes a big difference visually.

Here’s a side by side.  Keep in mind too, that I’m a bad blogger so you’re seeing the difference between the good version of my bookcase and another good version of my bookcase.  I really should have got a before shot when it was messy.  But as we’ve established I’m a bad blogger.






Aside from changing the shelves a bit and allowing for more negative space, I’m not sure what makes this bookcase arrangement work.   I like the symmetry, I know that.  I like that some of my favourite objects are in it.  I know that.  Beyond that.  Meh.  I have no idea.  All I know is for me it works, and I knew when it was done.  I didn’t stand there thinking more needed to be fixed or changed.  When it was done, I knew it was done.

So why does this bookcase work?  For the answer to that question I asked Interior Designer Carol Reed (who also designed my kitchen for me)

“Your after arrangement works well for many reasons, you’ve filled the shelves with a variety of books (vertical and horizontal), objets and art which makes it so visually interesting. You’ve also created great balance – a row of bins on the bottom anchors the whole thing, you’ve flanked the centre column of cubbies with symmetrical groupings and the colours are well balanced too, the reds, yellows and blacks (very dominant colours) are distributed randomly but evenly. You’ve paid attention to the negative space and avoided crowding any of the shelves, you allowed space around the objects to highlight them and you left breathing room around the books. Using a stack of books as a pedestal for smaller objects is another great way you balanced the negative space. The other key thing that makes a display interesting is when your eye moves around the arrangement, you’ve achieved this by placing your objects in triangular formations, most predominately the black bowl, the painting and the antlers which create that main triangle and then your eye moves off to the other objects in between and on the sides, you have other smaller triangles of displays within the whole.” ~ Carol Reed

When pushed, and I mean REALLY pushed, Carol said the only thing she would change was maybe switching out the shiny gold planter to something older looking to match the patina of everything else and I have to say I agree.




And because I was so happy with the bookcase looking nice again finally, I ran up to my cutting garden and cut some Zinnias, tomatoes and weeds to make a Frances Palmer inspired flower arrangement.




I bought this antique Burmese monk’s bowl (also called an Alms bowl or a begging bowl) when I was in Thailand.  Going there I knew a monk’s bowl was something I wanted to own, but I never imagined I’d get to buy an authenticated antique one.  I was actually shopping one day searching for a really cheap gold Buddha head to bring home but somehow ended up with a really not cheap monk’s bowl. Which is not unlike the time I went out shopping for pepperoni and came home with a couch.

In a week or so I’m going to tell you about everything in the bookcase, what it is and how I got it.  I imagine you want to get to squinting your eyes at the books in my bookcase, so I’ll let you get to that now.

I’ll be over here watching television.




  1. Cindy Revell says:

    Do you worry about your books fading from the sunlight? I had a long row of bookshelves in my studio which has windows, north, west and south. My book covers faded badly over a few years and since then I’ve moved my bookshelves to face away from the light. I have many other books that I’d like to put in my living room which has no convenient wall for placing a bookshelf on. At least not one that won’t get a lot of light. Challenging for a book lover!

  2. Carol Hogan says:

    You have The Vicar of Christ on your bookshelf! I love that book. Have you read it? Hard to believe that a Korean War Hero would become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and then Pope, but it makes sense when you read the book. And his name is Francis and he sells the wealth of the Church to care for the poor. Love it!

  3. olga says:

    Oh wow you definitely know your readers (or human nature lol ) very well. I was squinting to see what you got on those shelves and debating if I need to add anything to my collection of shelf stuffers! Can’t wait.

  4. Kristin ferguson says:

    Biblionomaginoskomania: The fetishistic need to read the title of the book some stranger near you is reading. I made that word up, but I swear I suffer from this disorder.

  5. Margaret K. says:

    Yeah – how did you know I was peering at the spines of your books? The horse book and Vicar of Christ I can understand, and most of the others that I could make out. But oral surgery? pathology? From the library of a loved one, perhaps?

  6. Alice says:

    Bear with me if this comment already posted. Just curious about the books on the top shelf, second column. “Oral Surgery,” “The Vicar of Christ,” and “A Horse of Your Own”? Dewey would faint, but what did he know? And that table–is that a gigantic doorknob topped with one end of a steel drum and polished up? And do you really sit on that little couch to read? Anyway, I love the look of that room. I just found your blog through the recommendation of a friend, and I glad I did!

  7. Stefani says:

    Did you read Geek Love? It was very strange and I loved it.

  8. Nancy Blue Moon says:

    I don’t understand the technical terms of why it looks so just does..good job as always Karen…

  9. Joslynne says:

    WOW – Love them both – after and after…and I can bet that the before pic was really not that bad!

    Your place is sooooo cool!!

  10. Pam'a says:

    Both are beautiful; I’d expect nothing less. But what to do if you have lots and lots of small framed photos of people that have to go someplace? That’s what takes up a lot of my built-ins. I do put some atop horizontal books and try to keep some negative space, but still… Do you keep all your pictures in an album?

  11. ronda says:

    billy bookcases! where would I be without them! styled they are not. just filled to the brim with books. love your new settee … it’s gorgeous.

  12. Carol says:

    Thanks so much for including me in this post Karen! Like most of your readers I really love both the before and after version. Wouldn’t change a thing, but I get that over time they can accumulate clutter or your eye just gets tired of the same arrangement and they need an edit. I’m not one for overly perfect bookcases, I like them “loose” but not messy, and not too rigid or over styled. It’s true it was a challenge to come up with something I would change, thank goodness you had the shiny gold planter in there because otherwise, I had nothing. : ) ~ C

  13. Jennie Lee says:

    Before you told us about your Burmese alms bowl, I’d already noticed your foo dogs and your wuluo gourd- shaped vase (which may be a real wulou gourd or ceramic-can’t tell). This is because my living room is decorated with Asian art as well. I’m sure you know already that your wulou gourd is a good thing to have around, feng shui -wise. I can’t wait to read about all the treasures. (I covet your alms bowl.)

  14. Shannon says:

    I would love to know how you arrange your books. I always look at this in people’s houses. When I rearrange and style my shelves, I struggle so much with how to arrange the books. Do I just do whatever looks good, or should there be some order to this chaos (e.g., arranging the books alphabetically or by genre), or should I just pile them on the floor, drink wine, and then come back to them in two days….

    I appreciate that your shelves are nicely styled but also utilitarian; I hate styled bookshelves where all the spines face the back or the all the books have paper covers and no labels. I’m pretty sure people who do that don’t know what a book’s intended purpose is.

  15. Kim says:

    I love your blog. Also, I listened to that podcast. It was very good! I wonder when season 2 will start?

  16. Dagmar says:

    I like the uneven shelves myself, because cubes just remind me of the kindergarten slots at the back of every classroom. …But I don’t know if anyone else commented on the fact that the second photo has a lamp that could double as a set of hair dryers. You know, you could lower it down, have everyone come over in their curlers, and away they go, sitting in Karen’s living room; all back-to-back, cross-legged, using the silver table to create a higher heat and the lamp to dry the hair in great big curls. Although I don’t know why, it seems to me that the table doesn’t seem nearly as stable in the second photo as the first, so that would have to be leveled out. And of course, all of the decorations would have to come off the table anyway. But just imagine the great night of Twister you could all have once everyone’s dos were done. And you could play records to boot.

  17. Patti says:

    Beautifully styled! Some people just have an eye for this stuff. It reminds me of when once in a great while I find an outfit that is flattering and I feel good in it but I have no clue why it works. I wish I could figure that one out.
    So how did you like Serial? I really feel Adnan is guilty and don’t understand the outcry over him. He had the motive and the opportunity and his excuses didn’t add up.

  18. Jody says:

    Love the before before and the after photos. I suck at styling bookcases and mantels. I’ve considered hiring someone to do just the bookcase and mantels. I think now on the next rainy day I’m inspired to try try again.
    Intrigued with your old medical textbooks. I have a few oldies too. They’re fun to flip through and look at gross photos.

  19. Diane Amick says:

    There is this place called a library….I no longer buy books – seldom go back to re-read when there are NEW books available on an hourly basis. When I stop and think about it, my only true bookshelves are in my sewing/craft room where my gardening, paint finishes, how-to sewing, etc. books are located and a small bookcase filled with painting supplies – brushes, oils, acrylics, sponges, small canvas… Friends insist on giving me books to read and I in turn recycle them once I’ve read them. This method works for me.

  20. Amber says:

    So I want to know where all the cheesy, crummy, dog eared, got-wet-in-the-bath paperbacks are. The ones missing a cover or two and full of non-erudite knowledge. The ones with vampires and underwired nighties, or neon-lit men wearing hats.
    I know you’ve got them.

  21. Leslie says:

    Did you end up taking many (any) things off the shelves permanently? Or does it just look more spacious? I find it hard to balance the desire for tidy-looking styled shelves and the practicality of them holding many of the books that I own.

  22. judy says:

    I can’t tell why but I prefer the first arrangement to the second. I love the white light fixture over the tan? And the first just has a calm elegance over the second which seems mere “arranged”. I couldn’t decorate my way out of a paper bag so this critique is pointless but since I am bored to tears with another morning serving of “joe Scarborough ” and American Politics” an oxy moron if I ever saw one- I will leave it. You are an amazing arrangement of Genetic Genius and someone ought to clone you. If I had a Karen Clone leading? Dragging? me through an intelligent productive day it would be superfragelisticexpealidocious! I would have gardens and flowers and you would train the Rottweiler not to attack and eat us! Aw Well, I will stumble on- on my own -maybe in my next life I will be blessed with organizational abilities!

  23. jainegayer says:

    I love the “new” bookcase! I loved the old one too but the new empty spaces make it “lighter” looking (I’m sure there’s a designer term for what I’m trying to describe). And yes, my head was bent to the side trying to read the horizontal titles on your books so I’m looking forward to your disclosure post.

  24. Heather says:

    I have an Expedit in my dining room in my apartment. I got it shortly after I moved in because I had so much “stuff” after downsizing from a 5-bedroom house. I use it for wine glasses, etc. as well as books & other stuff. I bought 5 baskets (mine is 5 cubbies wide) & I have a row of them across the middle. They hide things like placements, tea towels, and then one has my “office stuff”. In the 2 bottom outside cubbies I placed a shelf on the diagonal & that works as the ever important wine rack. Overall it looks like a mess! Some cubbies are well laid out, others just look like they’re holding STUFF.

    Maybe I need to completely empty it & start all over again. I’ll add that to my list. I think I should have a new list called my “I wanna be like Karen list.”

  25. Suzanne says:

    Styling a home is a challenge, when married to an accumulator. One of the best people on the planet, but he sheds stuff like a tree sheds leaves in the fall. The concept of negative space isn’t in his vocabulary. A tidy bookcase lasts about 3 months. Of course I’m perfect… Ha. 45 years and counting.

    • Deb J. says:

      LOOVE your description! I’m married to one of those! I keep having to explain to my super tidy, minimalist sister (married to same) how I have to work the balance between clearing out stuff and ceding ground to the ‘leaves’. Haven’t quite found the balance yet.

  26. Mary W says:

    I love that I see more colors (blues and corals) on the new arrangement – it seems more lively instead of library-ish. I also love that you broke up the tall stack of red striped books in the middle. How do you keep them clean of dust? My biggest problem is dust on the organized “pile o crap” things I have on my selves.

  27. Kim C says:

    I like the new after version, especially the change in shelf size near the top. Just enough art pieces to keep it interesting too. Love the begging bowl!
    Even with convenience of phone or tablet cameras, I rarely remember to take before photos. I’m no blogger but before snaps are handy when doing fix-ups or furniture shopping etc. I’m the person at the hardware store describing my needs to the patient clerk by flailing my arms about, using terms such as “yea big and this high”.

  28. marilyn says:

    i never do befores either , then kick myself after!

  29. Tigersmom says:

    I love that you varied the shelves. It is a minor thing that makes a huge difference.

    When we first moved into our house I had two IKEA Expedit units on either side of an older IKEA Markor unit that is basically a dark wood horizontal Expedit with some trim. It was 26 squares and it didn’t take long for me to be desperate to change out the pieces and get rid of all the squares. I love squares, but it was waaaaay too many.

    The original styling was good, but this new version is great. And you’re right, you’ll know when it’s done. And you sometimes have to get away from it and come back the next day to be able to continue it.

  30. Barbara H. says:

    I used to live in a house that had two rooms that had been added on to the rear area. One old window opening between the old and new section of the house had been converted into narrow shelves. They weren’t deep enough for books, but I had lots of small and medium sized collectables. After arranging and re-arranging, I finally was satisfied with my effort.

    A few days later, my sister in law visited. She greatly admired my decorated shelves, and exclaimed, “Where in the world did you get all those pretty things?”

    I offhandedly answered, “Different times and places.”

    She persisted, “No, really, where did you get them!”

    So I stopped and ticked off each item for her, surprising myself that I actually remembered where I had found them all.

    Then she said, “Well, I didn’t mean for you to tell me all that.”

    I started to say, “Duh… that was what you kept asking me for, or is your memory really that short?” But I realized it was her attention span that was short, so I offered her tea and cookies. She could handle that.

  31. I like how changed the size of some of the cubes in the second arrangement, but the white lamp, fluffy chair, and flowers on the table in the top pic make for more appealing setting.

  32. Karen Too says:

    You may be a bad blogger but how are you at oral surgery?

  33. Wendy says:

    Nah…sorry, I like the ‘Before’ arrangement a whole lot better.

  34. chris says:

    I love the look of a stylized bookcase, especially yours, however I could never do it to mine. I have an incredibly looooong wall of Ikea Expedits (plus two behind my couch acting as console tables) and am constantly struggling to get all of my books to fit. And that doesn’t even count the non-fiction books in the office or the kiddie and young readers in my daughter’s room. I’m currently working my way through every book I own (and evaluating if it’s a keeper or not) in an effort to make everything fit. Think I’m gonna have to implement a rule that when new books come in, if they don’t fit, something else has to go. Sob.

    • lavacha says:

      Me too, me too *sigh*. Avid reader plus minimalistic tendencies, I experience strange emotions – like envy for negative space.

    • nancy says:

      Yeah, it’s so confusing to me when book shelves aren’t full of books. Or horizontal stacks and you have to move a lot of stuff to get to a particular book. The absolute worst is hanging a piece of artwork ON a book case, blocking what? Books!! But I also know no one is coming to take photos of my house.
      I see a Carl Hiaasan book, yikes, my mother loves him, to me he’s so weird. I do LOVE etiquette books, that’s kinda weird also.

      • chris says:

        I am guilty of the horizontal stack. However, I limit each stack to one author and only stack horizontally if I can fit more books into the space than I can going vertical.

  35. Christy says:

    I didn’t know you were on television. Until now I thought I was just following a really cool blogger. What is the show? And I love that strange little figure of a woman in your bookcase!

    • Karen says:

      Hi Christy. Before I became a blogger 5 years ago I was a television host. That’s my actual profession. I started my television career doing comedy commentary and the later part of my career was hosting a lot of shows for HGTV. :) ~ karen!

  36. barbee says:

    I always half way through the project when I think of the before picture!

  37. Robin C says:

    Great post! Bookshelf is beautifully styled snd I like that you let your readers know why it works. And also, Serial! Addicting! Some episodes drove me nuts but overall I loved it! She is going to be giving a talk soon right across from my house. Think I need to go!

    • Karen says:

      I really liked Serial Robin C, but actually preferred the single episode version. At least as far as I remember it was a single episode. The one that was on This American Life about the doctor who replaced a doctor with the same name? ~ karen!

  38. Cynthia Jones says:

    So, the Australian TV series you were watching, was it “Secrets and Lies”??

    Hey, was it? Karen? What was it?

    I so love your fluffy thing.

    “Such a Fluffy” – quote from Monsters Inc.

    Love the deer hide too. I always wanted a hide on my floor but the leg bits would annoy me. Yours is nice and symmetrical, almost square. I am guessing several deer or one big fat one with stumps.

    • Karen says:

      It’s Wentworth that I’m watching! It’s good, but from what I can see looks like it was made on a bit of a budget. And that my deer, is a cow hide. ;) ~ karen!

      • Cynthia Jones says:

        I will be checking out Wentworth.

        You have beautifully coloured cows in Canada. Our cows are ugly, dark, splotchy and dumbasses.

      • Carla says:

        Hi Karen

        Do you know how to get the fold lines out of a hide? I really want one, but whenever I see one I like it has folds. I have a bum leg from a back injury and often drag it Quasimodo style and trip on invisible things (like dust motes and hair, I think) so would be really scared to bumble over something I could see and didn’t notice. Would folding it the opposite way make a difference?

        • Karen says:

          Hi Carla. Technically you should be able to wet the hide at that spot to get the fold line out. It’s also possible it will just fall out by itself once it’s laid down for a while. ~ karen!

  39. Cheryl says:

    How did you know we’d all be squinting to read those book titles?
    Guess you just know your audience!
    Bookcases look great, love the variety of items you used.

  40. Pati Gulat says:

    When I grow up, can I be just like you ???

    • Karen says:

      A person who has no idea how to style bookcases, but somehow manages to do it but then can’t tell other people why it works? Sure. Yes. Yes you can. :) ~ karen!

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