How to make shelving a work of art

Any shelving unit can be transformed into a trendy but practical display feature. You will need a theme, some interesting individual pieces and patience to convert a basic bookcase or built-ins into something unique.

Do not lament the fact that you lack space for a full-size china cabinet or sophisticated glass cabinets in your kitchen. You can achieve them another way!

Get started with a common thread. In this instance, frosty white ceramic pieces including a water pitcher, a creamer, small bowls, canisters and a large candlestick holder are the anchors of the arrangement. This is a kitchen theme with utensils, cookbooks and a few silk plants, but one could add in ramekins or tiny condiment cups. Multiples of teacups, bowls and plates can be neatly stacked to form a single unit.

Notice that each shelf has multiple objects: The top shelf has five objects, and the next shelf holds six. There may not be an exact science to how to arrange objects, but in general, try alternating shapes. On the first shelf, the standing plate offers a bold shape. The second shelf holds the dominant pitcher filled with cooking utensils, and that shelf is anchored on the far right side by books.

An alternating high-low pattern fills the third shelf, and the bottom shelf has the largest items that provide visual containment for the entire assembly. You eye stops there on the thick candleholder combined with the plant, canister and cookbooks.

Don't worry about perfection, but play around with your arrangement until you feel satisfied. Remove an item if it doesn't work as planned. Experiment in a playful way with pushing something over an inch or two. In this type of work, you want to achieve irregularity and nuance. You need variation.

Imagine another type of collection besides one oriented to the kitchen. For example, if your home offers an entryway large enough for a hall table, you might display family photos. Again, variation in frame sizes and shapes is the goal. If you lack confidence, stay with one finish on the frames, such as all chrome or all brass. Otherwise you could mix finishes and colors and achieve a more haphazard feeling.

In a very confined space, consider removing the legs of the table and attaching the top directly to a wall. This way, you will eliminate the table base or legs that might get in the way.

Another possibility is displaying miniature items that are as varied as personal interests. These might be arranged on narrow, wall-hung mini-shelves one above the other, as a vertical unit. Consider at least three. Maybe you show off a mini toy race-car collection in your child's room, or maybe you arrange your own group of real bird's nests, beer steins or clocks. Small coffee pots would work, as well as interesting locks or keys.

You can also use this philosophy and create an assemblage of framed items in shadowboxes. All types of little things can be artistically glued into a 2- to 3-inch-deep box. These can range from samples of nautical knots, antique buttons or tied flies for fly-fishing. Multiples of threes and fives are pleasing, or you can work with even numbers. The framed items might then be placed on the shelves and leaned against the wall. In this way, you can display dozens of prized objects without creating a sense of confusion or being far too busy for a small area.

• Christine Brun is a San Diego-based interior designer and the author of “Small Space Living.” Send questions and comments to her by email at

© 2018, Creators Syndicate

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