Recently, a friend emailed about a struggle she was having with styling the built-ins in her living room. I wrote a post about how to style her round coffee table, but she also had arched windows flanked on one side by a bulkhead that presented a challenge (which we solved!)

In this post, I am looking at the fireplace built-ins. She had asymmetric built-ins flanking her fireplace and an awkwardly placed octagonal window. She was at a loss as to how to style her bookshelves.

How to Style Built-Ins

Here’s how it looked:

The challenge she faced was that the whole assembly looked off-balance. More than likely, the built-in was designed this way to work around the feature window. A lovely architectural feature such as this window is a great example of why we always say when asked “at what point should I get a designer in”, we answer “as soon as possible” – like at the beginning! When builders and architects design homes, they consider design and balance from the street view, often without consideration for how the space will work from the interior. Many impediments to good space planning could be avoided if a designer was consulted on the original drawings before breaking ground. But I digress.

So here’s the area that presents the problem.

Symmetry and Balance

The challenge here is one of symmetry and balance. Firstly, to correct the balance, I suggest the upper four shelves on the right be used for decorative display. Baskets can be used lower down to house essentials and less attractive pieces but the goal is to re-distribute the visual balance. By removing dark-coloured less pretty items we can add some interest and make a more pleasing display. See my sketches below to see how this could look.

Note the Height

As for the left, the problem is that it is lacking height. Either stack a pair of simple framed art pieces (one tall one would work too), and fill in with low decorative pieces at the bottom, or one tall arrangement of greens or flowers. A simple statement piece will work best and let the decorative octagonal window get the attention is deserves.


A second option would be to place a floral or arrangement of greenery in a tall urn to add height to this side of the composition like below.

Here are a few styling items I would suggest that would dress up the shelves. You can click on each if the photos to get more info or to order any of the items.

*** My standard disclaimer: Please note, some of these items may be offered through affiliate links which means I could get a small commission if you order. That will never influence what I find lovely and want to share with you. I always offer suggestions I would buy for my home or recommend to a client. Also, rest assured it won’t affect the price you would otherwise pay.