The one thing missing from your living room that will make it more curated and functional

I recently completed a living room design project with bespoke shelving – here's why I think it's a worthy investment

three images of living rooms with bespoke shelving to show the one thing missing from your living room
(Image credit: Millie Hurst / Wood Works Brighton /

We don't think twice about having fitted furniture in the kitchen or bedroom, but it's not always a given in the living room. Since we spend the majority of our downtime hanging out in the lounge, it makes perfect sense to add some built-in storage. 

Bookcases can be a great option for renters, but made-to-measure shelves – whether DIYed or fitted professionally – will take things up a level design-wise to instantly update the living room space. Shelving is also key for decluttering a living room in an instant.

I recently redesigned a living room and installed some shelving made of old scaffolding boards, which we cleaned, sanded and waxed. As soon as they were up, and I'd had a chance to style them, the space felt much more cosy, homely and personal. 

The one thing missing from your living room

If you feel your living room is missing something, here are four reasons to consider installing some bespoke shelves. Bespoke wins over freestanding solutions every single time but consider a creative IKEA Billy bookcase hack to keep costs down.

1. It maximises your space

green living room with black and white artwork and alcove shelving

(Image credit: Millie Hurst)

From a home organising perspective, open shelving is far less forgiving than closed storage, such as cabinets or side units. But compared to floating shelves or a freestanding bookcase, built-in shelves will maximise the space you have, wrapping around the contours of your room and making the most of its dimensions.

The living room shelves we made for the green living room project above were deep enough for us to double stack books, which we did on the top shelf. This provided space for those books that aren't all-time favourites to have on show, but that the client wanted to keep. Employing this idea leads you to declutter your book, which can be no bad thing.

2. It transforms empty alcoves and blank walls

Light grey living room alcove with shelves with artwork on display

(Image credit: Future | James Merrell)

We don't always make the most out of our vertical space, because it's all too easy to procrastinate when it comes to putting anything on our walls. This is understandable because that involves getting out a hammer and nails, and potentially a drill. Then there's the stress of measuring and making sure it's level – no wonder we put it off. 

But something magic happened the moment the shelves were up. It instantly brought a ton of character to the space and made it feel more much more homely and personal, as it gave us somewhere to show off the client's treasured belongings, similar to the "bookshelf wealth" trend.

Aside from painting the entire living room green, putting up the shelves was the most impactful step we took to transform the living room on a budget. We had put up black and white prints of the client's home country of Nicaragua, but displaying their favourite books and decorative items on the shelves really made the room sing, adding more personality to the home.

3. It creates a more high-end look

pink living room with bespoke shelving and artwork

(Image credit: Wood Works Brighton)

Whether you DIY it or call in the professionals, built-in shelves will look more expensive than a bookcase or floating shelves. They create a sense of cohesion and permanence, which makes a living room feel well-designed, and when painted the same colour as the walls, they create a particularly seamless and stylish look – it's a great way to use paint to make a room look bigger

For more designer secrets to making a home look more expensive, you can head to our feature.

It's worth noting that shelves can also soften the acoustics in echoey spaces, providing a level of soundproofing, while generally making a home feel cosy in the winter.

4. Flexibility and freedom

living room shelving with basket storage beneath

(Image credit: Millie Hurst)

When you put up built-in shelving, you have the freedom to choose exactly where they go, so you can display a particularly tall vase or make sure you have enough places to hang artwork in between them. You also have the choice of going for chunky, industrial shelves or more slim and elegant ones, and it's up to you whether you paint them or leave them in their wood tone in a nod to the living room trend for natural tones and textures.

One of my favourite elements of the living room makeover was the extra shelf we installed lower down, at a height where you can comfortably place a cup of tea while sitting on the sofa. We measured to make sure that two of these La Redoute baskets could fit neatly underneath, which are great for storing blankets, extra cushions, and cables.

This extra side table shelf is a great way to make the most of a small living room layout, which doesn't have much space for additional furniture. In a different layout, a lower shelf with a fitted cushion could work well as a bench seat or reading nook.


What should I put on shelves in the living room?

How you decorate your shelves is totally personal to you and your household – you might want to use the shelves to store your records and book collections, breaking them up with artwork, candles, houseplants, and lamps. 

Keep some negative space around items to show them off in their best light, and group vignettes of three items together. Laying a couple of books on their side and placing a decorative object on top is a simple trick that can make shelves look more curated.

Millie Hurst
Contributing Editor

Millie Hurst is a freelance writer and interior designer based in Sheffield, helping clients create homes that are characterful, curated, and highly functional. Interior design inspirations include Jake Arnold, Beata Heuman and Abigail Ahern. Her personal style is a 'liveable maximalism' with boho, nature-inspired designs. 

She has seven years of experience in the world of digital journalism, most recently working as Head of Solved at Homes & Gardens, where she wrote and edited countless features on home organisation, decluttering and interior design. Before that, she was Senior Content Editor at Ideal Home.