Bookcase Backgrounds for Video: Have Some “Shelf Awareness”

In the coronavirus era, bookcase backgrounds have become ubiquitous at Zoom meetings and behind TV talking heads. In a recent articleThe New York Times said, “The ‘credibility bookcase’ is the quarantine’s hottest accessory”.

“What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you” quips a Twitter account called Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility), which launched a lively thread of critiques of cable news speakers’ bookcase backgrounds.

Like many virtual meeting attendees and cable news guests, Tom Hanks uses a bookcase background for a live interview

The reality is, our attention often wanders from the speaker as we look at the bookcase contents for a surreptitious glimpse into the speaker’s life or personality.

What does your bookcase background say about you? How do you get a look that is authentic but not affected, composed, and not cluttered?

GOOD Morning Wilton consulted Wilton’s design experts for the best tricks of the trade. (All of the designers are Wilton-based; find their contact information at the end of this article.)

Less is More

Jackie Christman of *HAVEN* Home Interiors likes clean lines in her bookcase designs. “When styling your home office bookcases, my recommendation is ‘less is more’. Avoid overcrowding your shelves with books and knickknacks,” she said.

Christman uses pairs of objects to help fill a space without looking cluttered. “I like incorporating pairs of items to avoid too many competing objects. Choose items that are similarly colored, but with different textures to add interest.”

Books can certainly be included, Christman says, but she likes to select books with the same color palette and stack them horizontally.

    • Christman’s pro tip: “Using a combination of objects that are different in scale is more visually appealing.”
Jackie Christman’s bookcase displays objects in pairs with beautiful effect

Start Fresh

Betsy Smyth and Lora Pham of Litehouse Designs echo Christman’s “less is more” approach and urge clients to clear the “catch-all” bookcase. “We all have one…. that ‘catch all’ bookcase,” says Smyth. “We know you want to display it all, but don’t make that mistake!”

Instead, Smyth and Pham recommend taking a fresh start by emptying shelves completely, and then “shopping” your home for items you really want to display. “Once you have a collection of items, narrow and generalize the color palette,” says Smyth. “[Then], consider proportion, balancing [each large item] with something of a smaller scale and different texture.”

  • Litehouse Designs’ pro tip: “Take your time and keep playing with it until it feels just right. Remember there are many ways to do it. Be easy on yourself.”
Betsy Smyth and Lora Pham avoid “catch-all” bookcases in favor of a thoughtfully edited collection

Hanging and Layering

Keep in mind, bookshelves have length, depth and height. Hanging and layering are two techniques to master the multidimensional bookcase. Smyth says, “We like to hang, or prop, a couple of items like framed prints, trays or mirrors throughout [the bookcase]… [then] dotting smaller accessories in front or on top of larger accessories to create height, dimension and interest.”

Betsy Smyth and Lora Pham use hanging and layering techniques for a dimensional design

Julie Stein of Julie Stein Designs reminds clients not to neglect the back of the bookcase; it’s another important layer.

Stein says, “Add wallpaper to the back of the shelves, or paint [them] in a different color… to add interest and make the shelves custom to the space.” Wallpaper with texture can be especially effective, she adds.

Julie Stein incorporates the back wall of a bookcase into her design using wallpaper or paint

Achieve Balance

When composing each shelf, don’t lose sight of the overall impression, advises Stein. “Look at the bookcase as a whole, as one complete picture, so something on one shelf will relate and help balance something on a totally different shelf.”

  • Stein’s pro tip: “If you add color, repeat it at least three times for impact, and spread it throughout the entire display.”
Julie Stein’s balanced bookcase composition uses whites, blues, and softer color tones in this coastal-inspired design

Choose Your Attributes

Haiku Durden of HDS Design describes one of her clients as a “sweet grandma” whose home office bookcase contents included blue and white floral boxes, books of funny quotes, and birthday wishes. But Durden felt the bookcase background needed to reflect her client’s other important attributes. “[My client] is also an incredibly organized, sharp, business-minded lady not to be crossed,” she said.

Durden removed the items that emphasized her client’s matronly qualities in favor of items more consistent with her business acumen and the professional image she wanted to project.

Haiku Durden’s design conveys the owner’s image as a business professional rather than as the family matriarch

Keep It Professional

Durden says keeping the look professional was also the main priority for creating the backdrop for her husband’s home office. “I transferred our Harvard Classics series there,” she said, referring to a 51-volume anthology of classic literary works first compiled by Harvard in 1909. “They are uniform in color and shape, and not distracting.”

Mahogany case goods and the addition of a few framed photos complete the polished look.

    • Durden’s pro tip: “Remove anything too gender-specific, too intimate, too personal, political statements, etc. Don’t have items visible [in a home office] that you wouldn’t display in the [company’s] office.”
Haiku Durden’s husband needed a background that wouldn’t distract from important business

Authenticity

Not everyone is a senior executive or high-powered attorney whose background requires a certain gravitas. Patty Tomasetti of Tomasetti Architects points out some bookcase backgrounds will benefit from a little whimsy or even a big punch of personality: a student, for example, a young person trying to differentiate themselves or break into a field, or anyone for whom levity or creativity is part of their brand.

“Don’t be afraid to fill a bookshelf with brightly colored books, just coordinate the colors, and add personal items to those shelves as well,” says Tomasetti, who feels those personal items are an invitation to those on the other side of the screen to learn more about you, and perhaps even make them smile.

Patti Tomasetti finds flair and a reason to smile when she sees a background like this

Tomasetti is a big believer in keeping it real. “If you’re going to present yourself with a bookcase background, well, then make it real,” she says. “During the pandemic, we are all looking into each other’s lives and whether we like it or not, we are inviting our work [associates] into our homes. We should be honest and tell our real story of who we are.”

Light It Up

Tomasetti emphasizes that good lighting is key to any design. Several of the designs featured in this article incorporate recessed lighting or mounted angled sconces. “If you have a window near your bookcase, even better,” says Tomasetti. “Natural light is amazing!”

    • Tomasetti’s pro tip: “Use window treatments that can help manage the light effect in the room based on the time of day.”
Patty Tomasetti avoids books on every shelf and looks for window treatments that can help adjust the light as needed

No Built-ins? No Problem

If your workspace doesn’t have an ideal bookcase background, Tomasetti suggests moving to another light-filled space for your online meeting. Don’t feel constrained by your usual workspace; Tomasetti uses a pool cabana as an example. “It’s a great location to set a calm and relaxing mood for a meeting,” she said. “You can set yourself up with the upper shelves [behind you] and the counter space is a great location to display books and personal items.”

Patti Tomasetti thinks outside the bookcase box for online meeting backgrounds

If your workspace has an empty wall, Betsy Smyth says floating shelves are a quick and affordable alternative to custom built-ins or expensive case goods. “All you need are pipe fittings, reclaimed wood and a little elbow grease. Quick, easy, stylish!”

Betsy Smith and Lora Pham design floating shelves when built-ins are not an option

Something Unexpected

Heather Ryder of the eponymous Heather Ryder Designs looks for a “unique twist” in her bookcase designs, such as a brass-framed glass box filled with faux greens. “It adds texture and fills the space and it is completely unexpected. I am also a huge fan of adding art to your bookshelves. These items create a space to hold your eye.”

In Heather Ryder’s design, a glass box filled with greens and a pair of acrylic art pieces add some unexpected interest

Embrace Your Inner Bibliophile

Book-lovers rarely have shelf space to spare. Angela Lowy of Grace HomeStyleDesign thinks floor-to-ceiling shelves are a beautiful solution to their storage needs but offers several suggestions to keep them aesthetically pleasing. “These built-ins are adjustable so that shelves can be staggered for flexibility as well as visual appeal. Vertical stacking can be mixed with horizontal stacking for added interest.”

Angela Lowy notes that floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are equally striking in both traditional and modern interiors.

Lowy suggests letting the book jackets become part of the display: “Add a bit of fun by arranging the jackets by color or even covering the books in a single color.”

Things You Love

Whether they’re filled with books or objects, “fill your shelves with things you love,” says Lowy. Displaying a collection of cherished items will infuse your background with character and personality.

    • Lowy’s pro tip: “Add lighting to the interior of the bookcase to showcase the collection at night and add ambiance.”
Angela Lowy’s design showcases treasured pieces of the homeowner’s collection from Asian travels. Interior lighting illuminates the pieces at night.

Heather Ryder also believes choosing items of special significance to her clients is important to make a design successful. For one client, originally from South Africa, “we incorporated items [from South Africa] that held special meaning and added new items to achieve a look as if they have all been curated together.”

Heather Ryder’s design opts for items of special meaning to her client. Cork wall covering adds texture and dimension to the large space.
    • Ryder’s pro tip: Use peel-and-stick solutions for covering the back wall of bookcases. “[In this case] we added a cork wall covering with white and gold tones [but] many of the peel-and-stick options are super affordable and easy to install yourself.”

Making It Work

Sometimes shelves have to function as more than just a pretty background.

“Designing a great bookcase can be challenging, but a working bookcase even more so,” says Beth Sheridan Schoenherr of Sheridan Interiors. “Not only does it need to serve a purpose, which can mean messy and very full, but now it’s out there for the world to see,” she added.

She shared her office’s own bookcase background as an example of a “working” bookcase. “Our office bookcase needs to hold reference books as well as fabric samples but still look great.”

Like other designers, Schoenherr applies color or wallpaper on the back wall as a way to “enhance” the items on the shelf; she especially likes using white accessories in such cases. Hanging and layering techniques can also be seen on Sheridan’s working shelves.

Sheridan Interior’s “working” bookcases serve both functional and aesthetic purposes.

“Don’t be afraid to put glass shelves in front of windows,” says Schoenherr. Glass shelves can provide additional functional space and still let light in.

    • Schoenherr’s pro tip: “EDIT, EDIT, EDIT!” Editing of working shelves should be an ongoing process. “It’s hard to see your personality if [your] shelves are so full of things they are falling out.”

Editor’s note: the article has been updated to include the name of Lora Pham, a partner at Litehouse Designs who contributed to the ideas and designs shared in this article.

Design Resources

Jackie Christman, *HAVEN* Home Interiors
203.536.3229, email

*HAVEN* offers full-service interior design specializing in tailored classic interiors with a splash of “zing”. Prior to launching this business, Christman was the head interior designer and buyer for Darien Design Center for over 10 years. She has great depth of knowledge in furniture, fabric, wallcovering, carpeting, and accessories. Providing design services in Fairfield County, Nantucket, and Florida, Christman’s trademark aesthetic of clean lines, layered textures, and pops of color create unique yet liveable spaces. Christman also created Starboard Planks, a line of coastal-inspired accessories for the home.

Haiku Durden, HDS Design 
203.434.3745, email

From quick makeovers to staging a home for resale to complete redesigns, HDS Design can rework your home to better reflect your family’s needs by creating a more functional, welcoming, and beautiful space. Durden, the owner of HDS Design, is also a member of the American Society of Home Stagers and Redesigners with training and certification by Home Design Resource.

Angela Lowy, Grace HomeStyleDesign 
203.984.8719, email

Grace HomeStyleDesign was founded with a vision to transform living spaces into better living places, filled with beauty, comfort, and meaning. Lowy believes that interior design is more than just beautiful rooms; it’s about helping clients live better every day by helping them understand why their space isn’t working for them and how to make it fit their needs and lifestyle. She loves when clients say that her work isn’t just beautiful, it changes the way they live.

Lora Pham and Betsy Smyth, Litehouse Designs 
917.605.7244, email

Litehouse Designs offers high quality, residential interior design services at an affordable price. Partners Lora Pham and Betsy Smyth aren’t satisfied until their clients are satisfied and their spaces have a unique story to share. With a BFA from the Design Institute of San Diego, Pham has experience on both the East and West Coasts in residential, model home and commercial design, and the ability to translate her client’s design style into the most clean and functional version of itself. With a knack for affordable luxury, Smyth is thrilled to have found a career that allows her to capture the spirit and persona of her clients and educate them on the design process along the way.

Heather Ryder, Heather Ryder Design
917.576.8306, email

Ryder is the founder and principal interior designer of Heather Ryder Designs, a member of ASID specializing in residential design, remodels, kitchens, and baths primarily in Fairfield County and Westchester County as well as Bergen County, NJ. The firm is focused on creating luxurious, livable spaces by working with clients collaboratively to create a personalized look and help homeowners discover their design identity.

Beth Sheridan Schoenherr, Sheridan Interiors
203.762.2888, email

Sheridan Interiors is an interior design firm currently located in Wilton’s historic Lambert Commons. Sheridan is a two-generation, family-run business that has been designing beautiful homes for over 40 years. Their designs have included modern, transitional and traditional styles and they have worked throughout Fairfield county and the United States.

Julie Stein, Julie Stein Interior Design
203.803.0524, email

Stein has over 15 years of experience designing homes. Whether building a new home or redecorating existing spaces, she designs homes that are comfortable yet sophisticated, and able to change with the client’s needs through time. With a clean, uncluttered aesthetic and a keen eye for detail, many clients return for additional projects—renovations, vacation properties, additions, or moves to a new home. She works with clients primarily in the metropolitan New York area, Connecticut, and various vacation destinations.

Patty Tomasetti, Tomasetti Architects
203.216.6768, email

Tomasetti is a certified interior designer with Tomasetti Architects, which provides a wide range of architecture and interior design services to clients and businesses, ranging from color consultation to new home design to large commercial projects. The architects and designers are flexible, and listen to their clients and develop creative and technical solutions that fit clients’ needs and that work within budget. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Some beautiful designs in there but as far as I can tell, only one or two people actually read books!

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