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jarlath mellett's living room fireplace suround by a wood mantel, built in bookshelves filled with books, a grey sofa, neutral cushioned bench and dark wood floors.

Have a reader’s design dilemma that I want you to help solve.

Just a few weeks ago, I got an email from reader Melissa Malleck (MM).  MM and her hubby completed the build of their custom home in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada.  They’ve been living there about 2 years and love it but MM has a decorating issue she still hasn’t resolved.

Below are a few photos of MM’s new great room…

Here’s MM’s decorating stumbling block.  Flanking the fireplace in her great room (living room) are two built in cabinets in dark wood.  MM knows that she wants to style these cabinets right but needs ideas.

Here’s an excerpt from MM’s email to me from a few weeks ago:

“I have these large built-in cabinets in my home (the ceiling is 11ft and the cabinets are 9′ high by 4-5ft wide – each is about 14″ high). I just don’t know what kind of accessories to put on them… Is less more? Should i use larger pieces, but less of them? Or fill the shelves? Only light-coloured pieces against the dark wood?”

So I ask you dear readers to take a look at MM’s living room shelves and please give her some ideas!


close up of COCOZY reader's great room with almost empty built in bookshelf, fireplace with molded mantel, neutral sofa with three accent pillows one blue, red and patterned and two arm chairs
The almost empty shelves in the great room in COCOCOZY reader  Melissa Malleck’s (MM) Ontario, Canada home (above and below)
COCOZY reader's great room with built in bookshelf, fireplace with molded mantel, neutral sofa with three accent pillows one blue, red and patterned and two arm chairs


elle decor's nantucket retreat with a white living room, built in book shelves, striped ottomans and glass coffeetable
Built in shelves are painted white to blend with the adjacent fireplace.  Shelves are filled with books stacked in vertically and horizontally. (above)
m design's living room with white built in book shelves with the back wall of the shef painted green
The back of this shelf is painted a contrasting avocado green…shelves feature books, framed art, and small decorative items. (above)
close up of anthony cochran's built in book shelf cabinet painted black with gloss paint holding books and small trinkets
richard mishaan's cartagena, colombia living room with built in book shelf, high ceilings with exposed beams, patterson flynn martin carpet rug, donghia side table, white sofas with pink accent pillows and matching side chairs
Large pieces of matching blue and white pottery and important black framed mirror make a huge statement on this designer built in book shelf. (above)
melanie acevedo's library with blue loveseat sofa with a built in bookshelf full of books
Shelves in these two cases are filled with books, decorative accessories, keepsakes and also small  bars. (above and below)
house beautiful's built in bookshelves stuffed full of books, larger shelves hold items like flower arrangements, a small bar and other trinkets

What design ideas can you share with MM so she can style her built in bookshelves? Any decor tips you can give her? Please comment below!

Thank you MM (Melissa) for sharing your design dilemma with me and COCOCOZY readers.  Hopefully everyone comments and this helps you and a few others!

Happy Friday!


P.S.  So excited…today I am getting my first samples for a new line in the COCOCOZY collection I am working on in conjunction with a new partner.  This new COCOCOZY offering will debut in January 2013!  I have to review the samples and give notes right away so we can begin production.  I am so excited.  I can’t take it!  Still waiting for the package to come in!

Photos: Jarlath Mellett; Elle Decor; M Design; Anthony Cochran Design; Architectural Digest; Melanie Acevedo; House Beautiful

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  1. I would first put some colorful wallpaper on the walls behind the shelves to lighten the look. Or, maybe even paint the back wall a bright wall color. Then accessorize with beautiful objects, mixed amongst books.

  2. Wallpaper is such a great solution! another option is to go to an arts and crafts store and buy some heavy-duty design paper rather than wallpaper. The benefit of that is instant gratification-you can purchase and take it home that day and play around with it or even purchase a few to see which look you prefer. Since the bookshelves are dark I would do some wallpaper that is printed since you have a neutral palette and jazz it up with some picture frames, colorful book bindings, and some fun trinkets. In the Boston area, Blick has beautiful paper if you’re over there! Best of luck! Cheers, Karla

  3. A must to paint shelves white, creating a cohesive wall that includes white fireplace. The entire room will feel lighter, bigger, more open.
    Fill the shelves with the things you love and use in that room – books, framed photos. If you want the shelves purely for decorative look – choose a material, or a color, and create a singular collection with a dominant visual element – all silver, or all blue, or all blonde.
    a beautiful rug in your color scheme for the center of the room would complete the room.

  4. I hate to say this, but I would paint them white. I think it would bring a much more cohesive vibe to the whole room. Then colorful books and objects will had whimsy and playfulness to the space.

  5. The shelves need a little lightening up. It looks like there are little pod lights recessed into the ceiling over the bookshelves. Maybe they could be adjusted to throw more light on the shelves? Are the shelves adjustable or fixed? I hate painting over good wood but if the shelves are adjustable, take the shelves out, cut a piece of thin masonite or luan plywood to fit snugly in the back of each shelf unit and paint or wallpaper that wood. Pop it into place and reinstall the shelves and the shelves will hold the wood in place. A lighter background will really make anything set on the shelves pop and you can easily change the color or pattern whenever you are inspired.

  6. Rotate the mirror so it’s wider rather than longer and use bright colourful objects & books on the shelves to lighten the look, your inspiration is spot on, so follow that. Possibly also think about putting something on the very top of the shelves so they look full, I think you need to add a lot more things to them. I love the look of books being stacked on top of each other. I would just use colour rather than browns & blacks so you tie in the colour of the fireplace. It would be great to also see a photo of the finished product too.
    Don’t forget to stand back and look at it from a distance too so you can see that it’s all in proportion. Good Luck! xx

  7. The room has beautiful moldings and woodwork. I do like the dark wood but I think it would look more dramatic with a different wall color (can the area above the mantle be painted too?). I might paint the walls white, then find a wall paper you like to line the back of the book shelves (I was thinking grass cloth in a deep blue or whatever color you like) and paint the ceiling to match the color of the wallpaper. I would also move the curtains up near the ceiling. It seems like the height is taking away from the shelf on the left side of the room (plus it might help the window seem bigger). Hope that gives you an idea that helps!

  8. I’m thinking she lighten the shelves by painting the backs the same color as the wall or a creamy white. Accessorize with some books, maybe a box, thinking add some green in there.


  9. The room is very neutral–I think they could bring in some color to freshen up those bookshelves, either by painting/papering the back of the bookcase. Or backing the bookshelf with mirror would lighten up that side of the room. Large colorful vases/bowls/etc intermingled in with lots of colorful books would be nice. If they don’t want to paint the back of the bookshelves, hanging art in front of the bookshelf would help to break up some of that dark wood. Post some after pictures!

  10. My first choice would be to paint the cabinets/shelves white to match the fireplace. If that makes you cringe, I would lighten up the back of the shelves with paint, grass cloth or something metallic to reflect some light back there – maybe a metallic grass cloth or metallic cork. Then, I would accessorize with books, decorative objects, small artwork, etc. Also, I would add some library sconces to the top of the molding to cast light on the built in.

  11. It seems that the pop colors used in the room’s pillows could be carried into the two shelves. It would bring aditional life to the shelves and room. If this really needs to be storage for all your books have you ever thought of using paper to recover the books in your pop colors? Use them in mass in one color in different sections,add some in white also. Stack them mostly horizontal (but some vertically) You will end up with a more cohesive and contemporary look to the shelves. The only pieces I would add would again be in solid colors. (such as a solid red vase on top of teal books. (pillow colors). Keep diversity to a minimum. Some abstract art matted in white could be great sitting with the books in the shelves or hung on the shelf moldings. Good Luck!

  12. This is a great room! I love all the colors so far, and would keep them the same. I also like how the floors tie into the cabinet color. Since the room already has enough height, you could turn the mirror horizontally instead. That way your room will look tall and wide! For accessorizing.. From the picture it looks like you enjoy pops of color, so I would get an area rug in a fun color or pattern. Then for the cabinent, I think think that you should add color as well. You can do this with books, mercury glass, vases, flowers, pictures… Anything that represents you! I always think that you should add some books. Horizontally and/or vertically… Add lighting with dimmers to complete and show off the new look! Hope it turnes out great!

  13. This is a wonderful room with some terrific potential. The owner clearly likes the impact of light and dark and their play off each other. I do as well.

    The wood floor is beautiful, but the dark beauty is somewhat lost by the presence of the dark shelving. The shelving would best serve the setting by becoming a seamless part of the space.

    The paint on the walls and ceiling in this space enhance the stone floor situated just off the wood floors. This paint color used on the back of the shelves, (perhaps you still have some?), along with white paint to cover the remainder of the shelving configuration will permit the shelving units to become a lovely seamless part of your space. The repetition of the ceiling and shelving will create an exquisite understatement and enhance the dark beauty of your wood floors.

    Décor for the shelving – I would have each shelf contain combinations of books and objects of art – but they should be expressed in a minimalist manner. For instance, a few books placed vertically on a shelf with a small sculpture which doubles as a book end with the remaining portion of the shelf being dedicated to a matted print (perhaps black & white photography) which leans against the back of the shelf. Perhaps another shelf with over-sized books which are lying centered on the shelf – and nothing else occupies this shelf, etc. Consider the insertion of pops of the color red in this mix of items – maybe small vases, perhaps a modern sculpture (Are you willing to try your hand at a DIY with spray paint? This is the perfect place to do so. Introduce yourself to the combination of ceramics and red.)

    The following is important – I would NOT place items on the tops of the shelving configuration. Note the fluid line which has been created as the eye moves from the window dressings to the top of the shelving configuration. Permit this fluid line to make its own statement. It is poetry precisely as it exists. Please do not fool with the beautiful line you have created here. This line, in coordination with the beauty of your ceiling, is wonderful.

    Please consider the placement of a coffee table in this space – and lastly, please rub the sweet head of that dog I see on the chair!

    Very best regards.

  14. her shelves are so dark, I would put in lots of white things like plates or paintings, vases, books, etc. on my blog today – towards the end, showed some bookcases that are dark and how the designer popped them with whites. good luck!! they are gorgeous shelves, btw.

  15. I love the look of the wood built-ins, but the contents do seem to be lost in a dark hole. I would paint the built-ins the same color as the fireplace. If painting wood goes against your grain (no pun intended), then I would highlight the contents with brass lights that are attached to the tops of the shelves. I don’t think I can add a picture in a response but if you Google “Library Lamps for Shelves” you can see some great examples. Even if you paint, you may want to still try the lights. Normally I am not a fan of televisions above the fireplace, but it feels right in this space and would give the wall more symmetry. It would also eliminate the mirror which is not functional since it hung so high. If you need the shelves for storage, then I would put things inside interesting containers like antique wooden boxes, colorful cardboard boxes from IKEA, interesting bowls, or large glass jars in a variety of shapes and sizes. If the shelves are more decorative than functional, I would use a mix of books, sculpture, glass, photos, and something living like a plant, but I am a great believer in using shelves to personalize a room. If you love to read, fill them with books. If you love the beach, add shells or driftwood. Family photographs are always a great way to personalize. If you like to entertain in the space, include a small bar on a silver tray. If you leave space around objects, then the eye will be able to rest, which is how I like to style shelves.

  16. Hi MM—
    I think that using mostly light colored pieces in the shelves would help lighten up the dark wood but also tie it in with the beautiful color of the fireplace. I like the piece you have on the shelf in the lower left corner for a start. A few books stacked here and there would also look nice as well as a couple plants to give some dimension to the shelves. Good luck!

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