Many bookshelves are built to be utilitarian – designed to fit as many books as possible onto rows of simple, even shelves. But if you don’t have a big book collection, standard shelves probably aren’t the best use of your space. Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth having shelving units – you just want to opt for ones with slightly more innovative designs. Unusually shaped shelves are great for making a statement and let you display items (books or otherwise) in a slightly more artistic, visually appealing way.
Standard bookshelves aren’t great for displaying anything but books. The flat rectangular shelves can hold other items, but it’s hard to arrange them in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing, simply because that’s not really what they’re meant to do. Switching from flat shelves to enclosed cubbies immediately changes the appearance of your bookcase. While slightly less efficient for storing books, a stacked cube design is perfect for displaying trinkets. Each cube literally frames whatever you’re storing in it, giving it an artistic feel, and in a large shelf there’s plenty of room to play with white space, too, so your shelves feel attractive and not overburdened.
If you like the look of horizontal shelves but still want something a little less traditional, look for uneven, asymmetrical ones instead. This is a very assertively modern look, with staggered shelves that don’t extend across the entire length of the bookcase. They’re well anchored to the back of the shelf so you won’t have to worry about them being unable to hold weight – they just make it possible to create really unique, eye-catching displays. Because the lines of the shelves are uneven, you can do fun things with the horizon line and “compartments” created where the staggered edges of the shelves interact.
Really, anything you can do to lighten up the solid, monolithic appearance of a traditional bookshelf will give it a more playful, artistic feel. Leaving the back of the shelves open to the wall (or even replacing flat wood sides with thinner metal or plastic pieces) can reduce some of the heft of a bookshelf, making it feel more natural as a piece of freestanding furniture. Where solid bookshelves can really feel like they take up a big chunk of your room, ones with more open designs are more decorative and less obtrusive.
Shelves with plastic or glass sides have an even more minimalist feel. Though they’re a step more solid (and portable/easy to setup) than individual shelves mounted directly to your wall, the transparent sides and open backs create a similar illusion of floating shelves. The shelves themselves can be either even or asymmetrical, but are really great for creating simple, elegant displays and keeping a sort of pared-down feel with lots of open white space.
You can also find bookshelves that are built with intentionally asymmetrical and differently shaped shelves. Like cubby style bookshelves, each portion of these bookshelves feels like a different “zone” – perfect for creating a display that’s tailored to the dimensions of the opening. But while cubbie style shelves are fairly uniform, you can also find ones that definitely aren’t, with dramatically different “shelf” shapes that help create a tiered, asymmetrical design. Some shelf shapes are better for some items than others, and hybrid display/shelf bookcases are great for mixing a small book collection into a larger display (or vice versa, depending on the layout of the shelf).
Then, of course, there are shelves that are clearly made for decoration. These are usually made out of metal and glass rather than wood, and are typically a bit narrower and sometimes shorter than their more conventional counterparts, designed to create a rather small display rather than a full sized installation. You can find shelves that run the gamut here, from simple metal frames to more elaborately decorated designs, and from nearly full-sized to petite wall mounted displays. With shelves like this, the shelf itself is as much part of the decoration as anything you put on it, and can really be considered a freestanding piece of art in its own right.