Freshen Your Home for the New Year | kitchen shelf styling

Tonight on this bitterly cold January eve in Westchester, NY, I am going to tell you a true story. (don’t worry, I’m going to tie it all in–eventually.)

Late in the year 1988 when I was a student at the New York School of Interior Design, I had one professor. Just one, that I will never forget. I remember very few names, but I do remember hers. She was tough. (gross understatement) She was an older German woman with a massive wiener schnitzel chip on her shoulder and for one semester, she made my life (and most of the class, actually), a living hell. The class was called… hmmm… I don’t remember what the hell it was called. All I remember is that we had to do these elaborate water-color renderings (complete with 3 dimensional shadowing which I was already supposed to know how to do, but didn’t). I had to come up with an entire design scheme for an empty boxy apartment– due in one week. It was only my second semester, and I really had no idea what I was doing… So, I bought a book about decorating and found a photo that I liked  and I basically copied the idea. That’s how I learned to dance when I was a teen-ager. I copied the teacher and it’s how I learned how to design rooms, too.

There was one very talented Japanese girl who already knew how to watercolor. Exquisite, is the word that comes to mind. Very talented. My dear friend (she still is!) sat right across from me in the studio classroom. She was heavily pregnant with her first child and I was a newly wed. We would sit there rolling our eyes at each other when Mrs. E would start her rounds of the other students  after having spent half the class talking quietly with the Japanese girl. She was especially hard on Lucy but a bit softer with me. However, soft is a relative term. She was soft like calcite is to granite. She glared at my rendering, commenting that I had “over-worked” some of the areas, (she was right about that, but it was my first time using watercolors!) She gave me faint praise for much of the piece, but then she came to the fireplace mantel… looking sternly down over her glasses.

“It looks like you improvised,” she said in her (too loud) heavily German accented English. I had no idea what on earth she was talking about. And don’t ask me what I had put on the mantel. A couple of vases or something?

“You have to explore the possibilities!!!” was her mantra. Fine. I was muttering to myself all the way home… “I explored and this is what I came up with. Sorry if you don’t like it lady.”

So, why am I telling you this long-winded story? It’s because she was right about exploring the possibilities, but as far as improvising goes. Who cares? Still there is an art to styling (sometimes we call it staging) our bookshelves and tables. Styling bookshelves and tables are the same as makeup is to a woman. And just because a woman knows how to dress, doesn’t mean she knows how to put on her makeup or style her hair. We watch people like the fabulous Emily Henderson do it on HGTV and it looks easy.

It’s not.

Since this is a rather broad topic, I’m going to suspend with my “freshen your home for the new year” and meander around the topic for a few posts.

Tonight, I’m going to focus more on kitchen and dining shelves because I absolutely adore shelves in a kitchen. Truth be told, if I could… I would totally dispense with upper cabinets in a kitchen. Floor to ceiling is fine; it’s just my preference. I don’t expect my clients to go along with it, unless they feel the same way.

As for improvising or not. Please, go ahead and “improvise.” But, still… there are a few rules in staging shelves or any staging of home furnishings and accessories, books, etc. And this holds true whether it’s on a shelf, table or mantel.

  • group like with like
  • think about color and texture
  • showcase your collections and collectibles
  • consider balance (always) form, composition and symmetry (sometimes)
  • less is more
  • not always
  • it’s not “cluttered.” It’s “curated.” haha!

See, what I mean? Maybe it’s easier to show by example. (Again, I always try to credit my photos from the original source, but if there is no credit, it’s because I found it on Pinterest and even after searching could not find the original source.)

The first is not a kitchen, (but my nemesis a fireplace mantel) ;] It demonstrates the principal of like with like and a grouping of a collection. There is a balance of tall and short and the stylist probably fiddled with it for about an hour before he/she got it the way he/she wanted it. haha. They only make it look easy on TV. It’s not, but I think it does get easier with practice.


photograph by Laura Flippen


Here is a beautifully composed shelf done by Loi Thai of Tone on Tone featuring part of his extensive cream ware and iron ware collection and pretty botanical prints. Please notice how he’s also incorporated some glass pieces, but he largely has them grouped together. Tone on Tone and stunning!


 This is one of my favorite kitchen shelf designs. I love the various pieces of china, silverware and artwork. It all gives a vintage-y feel to an otherwise, simple but pretty kitchen.

kitchen shelf styling

I realize that this one is very staged, but the colors are just so pretty! This would be perfect if you were selling your home!




Jonny Valiant

I love the black and white china pieces and glass with the black shelves and interior. Very striking and enigmatic!

kitchen shelf styling

More vintage pieces and a wonderful balance of light, dark and mid-tones


Like with like and less is more. Gorgeous!


Consider a cool wallpaper inside your cabinet. Instant style.

kitchen shelf styling

Photo by Simon Upton and styled by the incomparable Bunny Williams

         I love the colors in this wonderful collection of pottery juxtaposed against the rustic grey weathered hutch.



Pretty china and silver display in a rustic painted cabinet

kitchen shelf stylingvia

beautiful neutral tone on tone with some fresh green. I love small paintings or framed prints on shelves.

kitchen shelf styling

Talk about drama! Must be European. I love kitchens that aren’t cookie cutter such as this one.


Closing with another fireplace. Styling is about showcasing the things you love. So start collecting and displaying your beauties!

Stay warm!!! (I know everyone is saying it, but it’s no joke!)


5 Responses

  1. Post on Jan 22 2014 kitchen shelf styling , Can you please share the paint color of the lower kitchen cabinets with wooden counters ? it looks Blue.

    Thank You

    1. Hi Vanessa,

      I’d be happy to share the color if I knew what it was. It’s not my kitchen. But it looks white to me, but in shadow. And there’s the rub. When you look at a photo on your computer, your first dealing with the lighting at the time of the photo, the photo itself which usually distorts colors to some extent, then any photo which was done or not done and then put through someone’s computer and maybe edited, then it goes through my computer and most photos are edited because I like them bright and sharp unless they are that way already.

      And then you are looking through the filter of your own computer.

      What I say is if you see a color that you like in a photo or your computer, then just match it up. Go to the paint store and get a bunch of chips and start narrowing them down and then pick up a few samples.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Hi Laurel, I love you blog and your sense of humor. I was reading past entries tonight and you brought back a crazy memory from my time at NYSID. It sounds like the teacher that gave you a hard time about your mantels is the same one that once told me you would never put a highboys in a living room. I think the name of the teacher was Helene but now I can’t remember her last name. She was so not interested in some kid expressing an opinion that was different from hers. I started at New York School of Interior Design in the fall of 1988 so we might have been there at the same time. What a small world. Thanks for all you blog work and good luck with your new projects. I can’t wait to see what you have been working on.

    1. Hi Jon,

      Hi Jon,

      Yes! That is when I was there and yeppers. You got the name of said “teacher.” (I’m trying to be kind.) I started in winter 1988. I was the one who was hugely pregnant in 1990. Couldn’t miss me as I barely fit through the door. He’s 6′-3″ now! Thanks for stopping by! Gosh. I’m sure I would recognize your face, but don’t remember the name. David Scott was in a lot of my classes.

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Hi, I’m Laurel, and Laurel Home is the website and blog for Laurel Bern Interiors.
I’ve been creating new-traditional interiors since 1988. The blog is where I share all.

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