How to Paint and Decorate a Built-in Bookcase

According to interior designer Marisa Smith, when painting a large, built-in bookcase, choose a color that’s compatible with the walls, rather than painting it the white of the woodwork. This will allow the bookcase to blend in with the room, instead of standing out and overpowering the space.

Large bookcases are often cluttered with too many books and decorative items. When decorating a bookcase, start by removing everything on it; then put back only what’s needed to give a sparse but colorful mix of books and accessories

Watch this video to find out more.

Further Information


Danny Lipford: One of those experts is Marisa Smith, a registered interior designer who works with homeowners to maximize the beauty and function of their homes. Today, she’s showing me a built-in bookcase that she transformed for one of her clients.

Well, this is just a real comfortable living area. I’m sure the family spends a lot of time here, but what did you start with here? Obviously, built-in bookcases.

Marisa Smith: We had the bookcases to start with, and they were white. And they had a huge TV that was in this cabinet. And the main thing was, they wanted to go to a flat screen. So the main change that we made was simply taking out the stiles on both sides and a little upper part of this cabinet, and then painting it. And it made all the difference in the world to have this pocket for the big TV and that has become wonderful storage for everything else that needs to be behind doors.

Danny Lipford: That’s a great idea. So many times, people will paint the cabinetry like this the same as the doors or the trim. And it kind of stands out a little bit too much, doesn’t it?

Marisa Smith: It does. And the problem in this room is the cabinetry is so big and it covers the entire wall. That for it to be white, when you walked in the room, it just jumped out at you.

Danny Lipford: Right.

Marisa Smith: And you don’t want to walk in the room and see any one particular thing really jump out at you. You want the whole room to feel like it has harmony.

Danny Lipford: Right.

Marisa Smith: So that everything in it is comfortable. So to do that, we were able to just really tone down the color by going with something warm that compliments the walls. So now you notice the things that are on it; instead of the big, white glare at the end of the room.

Danny Lipford: When you look at this color against that, I mean, certainly, they’re compatible, but they’re kind of close in a lot of ways.

Marisa Smith: They are, and it takes just working with different paint colors to see what’s in harmony. A lot of times, if you’ll use a fan deck, they make it easy for you, because they show you on the strip the colors that will work together. And you can choose a lighter one for one area and a darker for the other, and then you know the colors are compatible without actually blindly just selecting different colors that might clash.

Danny Lipford: How do you go about kind of deciding on how much to put in an area like this, because I’ve been in places where it’s just wall-to-wall, just packed, almost like it’s going to fall over on the floor. How do you approach just the quantity that you use in a situation like this?

Marisa Smith: Well, the easy way to do it is to take everything off the shelves. Because you’re right most people have way too many things – too many little, cluttery things – that have collected over the years. And they don’t even realize how much stuff is actually on their shelves.

Danny Lipford: Right.

Marisa Smith: So, if you take everything off, and then slowly begin to put things on, you can see how it needs to balance. You want to have a nice mix of color, a nice mix of books with some accessories; but not every shelf filled and every spot filled.


  1. Useless. I was looking for info about painting a newly built built-in for my library–how much sanding required versus staining (which I’m more accustomed to).

    Also, there’s no point in a built-in if you don’t actually have any books to speak of. Why bother at all?

  2. My home is an older ranch style. In the living room is a built-in bookcase stained very dark also i have large wooden beams cealing. I have painted the walls a soft yellow but want to lighten the look of the dark wood. I really don’t know how to make in all blend properly. Help!

  3. I live in an older ranch home. we covered the wallpaper with shiplap, painted alabaster white and put in luxury vinyl floor that has grey/brown tones. have a large fireplace that is painted in the room, brown tones. trying to decide what color to paint the built in. was going to do a darker gray but not sure if it will compete with the fireplace or do blend with a softer gray, thank you


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here