Transform clutter into decor

In this photo provided by Burnham Design, homeowners who love having lots of items on hand but don’t want their coffee table to look cluttered can take inspiration from this tabletop designed by Max Humphrey of Burnham Design in Los Angeles. Humphrey uses decorative trays to corral items and bring a sense of organization to this very full, colorful table. (Associated Press photo/Burnham Design, Sarah Dorio)

In this photo provided by Burnham Design, homeowners who love having lots of items on hand but don’t want their coffee table to look cluttered can take inspiration from this tabletop designed by Max Humphrey of Burnham Design in Los Angeles. Humphrey uses decorative trays to corral items and bring a sense of organization to this very full, colorful table. (Associated Press photo/Burnham Design, Sarah Dorio)

Designers often surprise their clients by sharing a secret: You can dramatically change the look of a room simply by changing or rearranging the items on your bookshelves and tabletops.

Just as fashion accessories can have a big impact on an outfit, the items you display on shelves and tables can have a powerful effect on the style of any room.

Yet we often pay little attention to these spaces. Shelves get cluttered with stuff we've gotten as gifts or things we're not sure where to store.

Think about "how the items you're displaying will continue the story you're trying to tell in your space," advises designer Brian Patrick Flynn, founder of the Flynnside Out design blog.

A little editing of your collection can help banish clutter, and putting different items in the spotlight can reveal fresh combinations of things you already own.

Begin by exploring photos of bookshelves and tables on Pinterest, or other websites or magazines, suggests interior designer Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design, in Los Angeles. You may find you're more drawn to sparse, streamlined surfaces than you'd expected. Or you may love the look of surfaces decorated with items in one color scheme.

Once you've got some ideas bubbling, it's time to dive in.

CLEAR, THEN CLASSIFY

First, empty all the shelves and tables from one or several rooms of your home. Place all the items on the floor or perhaps on an empty dining table. Begin grouping them however you wish: by color, texture, type of object or any other classification.

Look for patterns. You might find, for example, that you have several items relating to animals, or more pieces of brass or stone than you realized, says designer Molly Luetkemeyer of M. Design Interiors in Los Angeles.

Eliminate things that aren't your taste anymore or don't fit the room. We tend to add to our shelves and tables over time, Burnham says, so paring down from time to time is necessary.

Luetkemeyer agrees: "You can't use what you have if you can't see what you have," she says. "So you kind of have to be merciless."

If it's hard to eliminate anything, invite a friend to help. And if getting rid of things permanently is tough, simply box up items that aren't working and put them away for a few months. Or loan them to a friend.

LOOK INSIDE

Before putting anything back on the shelves, consider painting a bookshelf's interior, or covering the wall behind an open bookshelf with wallpaper or another wall covering.

"The back panels of built-ins and bookshelves act just like backdrops to a TV set or a stage," says Flynn. "I usually paint the back panels the same colors as a room's walls, or I use wallpaper or grasscloth to introduce texture and create visual tension between the graphic shapes of books, picture frames and objects."

Once you've prepared that canvas, it's time to begin putting stuff back.

MIX AND MATCH

Besides clustering some items by color, subject matter or material, also think about shape and height. And don't be afraid to mix art objects with books, or decorative boxes with vases of flowers.

"For every stack of books I add to a shelf," Flynn says, "I like to have at least two interesting objects to offset the linearity."

All three designers suggest varying the orientation of your books' spines. "I like to stack some vertically and anchor them with book ends or objects," Flynn says, "and then I stack some horizontally and use them as risers to showcase frames or trinkets, kind of like makeshift pedestals."

Burnham suggests gathering smaller items in decorative trays or bowls.

"One of the most interesting ways to define space on a coffee table or sideboard is using trays," she says. To bring style to a coffee table, stack several books on a large decorative tray, then "have a smaller tray where you put your TV remotes. You're making the mundane stuff orderly, you're giving it some form, and you're actually corralling it and making sense of it."

Take time to experiment with each shelf or table. Again, consider the story the room is telling.

"If you're someone who's a world traveler, keep things totally random and collected, or arranged artfully like a curated gallery collection," Flynn says. "If you're all about a color scheme, layer objects so that the colors continue to finish the room's palette. But make sure you slightly throw the colors off, so it's not super matchy."