Lighten Up A Dark Bookcase — without paint! {Home Office Makeover}

Lighten Up A Dark Bookcase -- without paint! {Home Office Makeover}

I have had quite a few confessions from readers in the past year sharing that while they love photos of white rooms and painted white cabinets, many actually live with more wood, contrast and color.

While I agree that all light and tone-on-tone rooms are certainly pretty in a picture (they do tend to photograph well) there are many of us that still love color and contrasts between white and wood in our own homes. There should be room for all of us to live with our own style and unique homes.

Lighten Up A Dark Bookcase -- without paint! {Home Office Makeover}

Of course, just because I’m still a fan of wood doesn’t mean I always keep it natural wood. I painted this little formerly wood table blue a couple of years ago and it has been happier ever since. And I’ve painted furniture white too, like my table! I’m not anti-painting, obviously. But sometimes natural wood is best.

You can definitely overdo dark wood and end up with a dreary outdated home, of course, but I believe you can lighten and brighten your style in many ways and still keep some dark pieces. You don’t have to have all light furniture and walls to accomplish a lighter feel in a home. It all depends on the room, the styling and what other pieces you have in your home!

To me it is often about the mix. I happen to love eclectic styles and contrasts between light and dark, so a few darker wood pieces work for me in the overall mix of my home’s decor. I have so much white furniture, blondish wood floors in parts of my house and white woodwork, my house can handle some dark pieces to ground things a bit.

Lighten Up A Dark Bookcase -- without paint! {Home Office Makeover}

Here is my dusty bookshelf, prior to its “no paint necessary makeover.”

So if you happen to have a dark wood bookcase or open cabinet in your home (like I do, eh hem) and you want (or need) to keep it but want to lighten things up a bit, you CAN work with a dark piece and lighten it up without paint! And this would definitely be a great solution for built-ins too if you are a renter and don’t want to paint!

Lighten Up A Dark Bookcase -- without paint! {Home Office Makeover}

For my “bookshelf makeover without paint” in my home office makeover (which is still in process!) I added a pretty but subtle map to the back of my shelves. I had bought the map last week when I was out of town not knowing what I was going to do with it! It is a map of the NW Coast, from my old hometown of Portland, Oregon all the way up the coast of Washington. I love using things that have meaning, so this map was perfect for us.

I didn’t want too much pattern or color as it would have fought with my accessories, so I was glad that this map had some color but would blend into the backdrop and let my accessories shine. It is completely removable (I just taped it to the back of the cabinet) should I decide to change it later or as my room evolves!

Lighten Up A Dark Bookcase -- without paint! {Home Office Makeover}

Then to finish the bookcase styling I added some light IKEA linen storage baskets for all those unsightly office items, along with some of my favorite books and accessories from around my house. The whole piece felt much lighter after its style makeover and ended up tying in well with the rest of my decor. No need to get rid of something that still works! While I may eventually decide to get something new (I always reserve the right to change my mind!), it is nice to have the option to keep a piece of furniture and not feel like I HAVE to paint it or get rid of it in order to be happy.

I love using what I already have, finding contentment with things I already own, and saving myself some work too!

Did you see my new home office tufted “girl chairs”? 


  1. I absolutely love the map background on the bookcase! I have wood bookcases and I <3 maps, so it's an easy-to-love combo for me. :-) I've been contemplating what to do with mine to lighten them up so that the things ON the shelves would show up a bit more. Great idea – I'm so glad you shared it!

  2. Thank you for this post. I also love dark woods and richer, jewel tones in my home. I see all the blogs and how everything is white and more white. Gorgeous to look at but I need color! I love the warmth that dark wood provides in my home. Some people go for white and bright in their homes, but I go for warm and cozy.

  3. this is interesting! i’ve just ‘lightened’ mine up tonight by cutting a board to fit the back & glueing dictionary pages on it so that it’s tucked behind the sheves. post coming tomorrow! :) Esther

  4. Oh, I’m totally with you! I love color. I too love to see the white shabby rooms but I could never live like that – I need color! :)
    Now aren’t you so clever? I love the map at the back of your bookcases. Just says “office” too.
    Be a sweetie,
    Shelia ;)

  5. I did something similar, although I used paintable wallpaper (unpainted so, it was white) and taped it to the back of my wood bookshlf to lighten it a bit:) love the map!

  6. I am curious about the titles of your favorite books on this cute shelf.

    • Well my pictures are not clear enough to read them but when I’ll have to do another post and get some good shots of all my books! PS. I have ANOTHER bookshelf with LOTS more books — so there will be plenty of titles to check out :-)in a future post!

  7. I love the bookcase with the map. I have a similar size/color bookcase in my office at home. Can you let me know how big the map is & also where you bought it. I’m thinking about doing they same thing to my bookcase if I can find the right size map. Thank you!

  8. This is awesome. Such a great idea to use a map. My husband needs this for his office, he loves maps!

  9. I’m so glad you mentioned that others are not loving the white on white look because I thought I was the only one. I love color so I’ve been painting all my white walls. I think it has to do with living in gray Seattle. That’s such a great idea to fill your dark bookshelf with light colored things. I love the look.

  10. The map looks so cool in the background. Ties in nice with the blue stripe on the wall :) The light colors definitely brighten it up. Nicely done :)

  11. I love this! Thank you so much for posting. Not only about the great tips, but also about embracing your own style and not worrying too much about what is current and trendy. I’m going to follow your advice about a black Ikea bookcase we have. I’ve been kind of loathing it of late, but now I’m just going to accessorize and embrace my personal style!

  12. Beautiful! I just love maps, and it does brighten it up. I also love that you are using what you have on hand. I probably would have painted it, but that’s my preference, I’m not crazy about wood. Have a fabulous day!

  13. We have dark built-in bookcases in our den and I wanted to take them out and drywall over them. My husband was against it, so I had to learn to live with them. I didn’t do anything except use a lot of lighter tones in accessorizing it. But after seeing your idea, I may have to do something to lighten up the backs – love the map idea, love the painted wallpaper idea too – even some nice grasscloth (I think there’s some in the basement somewhere) might work.

  14. Mary Louise says

    hi Melissa- my daughter lives in a beautiful apartment but full of dark, Victorian built-ins. This post is going directly to her. They can’t paint but she and her roommate can use these easy ideas to lighten up. The way you show an easy solution to universal design problems is inspiring! Thank you for sharing!

  15. Live with what you love! I happen to LUV your bookcase makeover…really nice contrasts. Well, back to changing out dark shower curtains for light ones…then pillows…. franki

  16. I love how you decorate to the beat of your own drummer!!! And if that’s weird…weird is beautiful!
    Do you actually use what gets put away in the linen boxes? For me…out of sight out of mind….F O R E V E R!!!!

  17. I love the map as the back of the bookcase. And it is amazing what those light linen storage boxes did to the dark wood. I like it a lot.

  18. Melissa, I really appreciate your final thought there–where you state that you love using what you have and finding contentment with what you already own. You’ve done that in a wonderful way with these bookshelves–and you’ve proved that things can look updated and beautiful without lots of money being spent on them!

  19. My husband built some beautiful oak bookcases that are on either side of the mantel that he made as well. I love the rich wood and the heavy, dark bound old books from the early 1900s. But I keep the look light and kind of serendipitous and fun with light colored vintage bowls and boxes, family pictures, old bottles filled with sand from favorite beaches, and vintage toys strewn among the deeper colors. I love having so many of my favorite things in one place!

  20. I agree with you about the white rooms. I like looking at them, but they would be difficult to live with in my house. Kids are not forgiving with furniture. The map on the back of your bookcase is a really good idea and the fact that you made it removable is even better! Love it!

  21. Can’t help but grin when you say that you are keeping some of your dark wood furniture. A mix is nice in any home, I think. The way you’ve brightened your bookcase is fantastic and the use of the map — inspired.

  22. I love how you’re working with the dark wood. I have tons of it in our old house, but I keep it as is because I like the contrast like you mentioned.

    I love the simplicity of this makeover, it made such a difference!

  23. absolutely love the ideas for the bookcase . . but also love that table! what color did you use?

  24. I so agree about the white, light, monochromatic look. I love to see a room done that way, but I personally have to have color. I have several pieces I would not think of ever painting. Love your use of the map on the back of the dark bookcase, perfect for an office. Happy Thursday,

  25. Chelsey Favreau says

    What a great idea – I love it! I will have to admit, I would never have thought to put something behind the bookcase shelves – but that will be my task for this afternoon – hopefully it will spruce up my dingy office quite a bit.

  26. Melissa, I absolutely love that blue table. What color is it? I once had an all off white home. I loved the relaxed feeling of it, but people were always worried about it getting dirty. I love punches of bright colors around. I have chocolate wood trim on some Crate and Barrel settees which are nice.My bedroom is now a pale lilac pink which I love. Black accessories ground it a bit. And silver shiny stuff make it sophisticated and appropriate for my hubby.

  27. I love the map idea. I did something similar on an old bookcase I had but used paper. It really changed the look of the piece and I was just happy to pretend I bought a new piece of furniture.

  28. Such a pretty makeover! Love the map idea! You’ve styled your bookcase beautifully, too. Thanks for sharing.

  29. I’m with you. I do like a mix of white and natural wood. There is a time to paint and a time not to.

  30. I have huge, darkly stained built ins and have no desire to paint them. I have used light artwork and accessories to decorate them and been quite happy with the results.

  31. JaneEllen Jones says

    Noticed the map in back of bookcase right away. When you said you didn’t paint I had a hunch it was something like that. Somewhat quicker and easier to accomplish. Really enjoy seeing your home and what projects you’ve done. Wonderful inspiration for me.
    I’m not much of a trend follower. We have a small mobile home with a small living room, two door ways on each end. I have dark wood tables and lighter colors on other accessories. I tend to change things out for winter and summer. Makes me feel like I have new things and love the changes. I will paint some things (like walls that I’ve been waiting to be painted for 6 years). I have an old dark wood antique trestle table that I’ve been eye balling lately to paint. It’s a bit rickety so painting might get it tightened up before painting. Now what color should I paint it? Decisions decisions.
    Before I started reading and visiting all these wonderful blogs I was more content to leave things be but now I’m inspired to make changes. See what you all have done to an old lady? lol.

  32. Melissa,
    Thank you for addressing decorating with a “lighter touch” when living with wonderful,warm,rich woods. I,personally, would love to see more ideas on how to bring more brightness into darker,cozier spaces. I’ve got ivory lampshades,an ivory throw and a couple of those Ikea,embroidered pillows to brighten my living room of darker greens,burgundy,wood trim and antiques. I am blessed to have east and south facing windows, which help. Great post!

  33. Wow! I love this beautiful office make over, very refreshing that can ease any pressure…

  34. So fancy…it takes an average bookcase and makes it special. Nice library feel

  35. It’s so fun to be able to switch things up without a lot of work and a lot of money. And so, the next time you feel like changing the bookcase, you can. We don’t always have to spend time and money (well, money). Just use what you have and you’ll be really happy. Thanks!

  36. Melissa I love the map idea! I am a self-avowed wood geek who loves rich colors. I have been offtrend for so long that my planned auber gine and deep turquoise DR ( to show off momma’s light oaks that match my 75+ yo floors, and all hr glassware) was gonna be my real biggie–then declared TRENDY & EUROPEAN by HB actually upset me :D isn’t that ridiculous… but I do also have painted wood & even painted one of Grandma’s farm pieces white! So yep, I appreciate deeply how you decorate — it’s -yours!

  37. You are really creative, You’ve styled your bookcase beautifully… I love your new make over…

  38. Wow, thanks so much for posting this, Melissa! I know just what I am going to do with this idea. :-) You are awesome.

  39. This is really beautiful, I love the way you beautify your stuff…

  40. Florence18Moore says

    This book case is lovely beautiful, very attractive in my eyes…

  41. Meredith says

    Very nice difference, with little expense, now that = success! laugh

    I did the all white thing and then sat back and felt cold and arctic. Slowly I have returned to timber and felt warmer till now, with autumn toned slate floors, the timber is becoming an overload and I came looking…. and found you.
    I have a number of timber pieces that are functional and sturdy… (oh so practical that you tend to feel guilty thinking about their removal) and yet… its getting darker by the minute. Do you ever accept photos and give suggestions? Just a hope.
    For me a creative weekend is bliss. For the kids, fun. For hubby, a drag!

  42. Funny that I found this post as I have been thinking this same thought. I find that when I look at Pinterest I am always attracted to the light/white rooms. They do look so lovely and I sometimes want to change my whole house and go lighter and brighter. My style is very eclectic and I love color so I know that this will never happen. I believe that your home somewhat delegates what style it should be, I live in the country and it calls for lots of natural elements and color. I honestly don’t think the light rooms would work here. I have a lot of dark wood and I mix it with some painted pieces and I think it livens things up around here. Good post:)

Join the Conversation