A Book Lover’s Guide to Styling Your Shelves
While there is no perfect prescription for well-styled bookshelves, there are a few tricks to getting it right, and some fun ways to experiment with organizing your home library.
I once overheard a prop stylist ask a bookseller on the famous second floor of The Last Bookstore, nirvana for secondhand book lovers, about buying books in bulk. The only criteria: They had to be blue.
Did you know that you can buy used books by the yard? Or take home an entire home library based on the color of the cover alone?
As a writer, an avid reader, and someone who has spent years toiling over books, my eyes spun in cartoon circles when I heard the blue book request. Judging a book by its cover is exactly what you’re not supposed to do, right?
Once I came to, I rationalized the situation by reminding myself that books are both intellectually enriching and visually stimulating. They add depth and beauty to our lives, and when they’re incorporated into a home’s decor, they help tell the story of the people who live there.
More from this issue:
- How Seth Rogen Turned Meditative Practices into Houseplant’s Homewares
- Booze-Free Bars and Shops Are Finally Gaining Momentum in the West
- Warmer Weather Is Around the Corner: Your February and March Garden Checklist
- These Wellness Getaways Offer Next-Level Spots to Soak
- New Nostalgia Is on the Menu at Seattle’s Hottest Filipino Restaurant
A quick browse around the “socials” will show you many ways people live with books that would almost guarantee a haunting by the ghost of Melvil Dewey, the creator of that confusing but necessary decimal system. People put them on the shelves with spines facing inward—only displaying the pages. Say what? Some people wrap every book in craft paper, making it next to impossible to distinguish one from the other. (Is your pulse racing like mine?)
But as fewer Americans read (almost a quarter of adults say they haven’t read a book in the last year), and physical books are rapidly replaced by e-books, it feels silly to critique the way anyone displays books once someone buys them.
A quick chat with Chloe Warner, the principal of Redmond Aldrich interior design in the Bay Area, and a committed reader who posts regular, hilarious, and incisive reviews of contemporary fiction on her Instagram stories, helped me understand that there is no wrong way to live with books. As long as you read one every once in a while.
“There are two great ways to style a bookshelf; one is dense and functional, just books,” says Warner. “It evokes a library and tells the story that a ‘reader lives here.’ It’s understated and terrific. The best example in my memory is of Nigella Lawson’s office—just an iconic little room with so much character.”
“The other strategy includes books but also uses air and objects,” Warner says. “We used to call it ‘four up, four down, object, air, repeat.’ Not exactly a catchy phrase, but it’s a good basic framework for letting shelves show off individual groups of books, stacks with nice spines, little sculptures or ceramics, and small objects. This can feel more elegant or more artistic, depending on how edited you want to be.”
Warner also embraces the less conventional approaches with zero judgment. “In terms of people having fun with color blocking or craft paper I’m all for it,” she says. “What a low-stakes way to bring order or a little sizzle.”
All told, we’re just happy to see shelves used for something more than houseplants and picture frames. No offense, houseplants.
Here are some of our favorite examples of artful, elegant, or interesting bookshelf styling.
THE FOUR UP, FOUR DOWN
The Redmond Aldrich bookshelf approach yields super appealing results, making room for curated objects and collections.
It’s no surprise the chef, food writer, and “domestic goddess” herself, Nigella Lawson, knows how to make shelves that are buckling under the weight of hundreds of books look chic.
THE ROY G. BIV SYSTEM
Color-coding bookshelves is a polarizing move. If you’re an aesthetic person, it’s as visually pleasing as sorted M&Ms. If you worship books, or live with someone who worships books, it’s heresy.
THE PAGE TURNER
There’s a growing trend toward storing books on shelves with their spine facing inward, displaying only the pages. Warner says it can add “sizzle” to a personal library. Some book worms (writer raises hand) think it’s insanity.
THE WRAP PARTY
Shelves filled with books that are covered with brown craft paper renders them unrecognizable and, it seems, almost surely never to be read again. But Warner gives anyone with the patience to take on a project like this props for craving, and creating, “order” in a library.
One idea to take it up even one more notch would be to wrap the books in pattern—like artist Yinka Shonibare did for a Stanford University installation, which demonstrates the beautifully diverse stories immigrants bring to our culture. “The American Library” is on view now at the university’s Cantor Arts Center.