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Saturday, July 14, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.
Books jockey for shelf space with other cherished collections
By Laura K. Lloyd
The Kansas City Star
Bookcases are in transition, just like the people who own them. The printed word no longer needs paper, and paper no longer needs stiffened linen or leather to contain it and be a book.
Rows of decorative spines with titles stamped in gold or black — those advertisements of a household's taste and personality lined up in view — might actually start looking a bit too 20th century for people hurtling themselves into a paperless future.
Current magazines still recommend buying hardbacks for almost nothing at garage sales to fill shelves to make a person seem well-read. As recently as March 2012, Dwight Garner, after taking a dig at the limitations of e-books in The New York Times, thought it relevant to quote bibliophile and novelist Anna Quindlen: "I would be most content if my children grew to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building bookshelves."
And Benjamin Sundermeier, designer at Space Planning + Design in Kansas City, Mo., said his clients don't seem motivated to "shift away from shelves" housing books.
In the books vs. bookless micro-controversy, books still have a lot of support. (In the eminently practical "Use What You Have Decorating" by Lauri Ward, books are treated as design accessories that deserve thoughtful, neat shelving that doesn't mix in distractions like photos, art objects or gewgaws.)
Let's say, however, that your attachment to some of your books (paperbacks of Jodi Picoult? First editions of Tom Clancy?) is starting to fade as you develop your love affair with your e-reader. Perhaps you're trying to simplify or allot space to some of the other design accessories you have acquired. It's hardly news that bookshelves are also the perfect venue to display collections of majolica, Blue Willow china or "Star Wars" action figures, among countless possibilities.
Shelving has always been about showing an owner's personality through possessions, and there are many ways to do this without an assemblage of books. Snobbishness that books make a household seem educated and serious may give way to other philosophies as new technologies continue to gain influence.
Sundermeier has recently noticed a trend toward re-purposing bookshelves for imaginative uses in the home. "We used antique bookshelves in a closet for shoes and sweaters and boxes," he said of a recent design project.
Another client, he said, has an iron and wood bookshelf "displaying her collection of beautiful cookware and her kitchen TV."
In another house, a Chinese pot rack has found its function as a place to stack books.
Sundermeier said these rough-hewed, individualized shelves are part of a direction in décor that puts special emphasis on having a home filled with one-of-a-kind items.
He noted that the influential High Point furniture market in North Carolina recently chose to report some of the findings of the British-based "Trend Bible": a move toward interiors that don't look "done," that embrace imperfections and objects with a patina or well-loved wear.
It's a reaction against the numbing sameness of all things digital. That can include bookshelves and what people choose to put in them. "I have a client with traditional bookcases who put her creamware collection in them in her living room," he said.
Bookshelves can be hand-built relatively easily or purchased in the entire spectrum of markets, ranging from Home Depot lumber and Craigslist to high-end purveyors.
Consider Restoration Hardware, which has completely redone its signature look to a more oversized, roughened, unfinished style that combines gothic and industrial details with natural linens, distressed finishes and reclaimed woods.
In its current "Big Style, Small Spaces" catalog, what it calls French Library Shelving — an open vertical shelf with thin dark lengths of wood, starting at $1,095 — is one of the essential pieces in the room. In the Spring 2012 catalog, a tufted leather sofa that looks like it was kidnapped from a men's club is paired with two imposing bookcases with neoclassical tops for about $4,000 each. Not exactly a trifling purchase.
Obviously, there are cheaper alternatives, but ones that may have less decorative appeal. That's why what you put in your bookshelves is so important. If it's literature, make sure you don't "end up with scrappy books" that scream clutter, Sundermeier said.
If it's anything else, make sure you keep your wonderful collections well dusted. Nothing evokes scary decrepitude faster than untended objects with cobwebs in the corner.
The great thing is, with e-readers reshaping how many people read, you no longer have to fill precious spaces with books unless you want to. Author Ward has some excellent advice. In her view, bookcases with books usually look better without any distractions like small framed photographs and objets d'art propped up against the spines. On the other hand, interesting possessions can look wonderful on open shelving, she writes, noting that anything in a group of three qualifies as a collection.
In 2012, how you display the details of your décor has just gotten a freer approach. The choice is yours.
"The trend," Sundermeier noted, "is that people aren't feeling locked in to using books for their shelving."
Bookshelf do's and don'ts
British author Anthony Powell was never more quotable than when he said, "Books do furnish a room." Books, lined up the same distance from the shelf's edge, with size and color in mind, look instantly inviting, even in a dining room.
Design experts suggest sticking with hardbacks and keeping the focus solely on books. CDs and DVDs aren't visually appealing and should be stored elsewhere, preferably out of sight.
If books don't have a large role in a room's décor, open shelving can be an exciting place to display collections of china, framed photographs, silver objects or anything else of meaning. It is fun to rotate collections by season. The idea is to express the personality of the house rather than displaying generic objects that just fill space.
Embrace symmetry, such as having a bookcase on either side of a window or fireplace. The eye naturally finds serenity in balance.
And keep the displays of books or decorative accessories as dust- and cobweb-free as possible. Wood shelves may be painted or stained.
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