Ideas from design pros on showcasing your books
If expensive custom built-ins aren't in the cards for displaying your books, try a modular, expandable system such as Atlas Industries' AS4.
Books that need some protection can go in the Bronson bookcase from Pottery Barn.
The playroom created by Katherine Vernot-Jonas for this year’s D.C. Design House included this playful tree-shaped unit to display children’s books and toys.
Bensen; CB2; Mash Studios For 2Modern
For a large collection of books, the Format open bookcase by Bensen comes in multiple sizes and finishes (left); for a tiny room, CB2’s Helix taupe bookcase would be perfect (center); for a modern setting, try the LAX Series bookshelf by Mash Studios (right).
“I think when you spend time with a book, when you invest the time to sit and read something for however long it takes, it's very hard to let go of that,” said Jill Goldberg, the founder of Hudson Interior Designs in Boston. “It's just like a little kid with a stuffed animal that they want to hold on to.”
At some point, though, I realized that the way my books were crammed into every available space, spilling haphazardly out of my bookshelf and stacked on the floor, didn't accurately reflect their importance to me.
I was in desperate need of an intervention.
I sent photos of my “bad bookcase” to several designers and certified professional organizers to get their suggestions of how best to display my book collection.
No one I spoke to suggested getting rid of books, which was good, because that's not an option for me. This wasn't an exercise in de-cluttering; it was an attempt to find a way to cohabitate with my books and let them shine. Because, like I said, I love them.
That's a sentiment Tracy Morris, principal designer at Tracy Morris Design in Washington, D.C., often hears from her clients. A book lover herself, Morris is happy to incorporate books into design.
“As long as you do it tastefully, so it's beautiful and clean, you can put them anywhere your heart desires,” she said. “Books are an enormous part of creating texture and warmth in a house.”
And displaying books artfully, in combination with other meaningful treasures from your travels or childhood, can turn them from clutter into a conversation piece, said Andreas Charalambous, principal architect at Forma Design in Washington.
“If you provide someone with the infrastructure or backdrop to place things in an orderly manner, it ends up being pleasing to look at,” Charalambous said. “You don't want to just hide these things behind a closet door, because then they lose the importance that they have.”
Here are suggestions from professionals on how to incorporate your book collection into your home design.
Organize in a way that works for you: Books can be organized alphabetically, or by size, subject, author or color. As long as it works for you and reflects how you think about and retrieve your books, it's fine, said Cynthia Lindsey, the president of Organizing Ease in Nashville.
The methodical reader might want to start in the top left corner and go across each shelf in alphabetical order, either by title or author. Those who are more expressive and don't care about the content may choose to sort the books by color, creating a rainbow of book spines. This can work well for people who have a lot of books, said Goldberg.
Other clients prefer to display books of one color, such as white or blue, to create a calming feel, Morris said.
But some people prefer to organize their books by subject, to make them easier to find when they need them.
That's fine, too, Morris said. She suggests ordering books by size within those categories to keep the finished product looking neat and organized.
Find a way to neutralize them: Amy Trager, a certified professional organizer based in Chicago, suggested flipping the books around so the pages are facing out, instead of the spine, to cut down on the visual clutter of the books' different colors and sizes.
That only works, of course, if you don't need to quickly access specific books, but it's a great way to add texture and a neutral, toned-down feeling to your space, Trager said.
Mix it up: Blend horizontal and vertical stacks of books to create visual interest on your shelves, Morris said.
She suggested arranging vertical books on the ends of the shelf, with horizontal stacks in the middle. Or using a few art books stacked on their sides as a bookend. Leave a few inches between the horizontal books and the side of the bookcase, she said. Art or coffee table books are perfect for stacking horizontally, because they are often too tall for the shelf.
Stacking books horizontally on top of your vertical books, though just makes the shelves look cluttered.
Integrate some meaningful or beautiful objects to break up the books: Those horizontally stacked books can be a great place to put a small frame or vase, Morris said.
Choose a variety of items or art that is meaningful to you, and try to keep things around the same size, she said.
Group objects on the top of the bookcase in sets of odd numbers, such as three or five. Or, Lindsey said, keep the top of the bookcase empty for a clean, uncluttered look.
Find balance: If you have a bookcase with more than one column of shelves (like mine), Morris suggested using the same pattern in opposite corners to create a balanced effect.
For example, on the top left and bottom right shelves, she said, you could pull the middle books out and turn them so they are horizontal, then put a small picture on top.
Think beyond the bookcase: Book collections don't have to be limited to a traditional shelving unit. We've seen them thoughtfully stacked inside a fireplace, or used as an end table next to a chair.
Morris said she once had a client who had a shelf across the top of a headboard for a line of shallow books. She has also seen books stacked above and below coffee tables and on ladders that lean against the wall.
Lindsey encourages clients to get creative with the placement and design of their books, she said, so they enhance their homes.
Tips for organizing your books
- Get stuff out from under the bookcase.
- Mementoes are better used interspersed throughout the shelves.
- Don’t cram things on top of the books.
- Move cookbooks to the kitchen, where they’re used.
- Arrange books by color or size to make the shelf look less cluttered.
- Combine vertical and horizontal stacks for visual interest.
- Use photos with matching frames to break things up but not make it too busy.
- Create balance by making opposite corners match.
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