With people stuck at home, personal libraries take on a bolder profile

Rebecca Powers

THE WASHINGTON POST – Bookshelves are having a moment.

Not long ago, their epitaph was being written. Ikea’s redesign of its Billy unit to accommodate objects other than books was cited as evidence that we had turned the page on possessing print.

Now, that story has a sequel.

Self-isolation has people rediscovering the value of having hardcovers at home. In addition, television networks’ shift to interviews via Skype, rather than in a studio, is revealing the bookcase backdrops of pundits, news anchors and celebrities at home. That domestic exposure sparked a social media conversation about literary decor.

Room Rater on Twitter, for example, offers regular, and often snarky, critiques of shelves in the rooms visible behind various talking heads.

A reading nook in the Los Angeles home of Roman Alonso is layered and colourful, with a daybed, records, pottery and books. Nina Freudenberger’s book ‘Bibliostyle: How We Live at Home with Books’ showcases bookshelves from around the world. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST
The Berlin apartment of Emmanuel de Bayser showcases his collection of midcentury-modern design and eclectic books. Titles, organized loosely by subject, are displayed with small vases and ceramics. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Room Rater dishes compliments, too. “Just enough clutter,” one tweet reads. “Looks real.”

Domestic libraries are first and foremost about books. But the displays also lend an inviting graphic element to decor. Just please, designers say, don’t arrange books page-side out. That affectation makes no sense. However, please do pair books with objects, art, photographs and ephemera.

The book Bibliostyle: How We Live at Home with Books by Nina Freudenberger showcases enviable bookshelves around the world. Photos of collections and the rooms they inhabit are accompanied by interviews with their well-read and often-notable owners.

The hardcovers pictured here make you want to read – and display – more books.

Bibliostyle features more than 250 colour photographs of 35 homes in 15 cities and eight countries. Residences include the homes of writers, illustrators, designers, editors and collectors – readers all.

Highlighted rooms range from clean contemporary to overstuffed classic. Shelves showcase rare editions, fairy tales, gardening volumes, coffee-table tomes and even vintage comic books. There are books in closets and bedside stacks, books on landings and books lining dining room walls. They’re arranged by colour, by author, by language, by genre or not organised at all.

“People live in different ways,” said Freudenberger, a Los Angeles-based interior designer. “I think to not have books, it’s a red flag. It makes me a little nervous. Books have something incredible. The smell. They’re an object. There’s a legacy.”

True to her Rhode Island School of Design education in architecture, however, Freudenberger does appreciate creative order.

“I don’t think you have to jam every shelf full,” she said. “Empty space is important.”

She suggests using bookends for visual breaks and is fond of natural wood shelving, which, she said, is warm and accentuates the books.

Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, interior designer Dayna Flory Rasschaert, of Dayna Flory Interiors, said: “Books can be a tricky item to visually conquer. Trust me, there is no better feeling than the warmth of being surrounded by books. However, if not properly allocated, they can become visually overwhelming and very busy to the eye.”

She, like many designers, finds a crazy quilt of paperbacks and book jackets visually jarring. Some will remove paper jackets or cover books with paper or custom bindings for a more calming uniformity.

“I arrange the books by genre, and very importantly, by colour,” she said. “Grouping the books by colour gives visual order and quiet.”

Rasschaert said bookcases work in any hue. “Black is one of my personal favourites,” she said.

New York interior designer Celerie Kemble, author of the book “To Your Taste,” said custom built-in bookcases are ideal and are especially appealing when they surround windows.

Whatever the display, she writes, “A well-used bookcase offers heft, stability, backbone, character and a sense of life lived.”

The libraries featured in Bibliostyle are stunning examples of the substance that books lend – intellectually, aesthetically and emotionally.

Nashville-based poet and author Caroline Randall Williams, whose heirloom cookbook collection is featured, speaks of the emotional value.

“If the house were burning,” she said, “I’d probably rush to save The New World Encyclopedia of Cooking, purely because Nana pressed fresh flowers into its pages, and I would be heartbroken if I failed to preserve them.”

Concern for an orderly display is often less important than the pleasure of the collection itself. Still, the collectors’ homes in Bibliostyle make up an inspiring portfolio of interior and architectural design. There are high-ceilinged European apartments, a poured-concrete modern in Mexico City and a wonderfully layered 19th-century New York farmhouse with windows framing Hudson Valley views like colour plates in a vintage book.

The Paris dining room of textile designer Carolina Irving has custom bookshelves crammed with global titles. The result, Freudenberger observes, is “a colourful cacophony on the shelves, a warm, natural wallpaper with snapshots of Irving’s family, bits of pottery and sculpture.”

More minimalist homes also are depicted. Emmanuel de Bayser, a proprietor of concept stores in Paris and Berlin who said he doesn’t understand people who don’t have books, has a collection tailored to fit the mid-century modern decor of his Berlin apartment.

The Los Angeles home of Roman Alonso, one of the founders of Commune Design, manages to maintain restraint while also being book heavy. He keeps many of his volumes in a reading nook, as he calls it, where there’s a daybed for reading and a turntable for listening.

Many of the featured book lovers have arranged their furnishings to accommodate reading.

After visiting the homes of the featured aficionados, Freudenberger reached her own conclusion about the elements of a really good reading chair. Being near natural light is nice, she said, and she likes the idea of proximity to the kitchen.

The most inviting spot among those pictured may be in a vignette from the Brooklyn brownstone of writer Kathleen Hackett and artist Stephen Antonson.

Fellow Brooklynite, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer, also said books and reading are about place.

“I’m really attached to the idea that different spaces, whether physical or interpersonal, will create different thoughts and experiences,” Foer said. “Having a comfortable chair, good light – these things do put you into a state of mind to better absorb ideas.”