10 Jan Design Driven Column: By the Book Design

Over the course of the last few years, the problem of decorating with books has emerged as one of the more hotly-debated topics in interior design. The Wall Street Journal, for example, recently did a roundup of what’s in and what’s out in interior design for 2014. Number 4 of its list of ‘outs’ was ‘Books reduced to Décor’: “‘It’s a statement about not reading,’ said San Francisco designer Scot Meacham Wood of books that are dust-jacketed in matching colors, stacked into precious tabletop tableaux or—as one high-profile decorator actually did in 2013—arrayed on shelves with their spines to the wall. ‘It’s an affectation,’ said Chicago designer Alessandra Branca.”


Inside my home in Saint John, showcasing my husband, a professor of English, Robert Moore’s library of more than 4,000 books. Photo: Mark Hemmings/Hemmings House Pictures

I suspect this revision of the role books play in design is a direct consequence of the recent emergence, and growing influence, of e-book readers. What the electronic book has effectively done to the actual book has been to relegate it to the status of a discretionary object in domestic space. We live in an age, after all, when one can comfortably house a thousand books on one’s ipod, ipad or laptop. A kindle with 4 gigabytes of storage can hold a thousand books. If you’re using the cloud, well, there’s no limit to the number of virtual books you can own. According to one online source, the average public library holds about 10,000 books, a mere fraction of the books you can now hold in a device smaller than your average paperback! Little wonder that the e-reader has rendered our relationship to books vaguely ironic, so much so that we’re now tempted to regard our books as anachronisms. What was once a commodity almost no one could afford (in the late eighteenth century a book cost about one week’s wages) now risks being relegated to the status of clutter.

As the now-dated solutions to the problem of decorating with books cited above suggests, the basic decorating issue with books is the sheer variety of colour they introduce into any given room. After all, the spines of books come in every possible colour and, unless you restrict your collection to Penguin paperbacks, there is no logic to the colours in which your books come.

With respect to that absence of colour logic, I have to admit that when we moved into our new home a year or so ago and I was faced with the prospect of decorating around my husband’s four-thousand book library, it took me some time to reconcile my usual inclinations toward minimalism with the crazy quilt of colours dominating our open concept living space courtesy of an 18-foot high wall of books. And yes, at one point I was severely tempted by the radical solution offered by a display of books I saw at the 2012 International Design Show in Toronto by that year’s Guest of Honor, Piero Lissoni. What Lissoni’s design team did was tear the covers off to an entire wall of second-hand books to create a “shelving unit,” thus sacrificing the individual identities of the books in favour of asserting the monolithic identity of a library-as-library.


Photo: Kelly Lawson

Eventually, I’m happy to report, I learned to appreciate the constantly evolving pops of colour our library provides. To help get my Scandinavian-modern-minimalist sensibilities acclimated to the unregulated riot of colour, I deliberately chose to regard our library wall as the equivalent of an art installation, a sort of giant, living sculpture inspired by the paintings of Paul Klee. I’m not sure how effective or appealing that strategy would be to anyone else, but it worked to get me to the point I’m now at, which is a whole-hearted embrace of the richness books bring to any space.

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