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Take a page from designers when displaying books

  • Washington Post
  • Published Saturday, July 12, 2014, at 6:34 a.m.

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I love books. Not just reading them but how they smell, the weight of them in my hands, the feel of the pages when I turn them. So, naturally, I have a lot, culled from all stages of my life.

Even the ones I didn’t like and have no intention of revisiting (I’m looking at you, “Moby-Dick”), I am compelled to keep. After all, the books we read are more than just things. Somehow, they become a part of who we are. A little piece of our soul.

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. They also looked like an afterthought, when, really, they’re anything but.

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 on how best to display my book collection. (If you can even call it that; the only value in my beat-up stacks of Penguin Classics is sentimental.)

Then I spent an afternoon pulling everything off the shelves, trying different arrangements and identifying what should stay in the living room and what could be boxed away. The marked-up copy of Shakespeare’s complete works from college is now stashed in the basement, because I almost never find crack it open. I moved cookbooks off the shelves and into a cabinet in the kitchen.

No one I spoke to suggested getting rid of books, which was good. This wasn’t an exercise in de-cluttering; it was an attempt to find a way to let the books shine. Because, like I said, I love them.

That’s a sentiment Tracy Morris, principal designer at Tracy Morris Design in Washington, 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.”

So how can bibliophiles strike that balance between hanging on to their treasures and keeping their houses from looking like something that should be featured on an episode of “Hoarders”? Here are suggestions from professionals on how to incorporate your books into your home design, many of which I used in my bookcase overhaul.

• 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, starting with red and going through the spectrum to violet, creating a rainbow of book spines. This can work well for people who have a lot of books, said said Jill Goldber of Hudson Interior Designs in Boston, who helped a family with hundreds of books stage them by color in their home library.

Other clients prefer to display books of one color, such as white or blue, to create a calming feel, Morris said.

But some people – myself included – prefer to organize their books by subject, to make them easier to find when they need them. It’s hard for me to imagine separating the brown-spined “Jane Eyre” from her black-spined Bronte cousins.

That’s fine, too, Morris said. She suggests ordering books by size within those categories to keep the finished product looking neat and organized. Either put the tallest books on the outside and work toward the smaller, or put the tallest in the middle of the shelf and have them get smaller as they fan out.

• 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.

Trager had another client who needed to keep her books in the living room but hated the way they looked. She created covers for each of her recessed shelves out of thin paperboard. When she wanted a particular book, she could pull the covers down, but when they were up, it looked like a solid colored wall, fading into the background.

• 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 bookends. Leave a few inches between the horizontal books and the side of the bookcase, she said.

Stacking books horizontally on top of your vertical books, though, like I had done to cram more books into the space, is a no-no, Morris and Lindsey agreed. That 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. If you are using framed photos or art, use the same color frame throughout.

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 had a client who put 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 once stacked large art books kitty-corner to one another in a transition area between floors to create a sculptural display.

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