When I moved to the UK after a decade, a friend suggested that I throw away all the books I had accumulated in a secondhand store. It would make shipping cheaper.
Needless to say, we don’t talk to each other anymore. Just like the US Marines, I leave no man, woman, or child – fictitious or otherwise – behind. Nor will I leave any dragons, heartbreaking romances, nightmares or starships behind. Now my house is so full of books that I don’t know what to do with them.
So it was strange to hear High School Musical star and future interior designer Ashley Tisdale admit that she had to send her husband to buy “about 400 pounds” to keep his shelves artfully full when Architectural Summary came to photograph his new home.
You mean there are people who are not used to swimming in books?
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Novelist Jennifer Weiner, who, like me, grew up in a house overflowing with books and still lives in a house overflowing with books, posted on her Instagram that she was “conflicted” about Tisdale’s confession.
“Some dedicated readers were appalled and couldn’t imagine randomly buying a few hundred books just to look good in a photo,” Weiner wrote.
She acknowledged others were less restless, saying it was common practice for interior designers and set designers, and home staging, who often bought books by the yard. Besides, what does it matter as long as the books sell?
“You have to make a living. A sale is a sale,” says bookseller Mark Owen, owner of Devonport’s bookmark store, which has provided books for movies, TV shows and designers in the past.
People looking for older leather-bound books might “understand there’s a bit of cachet with the book itself,” while others might just follow library trends, such as spines assorted, and be less concerned with content. However, this is hardly a problem for most booksellers.
“With older books, that means they still have life, they’re going to sit on someone’s shelf a little longer. And they usually look pretty good, so even if they’re not not read, they are to be admired.
Offering books for staging is such an important part of some booksellers’ business that they advertise this option.
“There’s more of a tendency to think, ‘Do these books look good?'” says director Sharon Tucker.
“Someone might be buying a few books for themselves, but I notice they like the books to look good together. I can’t forget the lady who came to the counter, after two minutes in the store, with a nice stack of very colorful books, she knew exactly what she was looking for.
This tendency to regard books as beautiful objects is also true for new books. With fierce competition from e-books, hard copy publishers have looked at their main point of difference and have become more design conscious of their imprints.
Some are now making special reprints with design lead covers, such as Clothbound Classic Series by Penguin, where the cover images speak to the main motif of the books, and each edition is like a small piece of hardcover art. The United Kingdom Company Foliospecializes in illustrated editions and high profile cover designs for boxed book collections and special editions.
“My son’s girlfriend is a designer, and she pointed out to me that if you ever look at pictures of houses, even real estate pictures, there are always books. Plants and books,” says Tucker.
These are the two elements that make a house feel like home, without becoming too personal, explains Roz Scott, interior designer and professional director, of Tickadeeboo.
They paint a picture of who lives there, or might live there, without being too specific. They let the viewer imagine themselves lying on that Togolese couch, a spear of warm sunshine kissing their bare toes as they flip through Afrosurf, Tom Ford, Naomi, or another book of the day.
“They really are a bit of art. We use a lot of books in our staging, not so much for the content, but also for the color or the photo or the art that’s on the front.”
Scott has studied the art of the perfect shelf, “a lot” and says it’s all about balance.
“You have to get the structure right for each piece, but then all the pieces in the shelves have to talk to each other.”
Sometimes this may mean grouping books by spine color or, on a memorable occasion, by page color.
Scott once staged an author’s house who had hundreds of books and asked her if she could use them.
“We flipped them over, so the look was all about the paper. In some books it’s quite white, some are old and quite yellow, so it was all in tones. [The author] was quite horrified, but she said. ‘s…, that looks good’.”
Scott says it’s worth paying attention to what’s on certain covers. One of his favorite books for styling houses is by Taschen Gisele Bundchen. The back is a vibrant hot pink which adds a pop of color to any room, but the front features the nude top model.
“Some people wouldn’t like that.”
If you want your home to look trendy, cool and creative, certain books have become must-haves for bookshelves and coffee tables. Designate Tom Fordhis big black and white books; Malene Birger life and work – a “beautiful, beautiful book” – and Simon Upton’s big yellow book New York interiorsare some favorites.
We think keeping books by look is very new, but there’s nothing new about books as decor accents. In fact, people have been doing it since the 19th century, when most books were published with no cover at all, “just a piece of cardboard with a paper dust jacket,” says Owen.
Later, the owner would take the book to a filing cabinet to have an embossed leather cover put on, a cover that would match the collection in his office or library.
“[The 19th century book buyers] maybe they read well or maybe they didn’t like the book either. They might just have liked to look good in front of their friends.”
Tisdale would later respond to criticism of its shelves by the meter on Twitter:
“Let’s get this straight,” she wrote. “There are some of my books over the years in there, but yes (sic) 36 shelves containing 22 books that I didn’t have, and any interior designer would have done the same. They do it all the time, I was just being honest about it.
I guess the lesson here is not to judge a bookshelf by its buyer: just buy books.
Five Books Your Library Will Love You For:
Tom Ford, Tom Ford, $399
Ford’s style is as effortlessly cool as its big, bold tome – both instantly recognizable and neutral enough to work with any style.
Eat, drink, nap, Soho House, $64
Made by Soho House, a global membership club for creative (and famous) people, this book is a subtle signal that you know all about that celebrity life.
Truth Bomb, Abigail Crompton, $49.67
An engaging mash-up of art and interviews from 22 leading female artists, wrapped in a shimmering pink blanket? Library perfection.
Afrosurf, Selema Masekela and Mami Wata, $56.15
If big, bold and colorful design is the benchmark for exceptional library books, then Afrosurf, celebrating surfing lifestyles in 18 coastal African countries, is number one.
Accidentally Wes Anderson, Wally Koval, $50
Part travel guide, part film essay, all quirky entertainment, this book explores the retro-inspired aesthetic of one of the world’s most charming filmmakers – and Aotearoa-New Zealand has its own section.