Give your bookshelves special flair

schandler@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2013 

  • Short on books?

    While some people are fighting overcrowding on their bookshelves, others – especially in newer houses at a time when built-in bookshelves are must-haves – have the opposite problem.

    “The way that people put bookshelves in their house, usually they’re way too big for the collection that those people might have,” said Design Lines Ltd.’s Rob MacNeill. “More often than not, there’s more space than you need.”

    Designers often turn to a service called Books by the Foot (, and it’s just what it sounds like. You can buy books by color, size, subject or other criteria to fill shelves however you’d like.

    For a cheaper alternative on a smaller scale, MacNeill suggests stocking up at local library systems’ book sales.

    When you’re creating your own collection, he suggests making size your first consideration. You want some variation, but nothing too huge or too tiny. Then think of a color palette. Go for warm colors, or cool, depending on your taste and your room, and add some neutrals for variation.

    Staff Writer Stacy Chandler

The books on your bookshelves tell a story. Why not let your bookshelves do the same?

By adding personal art objects, picture frames or mementos to your shelves, you give your books some room to breathe – and shine as a centerpiece of the room.

Bookshelves, whether built-in or stand-alone, “are a really important part of your whole home decor,” said Cindy Meighan of Designed Interiors in Charlotte. “You have the opportunity to highlight, on a beautiful shelf, a beautiful piece of art that you have or a beautiful sculpture piece. So I use them just as much for display as I do for books.”

Adding personal objects not only adds interest, said Rob MacNeill, an interior designer with Design Lines Ltd. in Raleigh, but it also gives a usually static piece of furniture some life.

“That’s a really great way to fill in and a really great way to kind of tell your story there,” he said. “You can look into the bookshelves for the stories they want to tell you.”

There’s a temptation, especially among book lovers, to cram every inch of shelf space full of books. But designers see a set of shelves as far more than just storage.

“It creates an atmosphere in the room, just like paint color would, or a wallpaper. It adds another layer of texture,” MacNeill said. “It does serve a practical function, but that’s almost secondary, because most of the time you’re not necessarily using it, but you’re looking at it.”

So put some of your less-used books in the attic or find new homes for them, Meighan and MacNeill said, and look at what’s left with a designer’s eye.

Where to start

When Meighan is working on bookshelves for a client, she starts with a clean slate.

“I will set up my shelving how I want it, and I will take everything that’s going to go up there and put it on the floor,” she said. Next, she said, “I just go.”

Both designers said a good first step is letting go of the notion that books should be displayed vertically, like you see on library or bookstore shelves. Stack three or four books, particularly taller ones, horizontally, Meighan said, and top the stack with “a little object of art.”

Meighan banishes all paperbacks to a basket or some other area of the house, and removes the paper jacket from hardbacks to expose the simpler, often elegantly designed spines underneath. She prefers to group books by color, while MacNeill goes more by size, avoiding placing very tall books next to much shorter ones.

Next, consider other items to display on your shelves. Picture frames are a popular choice, or you could use decorative boxes, ceramics or other eye-catching items. Rather than a random assortment of items, consider a theme or at least groups of related items.

“Whatever you have, say, three to five pieces of, becomes a beautiful point of interest,” Meighan said.

“Books are boring in terms of shape,” she added, so consider the impact of softer contours or interesting forms.

Just don’t overdo it, she warned. “You don’t want clutter in there. You want (the items) to be able to breathe. You want movement around things.”

Dress up your shelves

You want your books and objects to take center stage, but the shelves themselves can dress up a little, too. Designers often suggest adding paint in bold colors or statement wallpaper to the back of shelving units to give them a distinctive look.

“There’s some space around the books or above the books all the time anyway, so it’s nice to put something back there, whether it’s really sparkly and bling, or it could just be really simple,” MacNeill said, “just to add a little bit of interest.”

You also want to make sure your shelves are well lit, so all your careful arranging isn’t hidden in shadows. Small lamps or clip-on lights, carefully placed, can help, or MacNeill suggests using picture lights above the shelves to add warmth as well as illumination.

As you’re arranging your shelves, be sure to step back and take in the overall effect. There are no real rules for how bookshelves should look, but balance is an overriding goal.

“It’s kind of something that you have to play with on site, and you just kind of have to see what looks good,” MacNeill said. The goal is a dynamic symmetry; you don’t want everything to be symmetrical, but you want it to be balanced.”

Your goal, when fitting a bookcase into the decor of a room, isn’t to show off how smart you are or what kind of books you like. But even a carefully designed and curated set of shelves can still be all about you.

“It should feel clean,” Meighan said, “and it should feel balanced.” But most of all, she said, it should speak.

“For the regular homeowner, she should step back, and she should look at that shelf, and that shelf should give her a little bit of a story.”

Chandler: 919-829-4830

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