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The Art of Arranging A Bookshelf

October 19, 2011

Every televised decorating program and decorating magazine comes around to giving advice on shelf arranging at least once a year.  So, not to be left out, for my first how-to column, here’s my take on it.

I try to change up the arrangement on my shelves every couple of years, this way I have a good reason to thoroughly vacuum the books, if nothing else.

Have you noticed the trend to show the page end of the book towards the front of the shelf?   See the recent Restoration Hardware catalogue for good examples of this effect under Furniture, Shelving and cabinets, and have a look at their Library Bookcase.  Notice how their stylist tied the books together with jute string to reinforce an industrial, old world look.

To colour coordinate your books or to not colour coordinate your books?  This depends on how much of a controlled look you want.  One of my clients, Suzanne, who has the most pristine jewel-box of a home (the room with the built-in bookshelves and red gladiolas on the home page is her family room), would never dream of colour grouping her books, too contrived for her taste.

I’m afraid I can’t quite resist doing it for myself.  I relish the gorgeous saturated colours of some of the bindings and the bold contrasting titles, and it is fun to group them with other complimentary colours, to show them off to their best advantage.

Some designers put natural paper jackets on books to cover the binding and any colour they might impart. 

Don’t get me wrong, I read the books that I buy, and I don’t know what wonderful colours are lurking beneath their jackets until after I read them.  I haven’t, yet, bought a book for its cover!

Bookshelves are a wonderful place to group a collection of family pictures, art glass or silver serving pieces.  They are also places to artfully “hide” those little unwanted gifts.  Just tuck them in among your books and a few small plants and you have succeeded in not only putting them on display for the benefit of the giver, but also managed to tuck them away where they are not in your sight line at every moment.

Don’t forget to place the books horizontally for variety, to make bookends, as well as a nifty way to create pedestals for smaller items.

Another trend that I enjoy is to place very small paintings on the shelves, or hang a picture directly on the front of the built-ins.  This will give you a good excuse to buy small affordable paintings.  Tiny pieces are often under $100, a great way to start an original art collection.  The Art Gallery of Hamilton sells these small works, and Art Interiors in Toronto has its Festival of Smalls every November, featuring both emerging artists as well as well established names.

So, whether you like the Steam Punk look of time-worn books minus their bindings and tied with string, or carefully arranged and colour coordinated bindings, you too can make your artfully arranged shelves a feature of your room.

There is an endless list of decorative items that placed with the books on shelves, will guarantee an interesting arrangement. To re-cap, try a few of these:

  • Mercury glass vases and candlesticks
  • Silver serving pieces, such as bowls and coffee pots
  • Small paintings
  • Art glass, including glass perfume bottles
  • Salvaged items such as corbels or other small rustic architectural fragments
  • Candles (but don’t light them, unless they have batteries)
  • Family pictures
  • Crystal
  • Pottery
  • Decorative boxes

So, go forth, grab a “small”, and arrange your shelves.  Or, if you must (really!) contact me, and I’ll gladly do it for you…

About Adele Barrett

Adele Barrett is a consulting interior designer in Hamilton and Dundas. Over twenty years of conferences and continuing education classes keep Adele Barrett Interiors design practice both on trend and timelessly classic. She started collecting paint chips from the local lumber yard when she was 3 years old, and a seed was planted that grew into a career. Continue reading...