Though it may be hard for some of us to imagine, there really was a time — long before wonders of the modern age such as radio and television came along — when many American homes were filled with books that were proudly displayed in floor-to-ceiling bookcases in actual reading rooms. And it’s also a fact that there are still a number of people who readily embrace not only the power of reading, but the pride of ownership of beautiful books and the great contribution they can make to home décor.
Flip through almost any issue of your favorite design magazine and you’re more than likely to come across some version of a home library, from the most elaborately designed, complete with lacquered walls, to the simplest of rustic wooden shelves flanking either a fireplace or television screen. Whatever the décor, home libraries in some form or another are ubiquitous and, from my point of view, a very welcome and necessary addition to any home.
Yes, as I’ve discovered through my years in design and custom cabinetry, the library can take many shapes, sizes and forms. A room can be solely dedicated to books and reading or else be at the heart of the action where it is family room/den and library at the same time. Just so long as there is a space dedicated to curling up with a good book, you can make it work. Versatility seems to be the name of the game. And my own experience with home library design certainly exemplifies that it can mean different things to different people.
A few years ago, I was involved in the fabrication of a home library designed by my wife, Barbara Woolf, for a client building a 16,000-square-foot home in a style he was fond of describing as Gothic English. Elaborate and very traditional, his library also was extremely cozy and charming at the same time, replete with coffered ceiling, fireplace, twin sofas, curved desk, chandelier, sconces and of course books, books and more books.
And let’s not forget the all-too-necessary rolling ladder that is de rigueur in a room such as this, not only because of its wonderful functionality for getting and finding books on the upper shelves, but also because of the elegant statement it makes as it celebrates the traditional library style. Though I have used it to great success in a number of contemporary home libraries as well. (I highly recommend the Putnam Ladder Co. as an excellent, to-the-trade-only source.)
Obviously, this client understood a basic law of library design: Fill the shelves with old hardcover books that can bring class to a room along with wonderful bindings and dust jackets that are able to add color and even match the design scheme or furniture choices. He realized that books can magically add warmth, depth and soul to a home and he had every intention of spending a great deal of time in the library room that he loved.
Another client, with country French décor, commissioned me to create a library for him, asking me to make the most of the space available on a landing at the top of the stairs just outside his home office, which proved to be an ideal location for his small, but highly prized, home library.
An outstanding example of a contemporary library/home office was one executed in white ash wood (including the floor and fabulous curved desk) with directions from the client to fill every possible space in the room with books shelves. Floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall, every possible spot that could hold a book was to be utilized. And indeed it was.
Elements included countertop space for resting books on and display, which included storage below; a library ladder for reaching the shelves toward the ceiling; and French doors to separate the office from the rest of the house. The doors also allowed light to flow in, as if he didn’t already have enough wonderful natural light spilling endlessly through the oversized windows. Naturally, realizing that direct light (enemy no. 1) can cause fading that can lead to eventual deterioration of a book, I was careful to minimize the sunlight with appropriate window coverings. The result was a gloriously contemporary study in white.
Some basic tips to bear in mind when designing a home library include the following: To preserve your books, place them about an inch away from the back edge of a shelf so that air can circulate behind them and keep mold-causing condensation from forming. Try to place shelves along inside walls of your home as outside walls can form pockets of book-damaging cool, damp air. And finally, if you aren’t ready for the commitment of built-in bookshelves, you can always opt for free-standing ones, which offer greater flexibility in unusual spaces; but please remember to fasten them to the wall.
Home libraries can obviously come in all shapes and sizes, from comfy retreats to grand and elaborate rooms. My advice: Just create a library space that is appealing to you and satisfies your needs and desires while at the same time making sure that it suits the overall design of your home.
Stephen Leon is a licensed interior designer and president of Soleil Design International; he has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He has served on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Questions can be sent to stephen@soleil designinternational.com.