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Finally There’s Time to Read (or at Least Organize Your Books)


Looking to make the most of time spent stuck at home, many of us are turning to books.

And with good reason: Reading a new novel or a classic you’ve been meaning to get to for years — or even experimenting with recipes you’ve never tried in an old cookbook — is one of the few reliable ways to escape the onslaught of pandemic-related news.

But how much thought have you given to the way you store your books? Even if your collection seems like a mountainous, unruly mess, it can add appeal to your home — provided you display it well.

Books “tell a story about who the homeowner is,” said Nina Freudenberger, the owner of the design firm Haus Interior in Los Angeles, and the author of “Bibliostyle: How We Live at Home with Books.”

“Books tell us about what someone was interested in, what their passions are, what their beliefs are and what kind of person they hope to be,” Ms. Freudenberger said. “Homes without books have no soul.”

So how best to live with and decorate with books? We asked designers for advice.

To help make sense of your collection and keep it organized over time, commit to a system — any system — for putting your books in some kind of order.

“Organization is key,” said Robert Novogratz, who, with his wife, Cortney, runs the Novogratz, a bicoastal design firm that recently introduced the book “Novogratz Design Fix: Chic and Stylish Tips for Every Decorating Scenario.”

But different people have very different preferences.

Many avid book collectors, Mr. Novogratz said, are “old-school Dewey Decimal kind of people,” who prefer organizing books by topic or author so they know exactly where to find each and every volume.

Others prefer organizing books in a way that delivers a graphic punch. Although purists may blanch at the suggestion, one method that has increased in popularity in recent years is grouping books by the color of the spine to create a rainbow across the bookcase.

Paris Forino, an interior designer in New York, used this strategy to fill the bookcase of one client’s home in Manhattan, where shelves hold rows of red and black, orange and yellow, green and white, and purple and blue books.

Decoratively, “it’s very effective,” Ms. Forino said. “It’s also easier on the eye to see groups of color together rather than scattered all around.”

A single bookcase sometimes feels like an untethered piece of furniture in a room, and mismatched bookcases give the impression of haphazard planning.

Depending on the size and architectural features of the room where you store the majority of your books, installing orderly shelves wall to wall, and floor to ceiling — as Ms. Forino did for a homeowner in Toronto — can turn the collection into a statement that functions almost like beautiful wallpaper.

A large expanse of books can look so appealing that numerous wallpaper companies, including Graham & Brown and Milton & King, sell patterns resembling stuffed bookshelves.

Why not use the real thing instead?

While the standard way of storing books is to stand them up with vertical spines in long rows, adding some horizontal stacks to the mix can help break up the monotony.

“I think of it like a little dance across the shelves,” said Thatcher Wine, the founder and chief executive of Juniper Books in Boulder, Colo., who wrote “For the Love of Books: Designing and Curating a Home Library,” with Elizabeth Lane.

“I’ll start on the right side of one shelf, with the books being vertical, and then, on the left, add a horizontal stack,” he said. “On the next shelf, I’ll do the opposite. Or maybe I’ll mix it up and do a horizontal stack on every other shelf.”

Many times, a horizontal stack also has a functional role, serving as a bookend. (Heavy tomes on art, architecture or design are particularly effective.) Laying books down is also a way of squeezing taller volumes onto a shelf where they wouldn’t otherwise fit.

“You start to get this flow and a little bit of a pattern,” Mr. Wine said. “The result is that your bookshelves are more interesting, which makes you much more likely to pay attention and, hopefully, pick up some of the books.”

Personalize bookshelves further by adding decorative accessories.

Horizontal stacks of books and the spaces between them are ideal places for displaying objects like pottery, travel souvenirs and family photos, Mr. Wine said.

It’s a technique that interior designers use frequently, and almost anything attractive will do.

Ms. Forino has added small woven baskets and decorative boxes to create visual interest in built-in bookcases. Mr. Novogratz and his wife have interspersed quirky sculptures, toy figurines and even children’s art projects in between books to create one-of-a-kind compositions.

This is especially important in the age of home videoconferences, Mr. Wine said, when bookshelves often serve as a backdrop for business meetings. “Other people are going to be looking at it for hours,” he said. “So just be mindful of having a bookshelf that’s a good backdrop, with a balance of books and objects that tell the story of who you are.”

And if your guilty pleasure is reading romance novels and you’d rather your colleagues not know about it, he added, it might be wise to store those books away from the camera’s lens.

There is no rule that says all books must be stored together.

“A lot of people have them in every room, including bathrooms, kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms,” said Ms. Freudenberger, who discovered that a number of people have books arrayed in neat stacks throughout their homes while she was researching “Bibliostyle.”

In some cases, the stacks adorned stools and tables like stepped obelisks. (To prevent collapse, it’s wise to stack books from largest to smallest.) In others, the stacks themselves functioned as tables.

If your bookshelves are already stuffed, spreading books throughout your home can help relieve the pressure. Creating a tall stack in an empty corner of a room, for instance, is easier and more economical than adding an extra wall shelf.

And storing books around the house has another advantage, Ms. Freudenberger pointed out:

“It’s nice to have a rotating selection of books out that you love, whether they’re on display or just handy, so you can easily look through them.”

There are many ways to play up the artful appeal of books.

Mr. and Ms. Novogratz, for instance, sometimes draw attention to books by using bookcases with unexpected shapes. In one project, they installed shelves with a gridded arrangement of diamond-shaped compartments to hold books on the diagonal. And for a kitchen, they designed three wall-mounted shelves shaped like the letters, E, A and T to hold colorful cookbooks — a concept that Mr. Novogratz said could be adapted with other words in other rooms, like a child’s room.

“It’s easy, and makes it a lot more personal,” he said. If you’re handy and have time to spare, it could be do-it-yourself project. Or you could draw your design, Mr. Novogratz suggested, and have a carpenter build it.

At Juniper Books, Mr. Wine and his employees sometimes design custom dust jackets for books, which can help refresh timeworn, dog-eared volumes. For a series of books, Juniper makes dust jackets that create a single image when all the spines are lined up together on a shelf, like a drawing of a letter-carrying owl that spans the seven books in the Harry Potter series.

Of course, many book covers are dazzling enough already.

If you have a few books that have especially attractive covers, or have sentimental value, Mr. Wine said, turn those covers out, so they’re on display in the room.

“They become like artwork,” he said, “even when you’re not reading them.”

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