Friday, March 25, 2016

How To Style Bookshelves*

* In Real Life

* * * * *

Today, I tackled the job of dusting and restyling my library bookshelves.

Whoa now. You know I didn't just run a fiber cloth across the whole arrangement, and call it a day.

No, no, no. Bookcases demand much more effort and intention than that. 

What we need, here in the new millennium, are bookshelves that are arranged - nay, curated - to showcase artsy collections of carefully layered items of decor in prescribed and complicated ways. 

There are innumerable articles and videos threatening to tip over the internet that purport to teach us exactly how to perfect this. And while I'm always open to new ideas, I find that many of the styling tips I read online do not jive with reality.

So allow me to offer my own bookshelf styling hints and tips, starting with the best that the design world has to offer but adapted to work my very own real life. 

Step 1: Organize your books

Start by emptying your shelves. Dust them thoroughly and then carefully add back only your favorite and most cherished volumes. 

First off, do not - repeat do not! - empty your bookshelves. The teetering piles of unshelved books will overwhelm your workspace and your motivation, and if you're like me, you will either give up and go watch the fifth season of Psych yet again, or risk death by avalanching books. That's a slippery slope we never want to face, Instead, just dust one small section at a time, scooting out a handful of books and wiping them down and the shelf underneath as best you can without ever actually taking them down off the shelf. 

Now, at this phase it's important to be realistic about your inventory. In my case, I need to wrap my head around the fact that my bookcases are full of books. Sometimes, I wish I was working with nothing more than a half dozen sleek leather-bound volumes of poetry, or a stack of glossy photo essays on graphic design, but friends, that is simply not the case. 

My shelves house approximately one billion sun-bleached, serious-slash-boring-looking books. 

Most of this collection belongs to my husband and includes autobiographies of Washington, Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Winston Churchill and Henry Kissinger. There are handfuls of books about military planes, famous generals and illustrated battles. We also happen to own a full set of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Not even kidding.

The simple truth is that my bookcases are probably always going to be jammed full of these no-nonsense books. 

And while these are important books and useful books and books that I am perfectly proud to own, they are in no stretch of the imagination pretty books. So, in the spirit of compromise that marriage demands, I turn most of them around to hide their drab navy and maroon bindings, and work from there. 

Step 2: Add artwork

Gather up a collection of framed artwork to be propped up in the empty spaces between the books, or layered in front of the books. These pieces will add visual interest and draw the eye to different depths along the shelves.

This is a lovely idea. 

I can just imagine sweet watercolors and hand-drawn pen-and-ink sketches, tucked here and there among the volumes. Truthfully, I've optimistically experimented with this technique, to a single result.

Too cluttery. 

Those aforementioned bazillion backwards books of mine go a long way in filling in my available bookshelf real estate, and any framed pieces that attempt to join the mix are simply trampled underfoot and end up as visual clutter. 

No bueno.

So, what with necessity being the mother of invention and all, I've developed an alternative approach: I use strategically colored books to fill in the gaps. 

I know, I know. Displaying books by color is so 2007, but I'm sold on this trick. Choosing a limited color palette, I drag myself through the thrift stores until I amass a substantial hoard, and then use these treasures to accomplish the same goal. The punctuation of the fresh colors - especially among the backwards books on my shelves - creates the desired visual interest and keeps the eye moving along, just as the framed art is meant to do. 

Step 3: Mix it up!

Bring in an assortment of vases, bowls, sculpture, collections in a variety of shapes, materials and textures, to mix among the books and art on the shelves. Shop your house for interesting objects. Edit carefully to achieve a harmonious look.

This step is often a curse and a blessing for bookcase stylists. Because there are an infinite number of objects available in the universe for such purposes, and countless ways to arrange them.  Honestly, the whole process can become a labyrinth of options and on more than once occasion have I rearranged the same ten items over and over, desperately seeking but never quite managing to achieve styling nirvana. 

So my mantra here is simple: don't take this part of the process too seriously. The shelves look fine. 

Also, beware of the treacherous advice about shopping the house. 

No, no, no, I say. This is a terrible idea. Because if I wander past the living room coffee table and lift a knick-knack to carry away to my library bookshelves, I am creating a new problem. The empty space on that coffee table is going to haunt me until I am driven to pull some other curio from my dining room cupboard, to be replaced by an ornament off the kitchen counter, to be filled in by something from some other room...

You see the problem. 

Do not - repeat do not! - set off this chain of decor dominoes unless you fully intend to drive yourself mad, and turn every room in the house upside down in the process. Trust me, I have been there and I have done that. It's not pretty.

Honestly, when I find myself a bit short on trinkets for a styling project, I've learned that the wisest solution is to hop on over to Target or Urban Outfitters or Hobby Lobby or Value Village or wherever it is that I'm most likely to find choice tidbits, and drop a few dollars on something new. 

My family, who has waited out many a late dinner because of my errant "shop the house" exploits, firmly supports this strategy. They will, on occasion, even drive me to the store and place objects in my hands, saying, Yes, buy it. Life will be so much simpler if you do. 

* * * * *

So I made good progress on my shelves today. The basic books are dusted and tentatively arranged on the clean shelves. My arsenal of red-, yellow- and orange-covered volumes stand arrayed across the couch, and my heap of tchotchkes is ready and waiting.

Honestly, I got all the boring work done and was just about to start in on the fun stuff when this happened:

Today's work session was cut short by a red-haired gentleman who showed up at my door, expressing great certainty that walk time had arrived. He was right. I can't say no to that earnest little face. 

But come tomorrow, I shall style the crap out of those bookshelves. Just you wait and see.  

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