When I moved home after a decade in the UK, a friend suggest I dump all the books I’d accumulated at a second hand store. It would make the shipping cheaper.
Needless to say, we no longer speak. Much like the US Marines, I leave no man, woman or child – fictional or otherwise – behind. I won’t leave any dragons, heartbreaking romances, nightmares or spaceships behind, either. Now my house is so full of books, I hardly know what to do with them.
So, it was strange to hear High School Musical star and would-be interior designer Ashley Tisdale admitting she had to send her husband out to buy “about 400 books” so her shelves would be artfully full when Architectural Digest came to shoot her new home.
You mean, there are people who aren’t habitually swimming in books?
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Novelist Jennifer Weiner, who, like me, grew up in a house overflowing with books and still lives in a house overflowing with books, posted on her Instagram that she was “conflicted” about Tisdale’s confession.
“Some devoted readers were aghast, and couldn’t imagine just randomly buying a few hundred books just to look good in a picture,” Weiner wrote.
She acknowledged that others were less fussed, saying it was common practice for interior and set designers, and home stagers, who often bought books by the metre. Besides, what did it matter as long as books were being sold?
“You’ve got to make a living. A sale is a sale,” says bookseller Mark Owen, owner of Devonport’s Bookmark store, which has provided books for films, TV shows and designers in the past.
Folks looking for older, leather-bound books, might “understand there’s a bit of cachet with the book itself”, while others might just be following bookshelf trends such as colour matching spines, and be less concerned about the content. Either way, it’s hardly an issue for most booksellers.
“With older books, it means they’ve still got a life, they’re going to sit on someone’s shelf for a bit longer. And they do usually look quite lovely, so even if they’re not being read, they’re being admired.
Offering books for staging is such an important part of some booksellers’ businesses they advertise the option.
Ponsonby store, The Open Book, specialises in beautiful new and second hand books, and offers a book curation service, to help you sort books by look, theme or author.
They also sell book bundles, curated bags of books such as the Beginners Classics Bundle, the Katherine Mansfield bundle and the Baking Book Bundle, which changes depending on what they have in stock.
“There is more of a trend towards thinking, ‘do these books look nice?’,” says manager Sharon Tucker.
“Someone might just be buying a few books for themselves, but I’m noticing they like the books to look nice together. I can’t forget the lady who came to the counter, after two minutes in the shop, with a beautiful pile of very colourful books. She knew exactly what she was looking for.”
That trend towards books as beautiful objects is true for new books, too. With competition from electronic books fierce, hard-copy publishers have leaned into their main point of difference and become more design conscious about their imprints.
Some now do special reprints with design-lead covers, such as Penguin’s Clothbound Classic series, where the cover images speaks to the books’ main motif, and each edition is like a little piece of hard-back art. The UK’s Folio Society, specialises in illustrated editions and high-concept cover designs for boxed book collections and special imprints.
“My son’s partner is a designer, and she pointed out to me that if you ever look at any photos of houses, even real estate images, there are always books. Plants and books,” says Tucker.
They’re the two items that make a house feel like a home, without getting too personal, says interior designer and professional house stager Roz Scott, from Tickadeeboo.
They paint a picture of who lives there, or could live there, without being too specific. They let the viewer imagine themselves reclining on that slouchy Togo couch, a spear of warm sunlight kissing their bare toes while they flick through Afrosurf, Tom Ford, Naomi or some other book du jour.
“They are a bit of art really. We use a lot of books in our staging, not so much for the content, but the colour, the photo or the art that’s on the front as well.”
Scott has studied the art of the perfect shelf, “quite a lot” and says it’s all about balance.
“You’ve got to get the right structure for each part, but then all the parts of the shelves have to talk to each other.”
Sometimes that might mean grouping books together by the colour of the spines, or in one memorable occasion, by the colour of the pages.
Scott once staged the home of an author who had hundreds of books, and asked if she could use them.
“We turned them all around, so the look was all to do with paper. In some books it’s quite white, some is old and quite yellow, so it was all about the tones. [The author] was pretty horrified, but she said. ‘s…, it looks good’.”
Scott says it pays to be careful about what’s on some covers. One of her favourite books to style homes with is Taschen’s Gisele Bundchen. The spine is a vibrant hot pink that adds a great pop of colour to any room, but the front features the supermodel nude.
“Some people wouldn’t like that.”
If you want your home to look fashionable and cool and creative, some books have become shelf and coffee table must-haves. Designer Tom Ford’s big black and white books; Malene Birger’s Life and Work – a “beautiful, beautiful book” – and Simon Upton’s big yellow book of New York Interiors, are a few favourites.
We think of curating books by the look as very new, but there’s nothing new about books as decor accents. In fact, people have been doing it since the 19th century, when most books were published without a cover at all, “just a bit of cardboard with a paper dust jacket,” says Owen.
Later, the owner would take the book to a binder to have a tooled leather cover put on, one that would match the collection in their study or library.
“[The 19th century book buyers] might have been well-read or they might not have cared for the book either. They might have just liked to look good in front of their friends.”
Tisdale would later respond to criticism of her bookshelves by the metre on Twitter:
“Let’s clear this up,” she wrote. “There are some of my books from over the years in there but yea (sic) 36 shelves that hold 22 books I did not have, and any interior designer would have done the same. They do it all the time, I was just honest about it.”
I guess the lesson here is don’t judge a bookshelf by its buyer: Just buy books.
Five books your bookshelf will love you for:
Tom Ford, Tom Ford, $399
Ford’s style is as effortlessly cool, as his big bold tome – both immediately recognisable, and neutral enough to work with any style.
Eat, Drink, Nap, Soho House, $64
Made by Soho House, a global members’ club for creative (and famous) people, this book is a subtle signal that you know all about that celebrity life.
Truth Bomb, Abigail Crompton, $49.67
An engaging mash-up of art and interviews from 22 leading women artists, wrapped in a glittery pink cover? Bookshelf perfection.
Afrosurf, Selema Masekela and Mami Wata, $56.15
If big, bold, colourful design is the benchmark for outstanding bookshelf books, then Afrosurf, celebrating surf lifestyles in 18 coastal African countries is number one.
Accidentally Wes Anderson, Wally Koval, $50
Part travel guide, part film essay, all quirky fun, this book explores the retro-inspired aesthetic of one of the world’s most charming filmmakers – and Aotearoa-New Zealand has its own section.