- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Living with books usually means loving books. As any self-respecting bibliophile knows, that means finding ways of arranging and displaying books so they don’t take over the house.

The challenge is learning how to integrate books into a room so the arrangement compliments both the room and the books. Enter the design professional — an architect, interior designer or artist whose natural talent lends itself to the job — with suggestions on how to do this.

Washington-based artist-photographer William Christenberry is an unabashed lover of books, with a special fondness for beautifully illustrated volumes about art and related subjects. Some of the best of these, all hardcovers, including some valuable first-edition nonfiction books, can be found in floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases in the dining room. The same room holds a unique side cabinet designed for extra-large volumes by architect Jane Treacy, who lives next door in his Northwest neighborhood.

For another client, Ms. Treacy designed bookcases built into the walls alongside a staircase to give the room a warm, orderly appearance.

In the Christenberry home, all the books’ spines face outward in solid rows flush with the edges of the shelf. Dust jackets are covered in protective acetate or Mylar. “Acetate has a tendency to yellow with the years, but Mylar is inert,” he says.

His wife, Sandy, once tried to talk him out of covering the books on aesthetic grounds, until he learned that keeping the dust jacket intact increases the value of a book.

“I buy books to look at them. My wife and daughter read books,” he says.

Simple but handsome bookcases bought at Ikea hold more books along one wall of the master bedroom. Mr. Christenberry added three-quarter-inch vertical plywood supports to keep the heavily laden shelves from sagging. More books lie inside his studio closet among an extensive CD collection. Except for a few shelves of poetry and fiction in the living room, including a set of blue-and-gold leather-bound Harvard classics, Mr. Christenberry doesn’t group his collection in any particular order, mainly because he knows by memory where each title is.

George Hemphill of Hemphill Fine Arts in Georgetown lives with his artist wife, Lenore Winters, in an apartment that has a bookshelf running nearly 16 feet in length and 14 feet in height. Because space prohibits having a rolling ladder, the placement of books is critical. His solution is to put novels he won’t read again on the highest shelf. Lower, more accessible shelves are reserved for cookbooks and oversized volumes. Everything is arranged both alphabetically and by subject matter, as well as being separated by size. He allows for some eccentric groupings as well to reflect his own special interests, such as grouping books on the South that include volumes of fiction and books about music.

“Big bookshelves give a loft-style apartment some identity,” he says. Their contents fulfill another very practical use, too. He owns about 2,000 CDs, and he has found that the fabric of the books helps soften the sound of music.

“Anybody who is a book lover eventually runs out of space,” says Bethesda interior designer Christina Haire, who takes a more casual approach to the problem on her own behalf and that of clients. Finding the overflow stacked up on the floor, she converts so-called coffee-table books into side tables.

“You can build two stacks — balancing them with care — and put a glass top over them,” she says. The paperbacks a person never wants to throw or give away can be put in a big basket, she suggests. A smaller basket of paperbacks can go into the bathroom, especially if that room is large enough to hold a chair.

“If I have bookshelves, I intersperse the books with accessories, either treasures from a client’s travels or anything in three dimensions that will offset the monotony of a long unbroken row [of books],” says Bethesda interior designer Justine Sancho, who is responsible for the model library room seen in “Entertaining by Design,” Washington Design Center’s current Fall Design House exhibit.

“Another thing I might do is put 10 books in a row and then lay some flat with an accessory on top of that group,” she says. “And you need to scatter them in different rows for variety. Otherwise, you don’t have anything to relax the eyes.”

In a current Corcoran Gallery show titled “Bound to Please: Selections From the Behrmann Collection of Modern Bookbindings,” Tenleytown rare book dealer Joshua Heller illustrates graphically how beautiful leathers and unique book covers go beyond mere artifacts and become the equivalent of sculpture.

Ms. Sancho doesn’t recommend using books for a formal living room unless they are a limited number chosen purely for decorative purposes. “A formal room is meant for conversation and interaction,” she says. “It’s not a resting spot meant for relaxation.”

In the belief that every room looks better with books, Paula Marshall, decorating and home design editor for Meredith Books in Des Moines, Iowa, recommends keeping cookbooks in a dining room near the kitchen.

“That way they are both convenient and lovely to look at,” she says.

To keep floor space open in a small studio, she has placed a bookcase 18 inches from the ceiling. It requires a small stepladder but has the advantage of pulling the eyes up in the room.

Colette Scanlon Ortiz, building and design editor for New York-based This Old House magazine, mentions, but does not necessarily condone, the practice common in some design circles of buying masses of books strictly for decorating purposes. Instead, she suggests buying furniture pieces that can provide both display and storage space for books, such as flat-top trunks and sideboards.

New York interior designer Jeffrey Bilhuber, author of Rizzoli’s new “Design Basics,” goes one further in using bookshelves as architectural pieces he calls “book towers.” These are elements that brighten a room and help divide space without creating a claustrophobic effect. Bamboo-and-glass shelving units create a light, colorful effect when used this way.

“Everyone complains about a lack of space on a bedside table,” he notes. His solution is to put a bookcase behind the bed with a light behind it. Mr. Bilhuber will be discussing his new book Nov. 19 at the Corcoran.

If all else fails, Brunschwig & Fils in Washington’s Design Center sells a wallpaper pattern with books painted atop shelves in a colorful print called Bibliograph.

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