Bookish Good Looks


The right shelves, well-stocked, speak volumes



Teal Shabby Chic French Country Bookcase, $2,800 for set of 2,


Stella Shelf Iron Frame with Hardwood Shelves, $2,900,


Vico Magistretti Nuvola Rossa in Natural Beechwood, $3,425,


Large Glass Cabinet, $3,398,


George Nelson/Herman Miller CSS Book Shelf from Studio 111, $6,500,

A room without books is like…er…a room without books. Uninteresting from all perspectives. I have known a decorator or 20 to provide their non-reading clients with books-by-the-yard in order to fill vacant shelves and, moreover, to provide a veneer of personality.


Courtesy William P. Steele

WHAT’S YOUR TYPE? | Brooke Astor’s immaculate red lacquer Park Avenue library, designed by Albert Hadley, trimmed in brass.

Some designers will style bookcases by color of spine to create a visual rainbow, and others use shelves more for displaying things—vases, boxes, couture hats, whatever…I’ve even seen libraries where every single volume is covered in white parchment paper. Beautifully impractical.

A good bookshelf is the foundation. Variations abound, depending on the room: A shoulder-height, custom-milled American-style bookcase running along a bedroom wall is cozy perfection; the three-quarter height provides ample hard- and soft-back storage with a shelf on top for a lamp, pictures and magazines. Floor-to-ceiling bookcases with crown molding make underused dining rooms a destination for more than just Thanksgiving. Counter-height shelves flanking the fireplace in a living room clear up wall space for art the way a taller, more traditional case wouldn’t. In space-challenged homes, wall-mounted floating shelves are chic storage maximizers and a freestanding piece of furniture helps delineate space in an open room plan.

My favorite look is a collected-over-time weave of hardbacks, sculpture, mementos, art and bookends—the bits and pieces of a curious and full life. And the best libraries are magical places in which to lose the hours. My 19th summer was spent discovering the literature of the founding fathers in the octagonal library at Hayes Plantation in North Carolina.


James Merrell

Nigella Lawson’s library is a bit looser.

Beyond the historical importance of the collection was the room itself—neo-gothic walnut cases with busts above the shelves under a pale-blue domed ceiling and in the center, an early-American eight-sided table heaving with ferns and more books on fantastic subjects like astronomy and geography. The library’s architecture suited its contents, cluing visitors in to the pursuits, passions and vices of its owner. I think about this room a lot—and about what will happen when digital books, if ever, replace the old-fashioned kind. I’m hoping books will become more prized as their population diminishes.

Other bold-faced bibliotheques to check out include Brooke Astor’s much knocked-off red lacquer and brass cases designed by Albert Hadley, Karl Lagerfeld’s 60,000-plus collection on steel shelves in Paris and Cole Porter’s handsome, freestanding brass bookshelves designed by Billy Baldwin.

Whether you have custom-milled oak built-ins lined with first editions or painted plywood shelves heaving with romance novels, the point is: Books are the real focus. They mostly have great covers and names, guests like to peek inside them and, like past relationships, you might like to look up an old one.

—Ms. Ruffin Costello is a freelance writer and design consultant based in New Orleans.