Cover Photo: Juniper Books

Arranging books has become a design field in itself. How you group, stack or assemble your collection says a lot about you. Tatler delves into the driving trends behind a #shelfie, and meets the designers embracing the phenomenon

Actor Ashley Tisdale sparked heated debate on social media earlier this year after she confessed to buying hundreds of books to fill her empty bookshelves purely for aesthetic value just days before a team from a magazine arrived to shoot a video of her home.

“Any interior designer would have done the same,” Tisdale later wrote on Twitter. “They do it all the time—I was just honest about it.”

She may be right. The desire to use books, and libraries, as part of home decor “has always been there”, says Keith Chan, founder of Hong Kong-based interior design firm Hintegro. Architect Dara Huang, who is the founder of London- and Hong Kong-based architectural and design practice Design Haus Liberty, agrees. “A feature library wall is something that will never go out of style—it is as timeless as it is stylish,” she says. “People will always be passionate about displaying books as a way to decorate their shelves, no matter how digital the world gets.”

In case you missed it: Home Tour: Inside a Hong Kong House, Designed by Hintegro, Where Pets and Supercars Take Centre Stage

Beyond the design of bookshelves, their styling—and curation—plays an important role in the work the designers carry out. “Some people are very well-read, and just visiting someone’s bookshelf can tell you a lot about the individual,” says Huang. “[The books] can also be completely decorative, with false covers—or even being blank inside. It’s okay if you’re not into reading, and you just want a certain style.”

Sometimes, what homeowners want on display on their bookshelves can be linked to the industries they work in, says Chan. Designers “love to use books as decor”: one graphic designer client requested a bespoke bookshelf which allows book covers to be displayed, with a selection that changes seasonally. Lawyers, many of whom “mainly browse through law books in PDF format today and likely wouldn’t have taken out their physical law books to read in over a decade”, still seek “an air of regality” in their homes and offices via a display of heavily bound legal tomes. Chefs, meanwhile, tend to own a lot of books—everything from cookbooks to volumes about ceramics and glassware, he adds.

In other cases, clients with young children want a library to be a focal part of the home. An American client of Chan’s, who is of Japanese and Chinese heritage, asked for plenty of shelves to house a large collection of books in different languages for her multilingual children; another commission came from a couple who regretted not reading much while growing up and who therefore wanted to create an environment at home where their children can be immersed in books.

Just visiting someone’s bookshelf can tell you a lot about the individual
Dara Huang

In the same vein, Singapore-based architect and co-founder of RT+Q Architects Rene Tan, who says he grew up “being curious over my dad’s modest but diverse library” in Penang, Malaysia, built a bespoke full-height bookshelf in his Singapore home to fulfil his desire that his daughter Lara grow up surrounded by books. “Reading and learning should not be confined only to classrooms, lectures and the college years,” Tan says. “That was why I developed an interest in having books available to me and my family on demand—being able to read anything, anytime, and physically—without having to download information.” His efforts have paid off: Lara is excelling at literature in secondary school.

Read more: Home Tour: How Singaporean Architect Rene Tan’s New House Became a Space For Creative Experiments

Reading between the lines

But what do books really say about us? And in an age when people’s eyes are more likely to scan a screen than a paper page, what function do books and their physical arrangement serve both outwardly and inwardly?

Thatcher Wine is the world’s leading figure in professional bookshelf curation, and has designed for a host of celebrity clients, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Laura Dern, as well as for homes, hotels and businesses around the world, including Raffles in Singapore, The Londoner in Macau and NoMad hotel in New York.

“There’s definitely a lot of psychology at play, whether it’s conscious or subconscious, about the choices we make and how we decorate our homes,”Wine says. “Books, more than any other single object in our homes, have potential to tell a descriptive story about who we are. I help people tell the story of who they are across their bookshelves.”

The work of Wine’s company, Juniper Books, extends beyond merely arranging an existing collection to look pretty: his 20-strong team, based in Colorado, sources rare or out-of-print titles, designs new, more visually pleasing jackets for well-loved books, and creates home libraries from scratch, ranging from a handful of books to several thousand. Their speciality, however, is in designing “book murals”, where a design is printed across the spines of a wall of books, creating a single image in a process Wine has patented; previous commissions have included favourite authors’ faces, maps, famous paintings and family photographs.

In an age when every decision we make—from the products we buy to the culture we consume to the political party we support—functions as an extension of our personality and values, it makes sense that books, often objets d’art in themselves, are part of that.

Books, more than any other single object in our homes, have potential to tell a descriptive story about who we are
Thatcher Wine

Wine takes a holistic view of his craft, stresses that each project is about getting to know what the client actually likes, rather than throwing random reads on the wall (sorry, Ashley), and has detailed questions he asks to divine their interests, personality and what inspires them. He then acquires the books, and makes sure the end result looks good. “We can do classical and elegant, or super modern and minimalist. That’s the fun part: taking books, which no one thought that you could modify and adapt, and just transforming them. Or choosing different ones that fit in perfectly to complete the design vision,” he says.

Organising books by spine—from rainbow ordering to inverting them so their pages are on display—is a divisive design choice online. Authors and literary agents have decried the practice, while a raft of impassioned op-eds argue for or against the trend. In a visually driven world, there’s something demonstrably pleasing about seeing a chromatically considered bookshelf—the hashtag “#shelfie” has 3.2 million uses on Instagram, and the top posts are those showing books organised by hue. Wine weighs in with diplomacy: “[Books are] a dual-purpose object: you can read them, or you can also decorate with them. As we make our way further into the technological age, people appreciate physical objects more. Even if they’re reading on an electronic device or listening to audiobooks, they understand the power and the beauty of the printed book, especially in their homes.”

Worth a thousand words

During the pandemic, people’s video calling backgrounds became a way to project interests and authority, and a way for onlookers to dissect and judge someone’s credibility or personality. A wall of books behind a politician, for example, is analysed for potentially discrediting material: from aspersions around perceived “soft” literature to controversial publications. When Christine Lagarde, president of the European Central Bank, appeared via Zoom at a 2020 summit, viewers expressed shock at a copy of The Atlas of Creation, written by a Turkish religious sex cult leader; that same year, a title by a Holocaust denier on British politician Michael Gove’s shelf caused consternation.

Tagged by media as a “celebrity bibliophile”, Wine understands how books’ meaning extends beyond the words written on their pages. People read more during the worst of the pandemic, but wider literacy rates statistics paint a bleaker image of the time people spend with books, despite numerous studies showing that regular reading improves sleep, stress levels, mental health, emotional intelligence and career prospects.

Wine’s current career started as a hobby while he was working in tech at the start of the millennium, and contemporaries would laugh at him for focusing on what seemed, by all accounts, an antiquated and diminishing format. But he will have the last laugh: last year, Juniper shipped to 65 countries, capitalising on a movement back to tangible objects in a world of streaming, screens and subscriptions.

“People are realising like that they spend enough time on their phones, staring at screens, especially if they work at home, so they want a place of refuge where they can unplug and not be constantly connected, especially when it comes to kids,” he says. “We’re not going to convince anybody to put down their phones at this point permanently, but we’re just creating some balance.”

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