Top-shelf bookcases

May 14

Take four piles of treasured books, add one bookcase, and you have the formula for turning a mess of a personal library into an artful display. It sounds easy. Yet there are an overwhelming number of bookcase designs out there to choose from, and the variables for choosing are many: height, depth, length, material, shape, cost, color, style. If only finding the right shelving system were as easy and enjoyable as sitting down with a good read.

For help, we turned to Christine Chang Hanway of Remodelista.com and Maryland interior designer Melissa McLay, a participant in the 2014 D.C. Design House.

Hanway admits that when feasible, installing built-in bookcases is the best way to go. (A custom bookcase can cost $1,200-$2,500 per column of shelves, depending on the material and total size of the project, says Nolan Brook, owner of Brook Custom Remodeling in Oakton.) But for those on a limited budget, or with plans for a future move, Hanway advises book lovers to find the best modular, expandable shelving systems they can afford.

Just like us, Hanway and McLay have the books, nostalgic objects and collections that fill rows and rows of shelves. But that’s okay. It’s the beloved personal items that make a house a home, anyway.

For an investment:

If custom built-ins aren’t in the cards, try a modular, expandable system such as Atlas Industries’ AS4. “It’s custom in that you buy the units [to] fit your house, but they’re all premade,” Hanway says. “I think it’s very handsome.” A 32-inch-wide single column of shelving starts at $2,700 for white oak or maple and $2,900 for walnut or a painted finish, though the price varies depending on components selected — you can add drawers or file hangers to suit your storage needs. The price is comparable to built-ins, but at least you know that if you move, you can take it with you (cost varies, www.atlaseast.com).

For a book lover on a budget:

Ikea’s Viitsjö is a hit among decorating bloggers, and for a good reason. The low-cost, glass-and-metal shelving unit comes in black but can be spray-painted any bright, fun color to match your color palette — even gold, if you have champagne taste (starting at $40, www.ikea.com).

For a large collection:

The Format open bookcase, designed by Vancouver, B.C., firm Bensen, is modular within its frame, with removable divider panels and optional drawer cassettes ($1,800-$4,871, www.hivemodern.com). “The adjustable dividers in this system allow for flexibility where you can arrange them in a uniform grid,” Hanway says, “but you can also change them into a more random grid if you get bored.” It comes in multiple sizes and finishes.

For small spaces:

Hanway says the Sapien bookcase by Bruno Rainaldi, which holds books vertically, is best used as a “literary totem pole” or “sculptural ode to books.” In gray or white, the shorter version will hold up to 50 books; the taller version up to 70. It’s especially good for a corner that can’t fit a larger bookcase ($198-$298, www.dwr.com).

For a traditional style:

Pottery Barn and Ballard Designs are good stores to try when looking for traditional styles of bookcases, McLay says. The Josephina bookcase, which recalls Old World style, is distressed by hand in Italy. Available in a variety of finishes, with shelves only or shelves and doors ($899-$2,199, www.ballarddesigns.com). Larger wall units run up to $4,999.

For families:

CB2’s Helix Taupe bookcase could be the perfect solution for a tiny room, but it could also be paired with others (or a matching desk) to make a library wall. “This is nice because you can add numerous ones together, if you have a long enough wall,” McLay says. “It’s attached, so it’s good for a young family with kids” ($199, www.cb2.com).

For a show-stopper:

The Emerson bookshelf by Redford House is “wide and large and gives you a ton of shelving,” McLay says. “It’s also in that very pretty, brass antique finish, which is really on trend right now.” The geometric iron frames will give any room major visual impact. And in 26 wood finish and color options, as McLay says, “It’s really a looker — plus it has function” ($1,868, www.zincdoor.com).

For a modern pad:

Want to graduate from particleboard? Try the LAX Series bookshelf, by Mash Studios. Twenty-five cubes are arranged in a square, bearing a striking resemblance to a certain Ikea staple — but in a much more grown-up (albeit pricier) solid English walnut. “This one has a clean design with a very strong square grid,” Hanway says. “[It] would be great for displaying both books and objects” ($1,980, www.2modern.com).

For antiques:

Books that are collectible, and therefore need some protection, can go in the Bronson bookcase. “I like the color,” McLay says of its intense black sheen. The classic lines and mahogany wood will survive moves and style changes — and develop a well-loved patina over time ($1,299, www.potterybarn.com).

For a mid-century-inspired space:

When thinking about reducing clutter, think about visual clutter, too, especially with limited square footage. “Having negative space in a bookcase is really good for a small space,” McLay says. “Don’t have it be too chunky.” The lack of sides on the mid-century-inspired VanDyke bookcase, for example, is a good thing because its openness will help a room feel more spacious ($1,995, www.mitchellgoldbobwilliams).

For a rustic style:

Wisteria’s reclaimed pine hutch is a good, rustic-looking option for a dining room or kitchen ($1,999, www.wisteria.com). Three shelves can hold books; the six large drawers (which look like 20) can tuck away linens and seasonal decorations. And don’t forget the top surface. As Hanway reminds us, “any horizontal surface is open game for displays.”

For an art gallery aesthetic:

Many people organize their books by color, Hanway notes. Of course, you can also organize alphabetically by author or topic. Or in a haphazard, stacked way, if that’s more your style. The Russian Reclaimed Tower’s five narrow shelves lend themselves to piling books horizontally ($995, www.restorationhardware.com). Or mix up shelves of books and shelves of objects; one beautiful serving bowl becomes a piece of art when it’s displayed alone.

For some whimsy:

The parts in DWR’s colorful Stacked Shelving System, designed by Belgian-Danish architect Julien De Smedt, can be combined in near-infinite configurations to design an artistic storage unit for entryways, living rooms, media rooms, and kids rooms (parts sold separately, $9-$239, www.dwr.com). “You can arrange these to become a sculpture in their own right,” Hanway says. “It’s kind of youthful. I can see them in a children’s room. I can even seen putting clothes in them.”

Roberts is a freelance writer.

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