Bookshelves tend to live quietly in the backgrounds of interiors, really coming alive with their contents. There are, of course, the beautiful built-ins that shine in upscale design magazines — notable with their exquisite crowns or fluting, elegant trims, exotic wood or paint finishes.
But in recent years, freestanding bookshelves are turning heads. They’ve been elevated from mundane brown boxes to centerpieces with dynamic design elements in a range of styles, finishes and occasionally bold colors — all of which spell modern, even with traditional roots. While edgy contemporary pieces have been available in Europe for decades, they now are making much more of a splash at retail here.
Modular, architectural or sculptural, these bookcases are no wallflowers. They lean, they anchor, they float, they divide space. And some do it in most unconventional ways — in circular frames, organic shapes, cubes that create engaging compositions on the wall, shelves that are asymmetrical or slant sideways. Even wall systems designed to house flat-screen TVs offer relief from the convention of the grid.
One catalyst for rethinking the look of bookshelves is the shrinking of space. Downsizing — which may include shedding huge collections of books, as well as the advent of the Nook and other e-readers that are slowing the acquiring of hard copies — means that less dedicated storage may be necessary.
So especially appropriate to apartments, condos and homes with smaller interiors is the etagere. Once considered a dust catcher for tchotchkes, the etagere has emerged as the new, improved “bookcase light.”
“There’s not a place you can’t put one,” says Bob Williams, creative director for Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams Home. “It can go into hallways and more public rooms. I’ve got one in my bath for towels. They’re quite versatile.
”What I like about etageres,“ says Williams, “is that they have a smaller footprint. They give a room some height. They’re not dominant like armoires that were so popular 10 to 15 years ago. They can fit in narrow spaces. They can be used as room dividers. They’re almost sculptural but functional, depending on how you decorate them, with books in various color and shapes or small objects.“
The slim shape also is a natural for grouping. “You can use an etagere singly or in multiples — two or three together,“ says Williams. “That creates a nice rhythm with the style. And they nicely balance other pieces.“
From slender frames of polished stainless steel combined with white oak, as in a 1970s-inspired Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams piece called Caffrey, which is distinguished by its asymmetrical shelving, to more traditional painted wood cabinetry embellished with fretwork, as in the Babette etageres from the HB Home collection for Kindel Furniture, there’s a considerable diversity of style.
At French Heritage, the four-shelf Evry bookcase actually stretches to 62 1/2 inches wide. Part of the Avenue collection, the oversized etagere is architecturally elegant, with turned columns bisected by shelves with black edges and accents across the pediment top — a pleasant contrast to its light blonde cherry.
Wall-mounted shelving with open backs, some with ladder-style shelves like the Helix from CB2 have a modern edge, especially with the teaming of oak with carbon steel in a graphic contrast.
Other wall-mounted shelving has graduated from the decorative ledges that have been popular for some time. Modular is back, but many of the cubes we’re seeing are different from those popular in this country in the 1970s. Options allow you to configure in pleasing arrangements, sometimes in contrasting colors or finishes, with some systems, such as those from Ligne Roset, that complete the look with consoles — i.e., cabinets with doors.
In addition, there are intriguing unorthodox shapes, such as the flexible design from Kartell called Bookworm. It, too, can be arranged as you like, from a snail-like spiral to an undulating curve stretched across a wall, nearly 27 feet in the largest size.
Circular frames also are adding to the mix. One called Bulls Eye from cFc, crafted from metal, houses conventional shelves. Lines, a bookshelf from Ligne Roset, is defined by what resembles a fat picture frame. Further distinguishing it are shelves that sit at angles, which sets up dynamic displays.
On the AllModern website, you’ll find hexagon shapes that can be stacked (the Brant from Hokku designs), and one bookcase called Cloud from Cappellini that looks like conjoined bubbles.
Dimensional play also adds movement to some bookcases. Boogie Woogie, which comes in black and white as well as an arresting red, has an undulating surface that’s reflective as well because of its high-gloss finish.
Some wall-mounted 3-D shelves read more like sculpture on the wall.
Curiously, a pair of low bookshelves from the manufacturer Julian Chichester, use flat shapes for the suggestion of sculpture. Inspired by classical, mid-century designs, the one sports simple quarter-sawn oak shelves that are divided by busts made out of gesso. The silhouettes depict Athena, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Another version has pineapples with scored surfaces that pop against black limed oak shelves. Both seem whimsical and sophisticated at the same time.
You can always shake things up a bit with color. With more and more hues showing up in home design, it’s no surprise that there are options for bookshelves as well. At Room and Board, there’s Slim, delicately scaled powder- coated steel bookshelves available in 10 colors, including blossom (pink), ocean, green, navy, yellow and orange (five weeks by special order). The powder-coated natural steel bookshelf measures 24 inches wide by 15 inches deep and 72 inches tall.
Huppe offers color options (like bright yellow) to team with American walnut veneer for its Lyrics modules, which include open and closed storage, both wall-mounted and base pieces, making a variety of layouts possible.
Even larger entertainment systems are mixing up materials or finishes, as well as configuration, for more interest. At French Heritage, combinations of wood and metal can be rustic or modern in a Belgian industrial or loft look. The newest entertainment system at Habersham has a graceful arched pediment in the center, good proportions and cross-shaped boxes that create central focal points, and contrasting picture molding on the back panels.
Whether you prefer something streamlined or wall- mounted, symmetrical or off-balance, there are plenty of styles, materials, finishes and colors for bookshelves — whether you have books or not.
CAPTIONS AND CREDIT
H-1: An engaging customizable system of storage from Ligne Roset called Book and Look, designed by Pagnon and Pelhaitre, includes cubes with a depth of 11 inches, which in multiples as seen here create an artistic presentation. Chests, shelving with 1/2-inch thick panels, and cubes can be configured as you wish, with contrasting back color also lending to the graphic statement, starting at $700. Credit: Ligne Roset
H-2: Gleaming, polished stainless steel frames quarter-sawn white oak veneer shelves in a handsome, sturdy but airy etagere. The Caffrey bookcase from Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams Home channels the spirit of 1970s California modern. It measures 32 inches wide by 14 inches deep, stands 73 3 / 4inches tall and retails for $1,620. Credit: Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams Home
H-3: A circular frame around conventional shelving creates an arresting focal point. The Bulls Eye bookcase from cFc, which is made from stainless steel, has shelves 13 inches deep, is 63 1 / 2inches in diameter and sells for $3,875. Credit: cFc
H-4: Ladder-like shelving in white quarter-sawn oak is punctuated by squared metal-tube frames in powder-coated carbon, an attractive high contrast. Each wall-mounted Helix shelving unit is 30 inches wide by 20 inches deep and 70 inches tall and sells for $199 at CB2. A desk option also is available for $249. Credit: CB2
H-5: Sloping shelves are contained like a picture frame in a handsome bookshelf called Lines, designed by Peter Maly, from Ligne Roset, handsome in matte black. Indirect lighting is an option to light the 1-inch thick shelves. The piece, also available in white, sells for $4,345. Credit: Ligne Roset
H-6: Designed by Stefano Giovannoni in 2004 and made in Italy by Magis, the curvy Boogie Woogie shelving system is designed for stacking and adjoining. Sold in sets of two units, the system can be configured to your desires. Shown in glossy red (also available in black and white), it sells for $589 for a set of two at www.yliving.com. Credit: YLiving
H-7: Curves and fretwork dress this narrow etagere- like bookcase from the HB Home Collection of Kindel Furniture. Five fixed shelves are decorated with blind fretwork, which also covers the entire frame and is accented in a contrasting paint color, here shown in custom citron (No. 30) and white (No. 70). The Baby Babette is 18 inches wide by 13 inches deep, stands 88 inches tall and sells for $4,800. A 42-inch wide option (Babette) also is available. Credit: HB Home/Kindel Furniture Company
H-8: What’s amazing about this bookshelf is its flexibility — literally. The Bookworm, designed by Ron Arad from manufacturer Kartell, can be wound more tightly in a spiral shape as shown, or undulate across a wall — it’s up to you to weigh in on the creation. Extrusion technology makes it possible. Made from batch-dyed flame retardant PVC, the 126-inch-long version with seven bookends sells for $455 at www.yliving.com. Credit: YLiving
H-9: Even small-scale shelving is being re-thought. Here, a whimsical riff on the urban landscape, this clever design holds supplies, plants, artwork, magazines or books on three landings. Made of sturdy epoxy-coated steel, it measures 12 inches long, 3 3 / 4inches wide and 25 1 / 2 inches tall and sells for $98 at Chiasso. Credit: Chiasso
EXT—1: A handsome curved architectural pediment lends a strong focal point to an entertainment center from the American Treasures collection of Habersham. The Nassau Home Theater blends classical lines with modern influences, mixing up its shelving in a graphic, modern way that relieves the monotony of straight-across shelves. As with all designs in the collection, the piece is completely customizable, so sizes and finish options can be specified. Credit: Habersham
EXT—2: Walnut veneer adds richness to this streamlined design by Eric Jourdan for Ligne Roset. The shelves for the Dino bookcase, shown in white, wrap around the rear and the sides. It sells for $3,930. Credit: Ligne Roset
EXT—3: Cutouts between each cube of the Cedric etagere at Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams lend a dash of style to the minimalistic design. The 24-inch wide, 70-inch tall piece, which is finished in a shade called brawn, is made of ash veneers and parawood solids, and it’s lightly distressed to help hide the wear of daily use. Shown as a pair, the etageres add weight without becoming weighty. Credit: Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams
EXT—4: Many of the bookcases designed for Noir are inspired by finds in flea markets, little shops in L.A. and other travels. This one called Roosevelt is crafted from mahogany with a hand-rubbed black finish on the exterior (natural inside). It’s architectural, with a stepped profile and a top reminiscent of a pagoda. It measures 36 inches wide by 17 1 / 2inches deep and stands 85 1 / 2inches tall. Credit: Noir
EXT—5: Shelves may be used to add architecture as well as color to a space. Here, a pair of stackable shelves called Tricolore, designed by Hertel and Klarhoefer for Ligne Roset, flank a doorway. Credit: Ligne Roset
EXT—6: Closed cabinets, a long console that hugs the floor and holds a flat-screen TV, and open shelving that float above are part of a system called Mixte designed by Mauro Lipparini for Ligne Roset. Prices start at $6,375. Credit: Ligne Roset
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