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.