Column: Home Front with Cate Burren
Cate Burren, of Angel + Blume Interior Design in Cambridge, says well-shelved books help make a house a home
Have you noticed how many things that were absolutely finished have proved to be anything but obsolete and are now really rather fashionable in our lives and homes? Remember how cinemas were going to die out when the DVD (or VHS machines for those of us of a certain vintage) came along, or when records were taken over by tape cassettes, then CDs, then music was just simply downloaded? And the beloved book was going to be replaced with a kindle or tablet or phone.
Thank goodness that none of these predictions have come true and indeed we seem to now have the best of all worlds available to us, as LPs make a huge comeback, cinemas thrive (in fact most of us seem obsessed with not only going to the pictures, but trying to recreate both the surround-sound and the size of the screen at home), and book sales flourish. Thank goodness. How wonderful to have choices and to not lose the old, while embracing the new.
I am well aware that I am a sucker for books. I have always loved them and seeing a well presented, personal collection of books really does lift my heart. Just occasionally I encounter a home without books – more often this is a holiday cottage or a guest room where the owners just haven’t thought to leave any books - and I am surprised how characterless it can feel without them.
Presenting your books is a somewhat trickier business than you would imagine. I like to think that being able to access your books - by which I mean comfortably taking them off the shelf - is crucial to good usage of your collection, so you need space in front of them to get to them, a good orderly system that means if you remove a few tomes, the whole row doesn’t fall over, and there’s some sort of order to where things go (subject matter, alphabetical etc – but more of this later).
The late lamented Karl Lagerfeld was a notorious book collector with purportedly more than 300,000 volumes in his collection. He claimed that he had no room left in his house to collect anything other than books and stacked them high and sideways - if you Google ‘Karl Lagerfeld book collection’, you will see what I mean. While this was typically dramatic, I can’t think that if you are searching for that one book that you need, you are going to be able to easily lay your hands on it, or indeed extract it from the bottom of the pile should you stumble across it.
Displaying books so they look good is a different matter (and I suspect presentation was high in Karl’s mind, but I could be doing him a disservice). I think books of similar heights work well on bookcases and not having too much wasted height between the top of the books and the shelf above is generally an aesthetic bonus. Fortunately, types of books - novels, cookery books, gardening books etc - seem to have approximately similar heights, so you can make your collection look good and still have some sense of order. I have occasionally seen books arranged by colour of spine in overly stylish interiors magazines and this seems a step too far, unless of course you really can remember the colour of the spine of all the books you own, so you can find them again, in which case you may need to get out more, as indeed does the arranger of books by colour.
On a more practical note, a client of mine made a very good and obvious point, when you think about it, that if you put children’s books low down where they can reach them, or better still use a bookcase where they can see the fronts of them, they are more likely to be tempted to get them out and read them. And not just in their bedrooms, in communal household spaces too – it may be a long shot to think that a book would catch their eye and they might end up reading rather than watching telly, but it is surely worth a try.
For similar reasons, I am a very big fan of books in bathrooms and kitchens – we tend to think that books don’t really live in either room, apart from the collection of current trendy cookbooks arranged ostentatiously within an open wall unit, but I think they should. I have an ever-changing selection of books in my bathroom which I browse when bathing and a large bookcase in my kitchen which I like to think distracts me from eating, although unfortunately this is one bit of multi-tasking I do seem to be good at.
Of course, an actual library in your home is a wonderful thing – to have a calm space, surrounded by books, comfortable reading chairs, appropriate lighting, is a slice of heaven - but I think that libraries can be created even if you don’t have a room to allocate to it, as most of us don’t. A dining room can double up beautifully as a library, as can a spacious landing or hallway, or sometimes just a corner of a room with well-designed built-in bookcases can give a library feel and add interest to a room. Thinking about how best to house your collection of books – precious or otherwise – will mean that you get the most from them and they will add character and familiarity to your home.
And just a final thought for you, which is perhaps not totally interiors-related but is a reminder to you from me, just as a book lover. We all love Amazon. We like the speed, the price and the Amazon delivery person arriving on our doorstep with exactly what we ordered. However, I am going to say to you what I regularly say to myself. Try to resist, or at least, try other approaches as well. Bookshops are magical, wonderous places and feeling the book in your hands, sampling its contents at your will and looking at its pictures will lead you to books that you would not necessarily be drawn to online.
And while I am doling out advice that I am not qualified to give, I am also going to encourage you to think about second hand books – a book with a rich history, an interesting smell, a heritage, is an individual object that only you have. Really, I would defy any who truly loves books to enter the Amnesty bookshop on Mill Road and not leave clutching a purchase that feels like an absolute treasure.
See angelandblume.com for more.