Bookshelves can speak volumes — and not just because of the tomes they contain. Accessorized with art, mementos, photographs and other favorite belongings, bookshelves can reveal a lot about their owners. "Built-in bookshelves can look very generic, so you have to make them look like your own," says Nora Kuhlmann-Lasky, who co-owns Caravan Finds (2011 Magazine St., 504-407-0499; www.facebook.com/caravanfinds), a Magazine Street shop for vintage furnishings and decorative objects, with Melanie Fischmann. Kuhlmann-Lasky and Fischmann offer the following tips for styling bookshelves.
Start with the shelves
When arranging bookshelves, Kuhlmann-Lasky and Fischmann begin by removing everything, cleaning the shelves, moving or adjusting the height of shelves if necessary and sorting through existing books. (The latest paperback murder mystery may not be the most visually arresting volume.) Sometimes they accentuate shelves by painting or wallpapering the wall behind them. A trendy color or wallpaper pattern can make shelves a focal point. Installing lighting (recessed lights or overhead spots, for example) and changing hardware also can improve the design of built-in shelves.
Use a unique piece of furniture as a bookshelf
If you don't have built-in bookshelves, Kuhlmann-Lasky and Fischmann recommend transforming a piece of furniture. For example, the partners recently renewed a Hollywood Regency pagoda they found at an auction. They raised its height and added sophistication with a black-lacquer finish.
Next, collect an interesting mix of objects to display with books. "We like to use a client's collected items," Fischmann says. "We go around the house pulling things. When we display an item on the bookshelves, it becomes more of an art object." By perusing their client's home for things to display, Kuhlmann-Lasky and Fischmann gain a clear idea of what the client likes. "The goal is to create a beautiful visual display that speaks personally to the client," Kuhlmann-Lasky says. The process also helps the client see what sorts of new purchases would be complementary from a design perspective.
Grouping similar items and colors gives objects greater impact. A collection of vintage cigar boxes, pottery or seashells makes a stronger statement when viewed all together than scattered through the house. "One family collects bottles of sand from beaches they visit," Kuhlmann-Lasky says. "We found different ways of elevating the bottles on Lucite stands and added more beach-like items."
A work of art that has been overlooked in an out-of-the way place gains new significance exhibited on a bookshelf. Paintings and photographs can be hung on the vertical face or back wall of a bookshelf or placed on top of a stack of books. "When you display something in a creative way, it all of a sudden becomes important," Fischmann says. Art also brings attention to books that people gather and treasure.
Include organic things
Driftwood, antlers, rocks or a real tortoise shell are nature's own works of art. They are beautiful, sculptural, tactile and timeless. They also add a customized quality to bookshelves. "You want to have moveable, touchable objects that draw people's interest and that they can look at," Kuhlmann-Lasky says.
Kuhlmann-Lasky and Fischmann like to include lamps in their arrangements or highlight items with library or art lighting. "It's important to light the shelving as if you were lighting a piece of art," Fischmann says. "The soft glow of a lamp in the bookshelves at night creates a completely different ambience compared to the day," Kuhlmann-Lasky says.
If shelves are double-sided (flanking an architectural feature such as a fireplace, for example), arrange books and decorative wares with an eye toward symmetry and balance. If you use the top two shelves for books on one side, do the same on the other. Books don't have to be displayed upright; they can be stacked or even placed on an easel. Likewise, you may want to divide things so you have similarly sized items and colors on both sides. Order, context and balance will make bookshelves look cohesive, collected and curated.