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When I married Dan, I had no idea he came with so much baggage – volumes and volumes and volumes of books. To call him well-read is an understatement. I love that Dan is an avid reader, but figuring out what to do with the mountain of books he plows through every year is a decorating challenge. We have invested in our fair share of bookcases, and I’ve learned to be very inventive in how I style them so our house looks like a home, not a branch of the Atchison Public Library.

If you love books, too, and want to give your bookcases a new look that turns heads, here are some tips to get you started.

Beautiful Books

As you approach styling your bookcases, remember that first and foremost, it’s all about the books. Your design has to revolve around your collection of books. A mistake I see people make is to fill their bookcases with accents, not books, so they end up look more like store displays than bookcases.

That said, I think you’ve got to be inventive in how you display the books in your bookshelf. One easy way to mix things up is to place some of the books in vertical stacks so you don’t have rows and rows of books in a monotonous, straight line.

Another technique I’m crazy about right now is to build a monochromatic display with items that have different textures. To create this look in a bookcase at Nell Hill’s Briarcliff, we simply flipped the books around so the pages faced out.

Then we repeated the creamy white color of the books’ pages using a variety of accents, like white pottery, sea coral, capitals and silver serving pieces.

Remember back when your teachers made you cover your textbooks in those ugly book wrappers? We’re taking that parochial look to a whole new level at Nell Hill’s right now, and the overall effect will knock your socks off. I’m over the moon about tartan plaid this holiday season, so when I spotted this technique in a travel magazine, I knew I had to copy it at the stores this season.

My inspiration photo showed books covered in tartan fabric, but that sounded way too hard to pull off, so instead we used a few different colors of tartan paper.

To break up the sea of plaid, we also covered some books in paper that featured vintage world maps. Now, I need to add a quick disclaimer here: This approach is definitely not for everyone. In fact, my husband would scream if I did this at home. He’s touchy about his books, so if he found them covered with wrapping paper or turned backwards, he would not be a happy camper. But, it’s a fun visual effect that’s new and interesting, and it may be just the touch your bookcase needs to bring it out of its slumber.

Add in Interesting Accents

Perk up your display by adding a few well-chosen accents in the space between your books. But first, a note of caution: A big mistake people make when decorating their bookcases is to cram them full of lots of tiny objects, creating a look that is chaotic and overwhelming. For a more powerful display, limit yourself to just a few larger pieces, like a gorgeous cachepot, a garden bust or a sizable antique box.

Another great look is to place artwork on the shelves of the bookshelf, intermingled with the books. In the built-in bookcases in my living room, I offset Dan’s collection of books with a few of his favorite butterfly specimens. The artwork helps to break up the sea of spines, especially if it’s as fetching as these beautiful butterflies.

If you want to pull together several accents into one display, start with a vertical backdrop–prop a piece of art, a silver tray or china platter upright in an easel. Otherwise, dark bookcase shelves can become black holes into which your carefully constructed display disappears from view. Then, add two or three additional pieces in front of the backdrop, making sure each one is a different size and texture to give your display interest.

Bookcases are also a great place for seasonal displays. Freshen your year-round tableaus by adding a touch of seasonal foliage, berries or flowers–put a gourd on top of a candlestick, a fall flower under a cloche or a passel of hedge apples in a bowl.

If you’re working with a larger bookcase, be sure your display is well balanced from one side to the next. To do so, place objects that have the same visual weight opposite each other. For instance, if you put a large blue and white ceramic cachepot on the right side of the bookcase, you will need to place another – or something that carries the same visual weight, like a garden bust or large wooden box – on the left side.

Reach New Heights

Don’t forget to utilize the space on top of your bookcase when you’re decorating. This perch is the perfect place for a dramatic display that you leave up year round or one that you can change up for each season.

That’s exactly what I like to do with the antique bibliotheca in my study. I keep a wooden dough bowl up there that extends from end to end, then fill it with seasonal greens, letting a few vines or branches cascade down the side or front. It’s a subtle but interesting look that allows me to add just a hint of the season to this beloved room. Picking baskets work well too.

I really like to layer pieces of artwork above bookcases. Start with a larger piece of art leaning against the wall behind the bookcase. Then, add a few more pieces of art, in descending sizes, placing them off center so the eye moves from one to another.

Urns, ginger jars and olive oil vessels also make ideal picks for displays on the top of bookcases. Remember, go big – when you put things up high, they seem to shrink visually, so you want pieces with heft that won’t get lost.

Next Week … Everything—and everyone—looks better by candlelight, don’t you think? I love to use warm candlelight in my home, especially during the fall and winter. Next week, I’ll have some fun ideas of ways to work candles into your home décor.

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24 Responses to “A New Book Look”

  1. Robin Says:

    I love the round painting of the two dogs that is hung on the bookcase. Is it for sale?

  2. Yvonne Says:

    Wonderful tips, Mary Carol! I have so many bookcases around my home. Most of them are functional and I need every inch of space for all the books I have. Ilove the idea of turning my books with the pages showing front.
    Very clever!

    Keep all the creative tips coming. I look forward to each and every post.
    Yvonne @ StoneGable

  3. Yvonne Says:

    I wanted to also tell you that I had a 1st year blog anniversary and as an exclusive facebook giveaway gave your wonderful book “Feathering Your Nest” as the prize. I love my copy, and now Kendra from Hayden News can enjoy her copy too.
    Yvonne @ StoneGable

  4. The Tablescaper Says:

    Very interesting ideas, but I know my husband would go crazy if I flipped the pages around. I might get away with covering a few, but certainly not all of them. I like the tip about making the objects big. I’m going to have to re-evaluate mine.

    - The Tablescaper

  5. Lucia Chastain Says:

    Thank you for all the photos of such good ideas. I needed that to show my significant other how we can house so many of my books in an attractive way. I cannot bear to part with a good book!

  6. Catpurrson Says:

    My daughter arranges her books by color, i.e., all red covers together, all blue, etc. It makes an interesting statement.

  7. Maggi zesch Says:

    Love these ideas. In the first photo-the table top book holder- is that something you can purchase at Nell hill’s? Love it

  8. JD Says:

    Another idea is to get rid of the books! So many kids don’t have them and books are expensive. A coule great ways to share your library are to donate them to local schools or to Goodwill. Another idea is to use http://www.bookmooch.com to trade books with others across the world. It’s totally free- when you list a book someone else wants, you simply ship it to them and you earn a point which can be redeemed to get a book you want from someone else, who then pays to ship it to you. Pass it on!

  9. JJ Says:

    I agree with JD…Give the books away…what can you do with hundreds and hundreds of books. Let other people get some enjoyment out of them. If you ever need that book again, check it out of the library!

  10. Mary Carol Says:

    Robin–Don’t I wish I had more of those round dog pictures—they flew out of the store. I am hoping to come across some more, or similar ones. If you would like, call the store and ask for Janet @877-746-4320 and she can put you on a pending list.

  11. Scribbler Says:

    I disagree with the ideas of turning the books backward and covering the books. I do like the idea of using larger objects to break up the books. I wrote a blog post about this. I also do not like to see Law Books — M-H — used as fillers, unless there is a lawyer in the house! I like using art, and a few interesting objects as accents. It IS about the books.

  12. Patti Dame Says:

    I like turning the books around for something different! I may rearrange this weekend! Thanks for the great photos to inspire!

  13. Love Libraries Says:

    I purchased one of your fabulous glass front bookcases for my dining room and love the tidy way it stores and displays my crystal and silver. Across the hall is a cozy library with floor to ceiling built in bookcases absolutely crammed with books. Across the top panel I applied a favorite quote in gold over the oak that says “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” I love my library, but I would really love to find an affordable sliding library ladder like I’ve seen in Nell Hills that can be purchased separately, since my bookcases are built in. Do you have access to such a thing? My ceilings are only 8 feet tall. I have a feeling there are other people out there with this dilemma/desire.

  14. Donald E. Wilson Says:

    Mary Carol, I am an avid reader, collect books, and have struggled to know how to display them in interesting and eye-catching ways. Your ideas have inspired me to be a lot more flamboyant in storing and displaying than I have been in the past. Thanks for sharing your mind-changing ideas, and thanks, too, for putting together such creative blogs. Don

  15. Doreta Boyd Says:

    You are the most tallented person I have ever known. Love you bunches and bunches

  16. Linda Green Says:

    Seeing books turned backwards gives me shivers up my spine, like fingernails on a blackboard! I get it that you are looking for a neutral effect, but there must be other ways. The bindings of the books add interest if you do it right, and then they are also more than dust catchers, as they can be read!

  17. Jean Driskell Says:

    Using old maps as covers is a terrific idea. I have lots of old maps so will start today covering a few of the books. Also like the look of book pages turned out with neutral accessories.

  18. Sarah Says:

    Mary Carol, thank you for sharing all these wonderful photos full of ideas. I like to change my shelves up from time to time, so I’ll be checking back to study these photos more carefully. I also like to use books stacked on tables and on the floor in some spots. It’s a good solution for large books.
    Thanks for sharing your ideas. I always enjoy my visits to your blog. Someday I hope to visit your stores. ~ Sarah

  19. Zakk Says:

    I like the backwards books! In fact, Medieval books were displayed this way to preserve the binding. Of course, they had fewer books than we do…

    Lovely ideas as always from an avid book lover!

  20. Curt Phillips Says:

    I have to agree with those who suggested giving your books away. Better that than to treat them like frivilous decorating accessories as shown in these photos. Turning them page end out? Covering them with tartan paper? Books themselves are quite decorative enough to my eye without being marred by such tricks. If I were to walk into a home where books had been treated as you describe I’d have to leave as soon as possible. Sorry Ms. Hill, but this particular decorating suggestion is a poor one.

    Curt Phillips – who owns 30,000 books, none of which will ever be wrapped in tartan paper

  21. Bill Says:

    Mary Carol…Where can I find Tartan Plaid Paper? I live in Springfield MO and I can not find paper anywhere or do you only use the fabric? I have some projects that I would like to use the paper on, if I can find some. Can you tell me any stores that you know of or internet sites where I can purchase paper.
    I remember earlier in the year that I heard Tartan Plaid was going to be used this Christmas and I have been looking for it ever since. I have even been looking for wrapping paper. Keep the ideas coming Please! Thanks for your help.

  22. Bill Says:

    Mary Carol I have to say I was a little surprised by the comments of a certain email here about covering books…I’m sure you take all- not so pleasant comments with a grain of salt…I was in your store for the first time in the summer of 2009 and I immediatley went home and turned my books around so that the pages were showing, rather than the binding and I love it and so do my neighbors and two of them said they were going to go home and do the same thing to their own…Thanks for giving us Great ideas to make our homes unique and more beautiful…Love your style!

  23. Robin Says:

    Mary Carol: Do you have the bird girl statue this spring? If so, how tall is it? What is it made of? And how much does it cost? Thank you! Robin Schultz

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