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Decorating By the Book


I bought a house last November. I love this house, and I want it to be my sanctuary: peaceful, harmonious, interesting. But I have always felt insecure about my home decorating skills; I sometimes think they haven’t evolved much beyond Dorm Room Chic, or Frazzled Parent Modern. 

But I’m decades past the dorm room and my frazzled parent days are (mostly) over, so I am determined to make this the most beautiful house I’ve ever lived in.

I got off to a great start: I bought a pretty rug and painted a room a gorgeous shade of deep blue. My dad offered me the simple maple chair that was in his childhood bedroom and that otherwise would be headed to Goodwill. I put it in my own very bare bedroom, draped a blanket on it and put a big plant next to it and — voila! One room is done. 

Now what? I felt a bit paralyzed, and the advent of COVID-19 didn’t help. I subscribed to stacks of magazines — House Beautiful and Elle Decor and others — but found them overwhelming. I don’t even open them when they come now. 

I decided my next focus would be my books. Though I gave away dozens of boxes of books when I moved, I still have plenty, and my swaybacked and crooked Ikea Billy shelves, which I’ve moved from home to home for over 20 years, just won’t cut it anymore. So I hired a local handyman to build a wall of bookshelves. 

But how to arrange the books? Could I make the shelves look intentional and elegant?

One of my friends arranged all her books by color — ROY G BIV and all. But that didn’t suit me, and ostentatious coffee table books didn’t seem right either (I need room on my coffee table for bowls of popcorn and, well, my feet), so I reached out to some experts for advice.

It’s all in the mix

Dana Kraus, who sells luxury vintage jewelry and has worked at some of the top design magazines, started with what’s most important: “Books give a house a soul.” 

The book collection at her home in Sharon, Conn., is both beautiful and functional: It includes childhood favorites as well as reference books for her various projects, and incorporates books that are pleasing visually, first editions and ones with rich bindings, interspersed with objects that are beautiful and relevant to her work: fossils, sketches, catalogs, ammonites. 

“Magically, it all works because it’s reflective of our tastes and style,” she said.

In other words, mix books that you love but make sure that mix includes tomes that are esthetically gorgeous. They will enhance the plainer books that are (also) important to you.

Books tell your own story

Still unsure about my own taste or style, I made another call.

Interior designer Alison Kist of New York City and Lakeville, Conn., spent 9 years living in London, where she visited many homes with old English libraries. “I just was drawn to these libraries: The books bring a warmth, texture, a sense of history.”

When she’s decorating a home, her approach is to “shop the house” of her clients, starting with what they already have.

“I like incorporating the owners’ own things. It makes the space much more personal, as opposed to starting over all new.”

She’ll go to tag sales to find things that have a story to them. “Whether you learn that story or not, it’s lived a life somewhere, so it seems more interesting,” she said.

How to stack 

She suggests stacking books horizontally, to break up the vertical lines of the room, so the shelves are not just rows and rows of books.

“That stack is also a great place to display a little object on top,” Kist added.

I don’t collect anything (having disposed of my previous collections of Party Goody Bag Trinkets and Decapitated Cat Toys) but I found some Harney & Sons Tea tins that remind me of my years in Millerton, N.Y., and a pretty vase. I stacked a few books sideways and put the tins on top, the vase next to them. Not bad, at least until my bedside stack of books gets too tall and tips over and I need to add them to the shelf.

Like Proust’s madeleine

Finally, I spent a mesmerizing hour with designer Matthew Patrick Smyth in his simply decorated retreat in Salisbury, Conn. Each space he showed me was filled with books that have a personal meaning for him — with the author, with the subject, with the day he bought it or received it as a gift from a now-departed friend. How they looked on the shelf was unimportant; what he cared about was the memories, the feelings each book evoked. Together, his books told a story of a fascinating and well-lived life.

My books do say something about my life There are feminist favorites, books by friends, nonprofit management tomes, parenting advice, my husband’s huge collection of bird guides, memoirs from people who have lived fascinating and inspiring lives, and lots and lots of fiction — great stories about worlds and experiences far away from my own.

Some I’ve read 10 times, others I’ve meant to read but never got around to. They aren’t bound in leather, and I probably bought most of them either at library book sales or on the internet; I don’t have a lot of interesting stories about them

That’s OK, though: as Dana Kraus told me, “Books are to be used and enjoyed every day.”

The other day, having given up on trying to make the shelves look any kind of way, I ran my hand over the titles and stopped on a battered copy of Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park,” my book club’s pick for next month. I pulled it out and started reading the familiar words about the most fortunate Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon.

I settled into my dad’s maple chair, pulled the blanket around me, and began to read.

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