Designing a home library for your collection as well as your comfort


February 25, 1996|By Tim Warren

For the book lover, few things are as alluring as the idea of a personal library. Just think: a place to display the bound volumes of Shakespeare and Thackery, those expensive art folios, those 19th-century prints you picked up oh-so-cheap at a second-hand book stall along the Seine in Paris ...

But the realities of a home can present a problem, especially if your fantasy includes placing all this in the traditional English library, complete with floor-to-ceiling shelves, deep mahogany paneling, leather chairs and a crackling fire. Maybe you don't have an enormous room with endless shelves and a massive stone fireplace. And what about the computer or television that needs a home?

A library needn't be limited to certain narrow images, however. Like every other room, a library can reflect one's own tastes, as well as play to the strengths of the room. You'll still get that retreat you envision -- with a little planning.

First off, a library is more than a place to display books. "A library is a very personal space," says Ted L. Pearson, vice president of Rita St. Clair Associates. "Books transport you. So a library should separate you from the rest of the world."

Gary Lawrik, president of Lawrik Interiors Ltd. of Annapolis, says many of his clients insist on having a library, even if it means giving up their living room or dining room.

"A lot of owners of medium-sized houses want libraries," Mr. Lawrik says. "People want cozy, and a library promises that." Mr. Pearson concurs: "The library becomes like a cocoon."

Thus, Mr. Lawrik has one client who has requested a wet bar in his library, and another who wanted a place to put his children's toys, because the kids often ended up in the library. Mr. Lawrik had a cupboard built in to resolve that problem.

Richard Taylor, a partner in Taylor/Siegmeister of Baltimore, recalls one client who wanted the library to double as a guest room. Mr. Taylor managed to combine functionality with fantasy by cutting down a regular-size bed and converting it into a daybed.

Another client, who was remodeling a 1950s contemporary home in Baltimore County, wanted the television set in the library -- but it had to be unobtrusive. So Mr. Taylor found an early French armoire and placed the set inside it.

That client said she envisioned the library as "a place where we can just lie down in front of the fire and read. We have a large den that is more of a social room. We envisioned this room for ourselves."

It is small -- 12 feet by 16 feet, she says. But it's both functional and inviting.

The books she and her husband wanted to display are mostly photography and art books -- usually quite large. And they had several artworks, primarily African pottery (she is an anthropologist) and pieces by the American ceramist Bennett Bean. The books and the artworks occupy the shelves that fill up one wall of the room.

Mr. Pearson cautions that because books come in different sizes, so should shelves.

"With novels, you can use shallower shelves because they're usually a smaller size than, say, an art book," he says. "Books that have to do with art, architecture and design are bigger, so you might put them on a table, or place them on deeper shelves. Very often, we suggest pull-out shelves, so you can read these books while standing at a wall."

Because the library is a place to read, good lighting and seating are essential.

"The idea is to have several places at which you can sit," says Mr. Pearson. "A sofa and a comfortable chair, such as a wing chair, are ideal." Mr. Lawrik suggests a chair with an ottoman, or perhaps a love seat.

Remember that lighting serves several purposes -- illuminating the written page, the immediate surrounding area (chairs, rugs), and the walls beyond the books. "Avoid too strong a contrast -- you can get eyestrain," Mr. Pearson advises.

Multiple lighting is suggested: halogen lights and swing-arm lamps, and lamps with dimmers or three-way switches. Mr. Lawrik has put in recessed lighting, about 12 inches from the bookcase, for clients. Mr. Pearson says that "often we suggest low-voltage lights behind each shelf for attractive display, and to make selecting a book easier."

Integrating books with other elements is key to having an attractive library.

"If you collect dolls, pottery, bronzes -- by all means show them off," Mr. Pearson says. "You don't have to have wall-to-wall books. The room can become terribly heavy."

But when you have as many books as Richard Macksey, wall-to-wall books become a necessity. Dr. Macksey, who teaches comparative literature at the Johns Hopkins University, is a bibliophile and a self-confessed "pack rat." The last count of books in his rambling 1921 Guilford home numbered, he guesses, about 50,000.

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