Jim Rosenau, an artist based in Berkeley, Calif., crafted a… (Jim Rosenau, Baltimore…)
You have to study the piece called "Inversion" for a minute to fully appreciate the joke.
Jim Rosenau, an artist based in Berkeley, Calif., has crafted a fully functional and aesthetically appealing bookshelf from five volumes. Three tomes are used for the flat part of the shelf, while another two make up the brackets.
So far, so good.
Now, look closely at what's actually resting on that shelf. They're not … are they? Yep — there are a dozen neatly lined up, book-shaped blocks of wood.
Bet you just smiled.
For home decorators and artists alike, books are the new bricks. They pile them up, paint them and drip wax over them.
"The climate has changed in the past five years," says Rosenau, who sells tables made from a stack of legal books, and chairs with oversized "pencils" for legs from his website, http://www.thisintothat.com. (His work retails for $45-$600.)
"People no longer view my furniture through a transgressive lens," he says. "Few people have that shocked reaction, 'My God, he cuts up books.' "
When Rosenau started his company in 2002, he was one of the few artists who repurposed old books. Now when he exhibits at national crafts show, he has plenty of company.
For instance, fashionistas have been snapping up the handbags that Caitlin Phillips of Rebound Designs crafts from such beloved novels as "Sense and Sensibility" and "Jane Eyre."
In 2004, when Phillips first realized that a hardback book was the ideal size and shape for a purse, she initially feared consumer backlash.
"I made my first purses from Reader's Digest Condensed Books because they are the lowest form of books," she says. "I had no idea how popular they would be. But the market really exploded. I quit my job three months after making the first one."
When Phillips' wallets and purses ($30-$250, http://www.etsy.com/shop/rebounddesigns) aren't toting around their owners' wallets and lipsticks, they can be shelved in the library, just like any other volume.
"They are useful purses and they are fully functional, but most people won't want to carry the same purse every day," Phillips says. "The handle tucks away inside when you're not using it. It looks just like a book when you put it on a shelf."
Most artists want the books they are transforming to be instantly recognizable as former reading material. That's kind of the point.
But under the skilled hands of Baltimore artist Susan Brandt, Agatha Christie paperbacks undergo a profound metamorphosis. Brandt cut up the pages of one of the original Miss Marple mysteries, "The Body in the Library," into thin strips. She then "knitted" the paper into a 4-by-2-foot shawl ($800, http://www.susanbrandt.net.) called "Comfort Wrap."
You wouldn't want to wear the shawl in the rain or, for that matter, anywhere else. The wrap is meant for display purposes only, just like any other piece of contemporary art.
"I wanted to make something beautiful from old paperback novels that no one wants anymore," Brandt says.
"Comfort Wrap" won the top prize in the 2009 Altered Book Competition sponsored by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.
The artists say that the recent proliferation of book-based crafts reflects a profound shift taking place in the way that bookworms view their favorite pastime.
As long as there have been bound volumes, some readers have valued them primarily for their content; for others, the object's aesthetic properties have been paramount.
For example, illuminated Bibles from the Middle Ages, with their elaborate illustrations adorned with malachite and lapis lazuli and their oversized letters burnished with gold and silver, can attract even atheists.
But it wasn't until the creation of computers that it was possible to think of the physical book, with its bindings and glued pages, as occupying a different part of the universe than the virtual book of stories, ideas and arguments.
Readers began to realize that maybe books didn't live only inside libraries and bookstores. Maybe they also lived inside some machines. The advent of such portable e-readers as the Kindle, Nook and iPad only widened the divide between the object and its content.
In that light, Rosenau's "Inversion" isn't merely funny — it's positively metaphysical.
Suddenly, it became possible for Ellicott City artist Kristen Christy to convert former Golden Books into colorful birdhouses ($18 at http://www.etsy.com) ideal for hanging in a children's bedroom without fear of criticism. "The Poky Little Puppy", she says, is a particular customer favorite.
"People are initially less shocked by the destruction of the book because they realize the ideas in it aren't bound in paper but can take so many forms," Phillips said. "Books have lost a little bit of their untouchableness, and that's a good thing."
At the same time, books have been held in reverence for a very long time, and some artists and designers intentionally play around with those historic associations.