Chicago Tribune, March 2002

Renee Baldwin didn't realize she was using books to accent the design in her Lake Bluff home until one day, she realized they were everywhere-on the family room mantel, on the deck of the master bathroom tub, even in the covered porch and guest bathroom.

"I don't think it's been a conscious choice, but it always seemed natural," says Baldwin, whose husband, Chris, is an avid reader who encourages their two sons to read, too. They live in a 7,000-square-foot, 84-year-old Colonial near Lake Michigan.

The home is enhanced by having books in every room, the colors of the covers and spines add flair, and the subject matter tells guests something about the Baldwin family.

"Books have a symbolic meaning that is not dependent on their usefulness," said author Alan Powers in his 1999 tome, "Living With Books."

He adds, "There needs to be a balance between the character of the house, the character of the owner and the type of books that live there."

While books alone cannot make a home, decorating with books is an easy and affordable way to enhance decor.

Spreading books around the house conveys the message that reading and knowledge are important to the people who live there, says Michelle Rohrer, of Michelle's Interiors Ltd. in Grayslake. As event coordinator for the American Society of Interior Designers' Spring Showhouse in Evanston last May, Rohrer suggested putting books in every room as a testament to the literacy group that had sponsored the event.

"Books make a home," according to Estelle Ellis, Caroline Seebohm and Christopher Simon Sykes, authors of "At Home With Books." "Book-centered rooms are nurturing."

Rohrer agrees. Books make a room more inviting, soften a formal space and add a hint of coziness.

In the overall design, books are an easy way to scale down a room with a high-ceiling, says Powers.

Plus, books can add art to a room without spending extra money. "A lot of covers are gorgeous," says Rohrer, who likes to stack tomes on coffee tables and top off the piles with pretty paperweights.

Jeanine Matlow, of Conversation Pieces Interior Decorating in Farmington Hills, Mich., suggests using books to decorate by stacking large ones together for an improptu end table. She also suggests gift-wrapping rarely used titles (such as college texts) to provide height to a display, or storing books and journals in wine crates.

The easiest and most obvious place to put books in a residence is, of course, a library or den. The earliest home libraries came about in the 16th Century, but not as social rooms like their 18th Century successors, where everyone gathered informally.

Today, libraries represent an extension of a person's private world, says Powers. "Books need to be spread around, not just confined to shelves," he notes. "A scattering of books is the mark of a civilized household."

Shelving in random order or storing books every which way reveals the temperament of the resident. Likewise, titles and topics show something about a person's interests and passions.

Of course, the easiest way to accommodate books in the home is with bookshelves, which are usually 12 inches deep. Rohrer advises clients to measure their tallest books before ordering bookcases and always ask for a unit that includes adjustable shelves.

Still, a few permanent shelves increase the unit's stability, she says, which is ideal for heavy books. Stay away from extra-wide shelves, which can buckle under the weight of too many tomes.

In the case of a home library, make sure to break up a wall of bookcases with a display unit, preferably one with glass shelves and an interior light to highlight items like a globe or glass figurine.

Libraries usually call for wood furnishings, which convey a sense of warmth, says Rohrer. Deeper finishes like walnut, cherry or mahogany are traditional for home libraries, whereas maple makes the room more modern.

"When people do any decorating, they need a checklist," says Rohrer. "For a bookcase, make a list of what you want to put on it-types of books, picture frames and photo albums. It's nice if one unit has a door or drawer for board games."

The Baldwins look to books to round out their home life. The kitchen table holds "Prayers and Graces," a collection of meal-time prayers.

Baldwin has bought interestingly textured books at rummage sales; recently, she searched for titles that included the word "angel" to form an interesting collection in her home.

Says Baldwin, "If you don't travel a lot, being surrounded by beautiful travel books can fill the void. I don't really like to cook, but I love cookbooks."

In her redesigned kitchen, Baldwin added a built-in desk with a top shelf that accommodates as many as 70 books.

With off-white maple cupboards, sage-green island cabinets and a honey-colored wet bar, "I love the reds of the Mexican cookbooks and the pretty spines of the Spanish and Italian cookbooks," she notes. "Books really belong anywhere."

With that in mind, here are some tips for decorating your home with books:

-Don't relegate a home office to the cell-like rooms that 19th Century writers kept to hide from the world. Instead, fill it with reference books and titles that relate to and inspire your work.

-Use books as pure decoration. Renee Baldwin displays seasonal titles like "Christmas Around the World," which she puts on an iron easel during the holidays. Look for 1920s and 1930s cigarette boxes, made from hollowed-out books, or wallpaper that looks like shelves of interesting tomes.

-"In a truly bookish house, there are no parts that do not contain books," says Powers. Decorate hallways and stairwells with books as a way to create atmosphere. The floor, steps and landings are lost space, good places to store maps and guidebooks.

-Keep once-read books on high shelves to "soften the junction between wall and ceiling and make a room more cave-like and enclosing," says Powers.

-Don't just relegate the kitchen to cookbook-keeping. Fill horizontal spaces with hot, food-related novels and memoirs like Ruth Reichl's "Tender to the Bone" or Laura Esquivel's "Like Water for Chocolate."

-Even the bathroom can be a place to put books. Humidity generally does not damage the materials; small format, cartoon collections and poetry are ideal to keep near the toilet or tub.

-At the beginning of the 20th Century, German architect Herman Muthesius insisted that every bedroom should contain a "small table for books." They offer comfort, as does a warm, fluffy bed; books that you read before falling asleep can be piled on the nightstand or in a stack on the floor.

-Stack books in odd numbers, to lessen the formality, says Rohrer.

-Consider displaying a book open to a particular page or inspiring quote, with a magnifying glass over it. Or, leave a pair of antique glasses nearby to emphasize an artistic font, suggests Rohrer.

-Children's rooms should always contain books. The Baldwin kids have their own bookshelves with a collection of rotating titles. Rohrer advises parents to leave books on beanbags and chairs, even on pillows, to encourage kids to read.

-Old children's books often have beautiful covers. Frame one and hang it on the wall in a baby's room, suggests Matlow.

-Break free from rules. You don't need bookends to hold up books. Instead, use clear vases filled with stones to support favorite titles.

Article written by Lynne Meredith Schreiber and reprinted courtesy of the Chicago Tribune (March 15, 2002).