Kitchens - Workbook Feature

Whether crusty or sleek, books add their own unique texture to a room. Kim Winkler mixes her well worn vintage books with old family photos.


Life With Books

Story by Heather MacIsaac  |  Photos by Erica George Dines


I cannot live without books. But that surprises no one since I am a writer and writers are hungry readers.

Books accumulate on my nightstand until the teetering towers threaten to fall. Then the piles recombine on an adjacent wide window ledge until that too sags from the weight and I am forced to address the accumulation with a deep sort rather than a lateral move. And that’s just the current reading list.

I can be walking by the long bookcase in my living room and a book I haven’t tapped in ages will catch my eye. Before I know it, we have renewed our acquaintance and I have understood something new about it and about myself because I am different from the last time we met. 

No other object in the house is so loaded with meaning and so capable of carrying us elsewhere. A book is a window and a door. Whether fiction or non-fiction, art book or cookbook, it offers a glimpse of another world and a path for us to travel, into the past, the future, or simply some place we are interested in knowing. Which is what makes books the most wonderful of decorative accessories. They are so much more than a spine and cover image.


Barbara Westbrook claims to not spend that much time reading. I believe her, sort of, only because she’s way too busy designing interiors. But there’s no doubting she loves a good book. I’ve seen a picture of her own bedside table that was every bit as laden as mine. It’s as densely packed as a box of Girl Scout cookies, with ingredients just as irresistible.


And just this year she produced a beautiful book of her own, Gracious Rooms, which I was thrilled to be a part of. The interior on the cover captures Barbara’s work in a nutshell: a welcoming airy room furnished with comfortable seating, interesting antiques, a touch of blue, a dash of something natural, and of course, books. Barbara has a soft spot for old leather books….


I can’t think of a Westbrook project where books don’t play a role. Barbara is a master at taking something so simple, a square slab essentially, and employing it as a building block to give a room more character. You can tell by the way Barbara uses books that she understands that pound for pound, inch for inch, they are unrivaled in adding dimension to a room. It helps that they rarely travel solo and keep each other such good company.

Books excel at being adaptable to any style of interior. They can add color and diversity or structure and uniformity or all of the above. Books can stand alone as objects or come together as architectural elements. For most people a book is something to read. For designers, it is a tool, albeit one with great depth of its own, for giving decoration roots and wings.

There’s a reason books on art, photography, design and decoration are called coffee table books. Even if they are seldom picked up and read cover to cover, they are great contributors to the color and variety of a room.

They are the equivalent of art on the wall — a bold graphic print or an absorbing painting — except that they live on a horizontal surface.

Books add more than color to a table; they contribute, pardon the pun, volume. Piled in short stacks, they become pedestals for other decorative objects. Think of them like footed dishes and cake stands you might mix with platters and bowls when arranging a buffet. Adding a variety of height to a spread of food makes the array of offerings that much more appetizing. Books do the same for a coffee or side table or, for that matter, a mantelpiece or bookshelf.


A beautiful bowl placed atop a stack of books takes on a more special air because it is literally elevated on a pedestal, setting it apart. Moreover, short stacks of books visually organize a large surface.


Imagine a collection of objects placed randomly on a table; it’s hard to see any particular piece. Now picture that same collection clustered into small groups, with some occupying platforms supplied by books. By seeing them more clearly, you appreciate them more deeply.


Beautiful, sleek books act as platforms for a collection of crisp white modern forms in Elizabeth Hanson's loft.


A spine of a book doesn’t add up to much all by itself. But, like a single soldier joined by an army, in multiples it has great impact. Bookshelves densely packed with books give a room a wonderful depth and texture. As your eye travels over them, it has the opportunity to pick out a single title or color or, from a greater distance, to detect a pattern, inadvertent or intentional.

With designers, determining and arranging the contents of bookcases or etageres is never a random act. Whether they are starting with a client’s collections or outfitting the shelves from scratch, they are looking for a balance of solid and void, books and objects, that can be seen as a whole.


The point is to arrive at a composition that knits bookcases together in a stimulating pattern, 3D wallpaper if you will. I’ve seen Barbara get creative even on the strictest budgets. In one project, a row of freestanding étagères assumes the role of built-in bookcases.


In another living room, this one with a fireplace flanked by white bookcases lined in black, books with mostly white spines accompany, like clusters of admirers, black and white portraits framed in silver. If the spines were of varying colors, the whole pattern established by these bookcases would tumble in a heap.


For all her chic command of black and white, the colors I most associate with Barbara are natural ones: warm wood, burnished leather, soft brass. All three come together in a study where books are put to brilliant use. Surrounding a flat screen TV are exquisite antique tortoise shell boxes and old leather bound books, their embossed spines glinting with gold.


No doubt the TV will come to life regularly while the pages of the books will never see the light of day. But the piece of technology would be a lonely black box without its golden halo. Soon enough it will be supplanted by another while the books will live on, objects of knowledge and beauty. Which makes this writer and reader very happy.


~ W ~


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