Life with Books
Story by Sarah Baird | 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. (photo: BW bedside table) 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. (photo: closeup of Gracious Rooms) 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… (add BW quote here about why you like this kind of book so much.)
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. (photos: white mantelpiece with leather books, close-up of bookshelf in BW’s study)
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. (photo: end table in BW’s house featuring turned wood bowl ) 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. (photo: bottom left image in dropbox grid showing coffee table and mantelpiece)
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. (photo: project with leather club chair and red Eames chair)
Few books are precious which gives one license to handle them with imagination instead of kid gloves. If only each of us could be so utterly transformed just by donning a different jacket. In their new uniform coats of white, books utterly transform the black bookcases that line a wall of a deep navy room. (photo: black room with white books.) Instead of being about content they are all about form.
In another living room, this one with a fireplace flanked by white bookcases lined in black, (photo: white/black bookcases flanking a fireplace) 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. (photo: double etagere in wood-paneled room) 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.
The graphic Jack Moulthrop bowl sits in bold contrast to the textured brick walls and clean lines of Westbrook designer, Elizabeth Hanson's, loft.
Vignette (travel): A form of road pricing imposed on vehicles in a handful of European countries based on a period of time instead of distance traveled.
When one returns from an adventurous trip, it can often almost seem as if it was all a fever dream: too vivid, too much, too flash-in-the-pan bright to have actually occurred. It seems, at its core, to have been too good to be true.
Used in a smattering of European countries, the “vignette” is a road tax of sorts which charges based on time spent driving — not distance travelled. Travel, in this light, is a currency of time. The treasured objects we bring back with us from trips are the physical embodiment of this currency, becoming memories of another time and place that we can touch, hold and see in our daily lives. It’s not about the distance between where we travel and our homes, but the reminiscences of the times we spent there.
For Barbara, one of these currencies of travel and time is a handcrafted stool she brought back from a medical mission trip to Malawi with her parents.
“I was there with my parents, who do medical mission work,” said Barbara. “I love seeing it tucked under my side table. It’s a whole scene that’s created. It reminds me of that special trip to Malawi. I’ll look at that 20 years from now and still have the same emotions.”
The African stool is a favorite, as well as stacks of books, baskets, antique tapestry pillows, and photography - fresh and simple by Michael Kenna from Jackson Fine Art. The Ted Mehuling porcelain bird's wing dish was a gift from a dear friend and client, so has a special spot.
Vignette (wine): a 500 square meter vineyard which is part of a larger consolidated vineyard, but separate.
Those of us reared in the South are nursed on honeysuckle vines and the intoxicating scent of magnolia blossoms from birth, becoming entwined with the natural world in a way that we just can’t help but want to keep close. We want to keep the bubbly heads of hydrangeas near our bedside tables. We want to cut springy day lilies from the garden to perk up our foyers (and moods).
Much like the way vintners use the word “vignette” to describe a small clustering of grapevines set apart from the whole of the vineyard, Barbara’s designs are able to create glorious enclaves of nature indoors — set apart from the wilds of nature, but still of it.
These natural vignettes bring the ever-growing, blooming and budding world right to our fingertips, become our own private gardens or botanical reprieves.
It is, after all, a part of who we are.
In Barbara Westbrook's home every surface has moments that she loves - from antique sterling silver boxes, lovely porcelain, old English boxes collected from childhood, photographs, and hydrangea, Barbara's favorite flower.
Vignette (personal history): A specific event, place, smell or moment in time remembered vividly.
The use of photographs in a room’s vignette is often a way to bring a singular moment in time — a second captured like a bug in amber — into the larger flow of day-to-day living. For Barbara, this exists through a photograph of her father from her wedding day, which depicts the two of them walking down the aisle.
“On my nightstand, there’s a photo of me with my dad in a faux-tortoise shell frame. I just love that shot,” said Barbara. “He’s such a sweet, gentle man. It just captures who he is and his posture. It was a wonderful day for me.”
The light-filled sunroom is a favorite place to read and relax, so family photographs, books, and plants are the ideal light touch.
Vignette (stamps): The central part of a postage stamp design, such as, a monarch's head or a pictorial design, which often shades off gradually to the edges of the stamp.
This is the story of the misfit items in our lives that we love — and a stamp with a faulty vignette.
In the world of postal service enthusiasts, one strange stamp — called the “Upside-Down Jenny” — rules them all, with a history of scandal and intrigue enough to make the characters on Days of Our Lives blush.
The backstory is fairly straightforward. In 1918, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp with its central illustration — its “vignette” — flipped the wrong way. The error caused a picture of the Curtiss Jenny biplane to appear to be flying upside-down in the center of the stamp, as if in some sort of goofy, slapstick gag. It was almost immediately pulled from printing. Over the past century, it has become one of the most coveted, sought-after stamps in the world for philatelists: beloved not in spite of its oddity, but because of it.
In all of our lives, we have those items — trinkets, boxes, sculptures — that we want in our homes, flaws and all.
Westbrook designer, Kim Winkler, showcases a collection of glass decanters upon a traveling salesman's trunk with a study of birds by Cooper Sanchez. Her beloved grandmother's rocking chair and metal cafe table found on a trip in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue accompany more of her collections of birds.
Vignette (psychology): A research method in which individuals are presented with hypothetical situations and are asked to reveal their values and perceptions based on given situations.
I don’t know the people who live in the houses that Barbara has so expertly helped to decorate, arrange and craft. I don’t know their struggles or joys — and I never will. I only know them through the stories told by their collections, their vases and tables and paintings coming together to create vignettes. So, I imagine.
I imagine going on a horseback jaunt with the family that boldly, proudly displays a painting of a thoroughbred over their sofa. I imagine slathering bread with thick, salty butter at the table with a collection of turquoise-shaded earthenware pottery.
I imagine, most of all that there’s a commonality and connectivity between us. Simply by seeing their treasures arranged like living still-life paintings, there’s an affection that’s fostered. It’s a peek behind the curtain into someone else’s inner world. It’s empathy evoked by objects.
And maybe, that's the most beautiful part of a vignette. In a world that often feels so vast — so full of sweeping generalizations and constant motion — vignettes are a tangible way to feel intimate with another person through design. The focused scope, the tightly crafted arrangement of a well-designed vignette, brings a person more clearly into view and deepens our understanding of them. Through the smallest parts of a room’s design, we end up learning the most.
Perhaps, most importantly, these vignettes created in our homes allow us to be even more intimate with ourselves: uniting past, present and future into a single, beautiful snapshot.
Although this vignette feels dressy, a collection of old leather books, emerald glass bottles, petite reverse painted glass scene, leather boxes, and hand textured Corbin Bronze lamps could translate to any style space. The collection of books continues in the room to the mantel, but displayed in a relaxed way below a striking Courtney Garrett art piece.
~ W ~