Whether for books or to display decorative objects, every home needs a bookcase. This household staple provides visual organization for treasured books, of course, but it also supplies a way to showcase art, collections, family photos and mementos.
The genre has changed enormously in the last couple of years.
One catalyst has been the explosion of flat-screen TVs, whose stretched-out, widescreen format has necessitated a shift in the horizontal proportions of cabinetry. Many wall systems are available as components that combine open and closed storage and accommodate other features such as wine bars or home-office nooks.
A dedicated home library is likely to have built-in cabinetry. But homeowners with less space, budget or need can choose among freestanding bookshelves with abundant style options.
Furniture manufacturers are taking into account a wider range of applications that extends use in interior spaces, including dining areas, bedrooms and baths. And besides dressed-up cabinetry and a variety of wood and painted finishes, bookcases are assuming unconventional looks.
When New York designer Thomas O'Brien introduced low shelves for Hickory Chair several years back, he showed them wrapping around his boxy Studio sofa. The clean lines are decidedly modern and urban.
The Italian manufacturer Nobody and Co. took the concept of surrounding oneself with books one step further with its "Bibliochaise." The chair holds 16 lineal feet of books on three "shelves" that embrace the seat. It was inspired by a designer whose small apartment was so filled with books there was nowhere to sit.
And while the etagere might conjure an image of a delicate open case filled with tchotchkes, of late it has assumed hip profiles and a new set of admirers.
A bookcase from CB2, for example, is reminiscent of the John Hancock skyscraper on Chicago's Magnificent Mile. The X's define its open back (and add stability) but its lobster-red, powder-coated metal gives it verve.
"One of the things we love about etageres," says designer Bob Williams, "is that they will add some verticality to a room. With so many sofas and chairs all the same height, and tables and consoles even lower, you need something to break up the wall space. Other than artwork, it's usually a big cabinet, and armoires are just not as popular."
Also, says Williams, a principal in the furniture company Mitchell Gold - Bob Williams, etageres are cost-efficient often priced at "a couple hundred dollars." Contemporary in spirit, some of the pieces have traditional references such as Chippendale fretwork on a bookcase that also has finials and turned feet on rattan supports.
Williams likes using etageres in multiples of two, three or five.
"It adds a lot more interest," he says. "You can flank a doorway, low console, place three against a wall or use them as a room divider."
The open look of etageres also is being extended to a larger format.
French Heritage, a furniture company more known for its traditional styles, introduced open shelving as part of its modern Paris Loft collection at the spring furniture market in High Point, N.C. Intersecting grids make up its simple form. It's an eco-friendly piece as well, crafted from reclaimed teak in a light finish salvaged from barn posts, antique flooring and old buildings on the island of Java.
There's still another twist in open shelving. Brocade Home's storage cabinet has a curvy silhouette. Available in white or black, it is especially dramatic in black against a pristine white background. Its shelves are unusually stepped, resembling small stacking tables.
The asymmetrical look also adds an interesting dynamic. West Elm's modular bookcase, for example, plays with positive and negative space with shelves that cantilever over solid-backed shelves.
Some open bookshelves lean like ladders against walls or graduate from shallower tops to deeper bottoms, flaring in profile. The most spare is a slim column just 14 inches square, available at CB2. When books are stacked on its shelves, it looks like they're floating.
But traditional options are not lacking, either. Built-in cabinetry is likely to feature nicely appointed millwork, full walls that combine open shelves with closed storage beneath, fabricated in wood that has been stained or painted and embellished with details such as crown molding. Library-look components often offer the same features, usually are priced a la carte and sometimes approach the cost of custom built-ins. But there is an advantage: They can be moved.
Whether you opt for traditional or modern design, finding a stylish setting for your books and personal treasures will add warmth and character to any room.