Winter is prime time to curl up with a good book. Add a sunlit easy chair, crackling fire, blanket, toddler or two, and sleeping cat or dog for cozy homebody happiness.
It all begins with a book, a book meant to be held and read.
Even so, some would argue physical books bring a lot more than reading pleasure; they are meant to be seen as well.
For interior design, books can convey style, personality, texture, color, interest, warmth, inspiration and vitality … tangible and intangible concepts that have become increasingly important for homebound readers during the recent pandemic.
Along with other home furnishings and improvements, physical books have experienced a boost in the last two years.
But their rise predated the pandemic.
Contrary to what some naysayers predicted, physical paper books seem to be more relevant than ever.
It was only about 15 years ago that the death of physical books was predicted. Electronic books caught momentum after online bookseller Amazon released the Kindle e-reader in 2007.
Turns out the gloomy forecasts were wrong. The tide soon started to turn back as so-called digital fatigue set in. Physical book sales constituted more than 72% of all book sales in July 2021, compared with just over 11% for e-books, according to the Association of American Publishers.
Last year, headlines at trade publication Publishers Weekly indicated the surging trend of print book sales had continued. Turns out people like owning real books for many reasons, winter nesting notwithstanding.
Homemaking with books
Book lovers still seek the visual and tactile experience of physical books, even the smell of ink on paper, according to Kayleen Rohrer, owner of InkLink Books in East Troy. Rohrer owns thousands of books in her home and believes they bring “a level of comfort. I can’t imagine a home without them.”
Rohrer and her family have been instrumental in revitalizing and restoring the historic downtown village square in East Troy and have made many design decisions in the past few years, many of which include books and lots of them. But that’s OK with her.
“I am very much into décor,” she said.
Her InkLink Books shop resembles something out of a Hollywood movie set. Housed in an old brick building with tall rounded windows, the bookstore opened in 2017 with black-painted custom bookshelves, wood floors, brass accents and richly colored walls complete with fireplace and upscale lighting.
Her daughter Ellie Rohrer-Griffa runs a locally sourced organic cafe and coffeehouse called 2894 On Main in a building they restored next door. Her sons Jamie and Justin run their organic gelato and Neopolitan pizzeria called Sauced two doors down.
“It’s a family affair,” she said, of their business undertakings in East Troy, about a half-hour southwest of Milwaukee.
Books evoke a feeling, Rohrer explained. “That’s one of the things about my store; it’s about the feeling,” she said of its homey nature.
Overall, she said, books are part of homemaking.
“Homemaking is such an underrated kind of work,” Rohrer said. Books, she explained, are a way to furnish a home with objects that lead to a positive domino effect.
“The objects make you feel a certain way. Your feelings lead to your thoughts,” she said. “Thoughts lead to your behavior, that leads to who you become.”
‘Books are furniture’
One big trend with all the added focus on the home has been personalizing the interior, often with books, according to Suzan Wemlinger, designer and owner of Suzan J Designs Decorating Den Interiors at 608 N. Broadway in Milwaukee.
“People are really loving their home, and they are also realizing it doesn’t feel right,” she said. Clients have realized their home no longer “feels like them.”
Now, she said clients are more involved in the interior design process, a trend she doesn’t see going away anytime soon.
“It’s not just picking out a sofa. It’s actually pulling out their personalities,” she said. “Any good designer can design a room, but if it doesn’t feel like them, I haven’t done my job.”
Just looking at her clients’ books can give Wemlinger clues about their personality and how daring they tend to be with regard to design.
Wisconsin book restorer James Twomey even regards books as furniture. Twomey is a professional book restorer of vintage books at Book Restoration Co., based in LaFarge and Kenosha, and knows firsthand the allure and importance of books in the home.
“Books are furniture and always have been,” he said, especially for those who collect books.
“I own a lot of books, and I read them more than once,” he explained.
For example, Twomey enjoys rereading his copies of “The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton” and “The Pity of War: Explaining World War I” by Niall Ferguson.
“The older I get, I find a comfort in rereading something that I’ve read before,” he said.
Orderly or haphazardly charming?
In addition to bringing substance and personality, books bring visual style on a purely aesthetic level.
“I personally use books in almost every setting, definitely when we stage for photo shoots,” designer Wemlinger said.
For shelf strategies, she has some tips.
“Some of my clients already have a substantial book collection,” she said. The trick is to make the books “pleasing to the eye,” especially with organizing bookcases.
Books can be sorted by color or size. Or lined up vertically in a row juxtaposed with horizontal stacks of four or five books topped with a plant or clock.
“It breaks up the solid surface of everything being the same,” she said. “Not everybody wants it uniform as sometimes designers want.”
Another technique to display books is with their spines inward with neutral whites, off-whites or cream-colored pages facing out. Wemlinger said this brings a clean look to interiors.
“For someone who loves books, they might think this is a crazy idea,” she said.
But she said some book owners keep things interesting by pulling out random books to read.
“It’s almost like a game they play with themselves. It’s a surprise,” she said. “It’s not just purely aesthetics. It’s a really fun way to have books out.”
Wemlinger recommended estate sales, rummage sales, used-book sales and Half Price Books stores for those on a budget seeking to make a statement with books.
She also suggested rotating books on display at home, and removing the book jacket to expose a desired color or texture. Old, even shabby books also invite charm and character to a room.
“Sometimes you might have some vintage books and they look a little more worn. To me, they tell a story, too. There is history there. That right there makes it interesting,” she explained.
Coffee-table books get a thumbs up from Wemlinger as they are social icebreakers as well as visually striking.
“They are nice — big with colorful photos. If you have guests, nine times out of 10 they are going to start paging through that,” she said. “To me, it’s a really good conversation starter or conversation piece.”
Design, architecture or art books make good coffee-table candidates, she added.
Bookstore owner Rohrer is also a fan of coffee-table books but suggested they be authentic, not merely visual props. They need to be beautiful, have a great message, or reflect their owner and their passions.
“Coffee-table books are great if it’s the right one,” she said. “Is it a conversation starter? Absolutely.”
One recent coffee table book, “The Lyrics” by Paul McCartney, has been so popular since its release last fall that she is unable to keep it in stock.
Overall, she said there is no right or wrong way to display or organize books.
“You should decorate in a way that’s you,” she said, whether it be neat and orderly, or more free-form and whimsical.
Beyond being a Zoom background, books have broken out of the home library or office as just about any room is fair game for biblio styling. Children’s bedrooms and play areas are ideal places for books, according to Rohrer.
“Surround them with books so they realize it’s an important part of life,” she said.
“The children come in and they get so excited,” she said of her youngest visitors at InkLink Books.
Kitchens are another book opportunity and an ideal location for old, heirloom and new cookbooks. They can get people cooking, literally.
“Cookbooks in the kitchen are a spectacular way to get your taste buds going,” Rohrer said.
She thinks home cooks may be more apt to pick up a cookbook if it catches their eye in the kitchen as opposed to being buried in the stacks of a home library.
Wemlinger has witnessed the motivation to cook as well.
“Sometimes there is nothing like a good cookbook sitting out, especially worn ones,” she said. “The ones in the kitchen would inspire you to experiment a little bit. I’ve seen it, for sure.”
Overall, displaying books anywhere in the home brings a whole range of positive results, according to both Wemlinger and Rohrer.
“They do more than we think,” Wemlinger said. “I think it really inspires people.”
For more ideas on living with books, including stunning two-story bookcases, pick up a copy of the book “Bibliostyle: How We Live at Home With Books,” (2019, Clarkson Potter) by Nina Freudenberger.
Jennifer Rude Klett is a Wisconsin freelance journalist and author of “Home Cooking Comeback: Neighborly Advice & 40 Pleasing Recipes from the Farm Kitchen of a Midwestern Food Journalist,” and “Alamo Doughboy: Marching into the Heart of Kaiser’s Germany During World War I.”
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: What does your bookshelf say about you? Interior decorating trend endures