Beyond the Bookshelf


Home libraries are sophisticated spaces for your home that will give you peace and quiet—and a respite from overdue fines

When architect Curt Lamb visited the mission-style bungalow of a client who had requested a living room addition, he could barely find a clear walking path. Strewn about were stacks and stacks of coffee-table books of every variety—probably more than a thousand, he guessed. "You may want a living room," Lamb told the owners, "but you need a library."

The word evokes images of institutional antiquity, but the library continues to maintain a desirable and practical function in the home. The space can be large or small, suited to social or private settings, but it is always a place to express one's intellectual tastes.

Lamb's clients liked the idea of a home library, though they had never considered it before, and saw the building of a massive two-story, 20- by 20-foot library addition through to its completion. Lamb had cherry millwork integrated into the exterior wall and turned the four corners into tall windows to let in natural light. A miniature set of stairs leads up to the balcony, where the bulk of the collection neatly resides. Below, a square living space is framed by shelves and an assortment of Eastern-influenced sculptures. "I think of it as a temple to books," Lamb says proudly.

Keep Light Out

In all the owners spent about $110,000 on the design and construction of the library, an investment disproportionate to the rest of the home yet representative of their love of books and need for a large, quiet space.

Whether your collection is rare and valuable or just personal and irreplaceable, you'll want to consider how your new home library will work to maintain your books. "The two most dangerous things for books are light and dust," says P. Scott Brown, editor of Fine Books & Collections Magazine. "The main thing to do is figure out how to minimize both of those."

He advises having very little natural light and large curtains to ensure complete darkness when you're not using the room. Also, when you first buy a bookshelf or have one custom-made, Brown says, it will typically be coated in a lacquer that can be damaging to books over time. He suggests waiting a few months and allowing it to naturally come off before stocking it with books.

Dream Library

Susan Benne, executive co-director of the New York-based Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (www.abaa.org), adds that the placement of shelving within the structure of the house should also be considered for the benefit of your books. "Outside walls are between cold air and warm air, and that allows condensation to build up, which will damage books," she says.

Of course, if you work with a custom cabinetmaker with experience in home libraries, covering these bases is a given. With each home study/library project that the custom cabinet designers of Interior Dimensions take on, they assess the client's particular demands for work and living spaces. In one project, the company worked with architect Ivan Bereznickie to build a dream home library for an academic who demanded a functioning workspace with lots of storage.

In the resulting project, which cost well over $100,000, lavish red mahogany cabinetry is complemented by a herringbone floor pattern and a block-mottled makore desk. The centerpiece of the space is the barrel-vault arch, custom detailed with patterns reminiscent of Middle Eastern influences.

Ship-Shape

"The key thing is listening to clients," says Michael Weiss, the founding partner of Interior Dimensions. "We find out how it will facilitate their style of working, and make sure all of their functions are covered. Then we do the same thing for their [visual preferences]."

One of the most impressive home libraries in the country is in a Matinecock (N.Y.) home that is up for sale for $22.5 million. When you enter the regal, two-story, 22- by 36-foot library in the 1920s-era home you may think you just walked into an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The room was taken part by part from the Cunard Line luxury cruise ship the RMS Mauritania, sister ship to the Lusitania, and assembled in the house, formerly home to a prestigious lawyer. The library features graceful polished tiger maple with curved corners, clerestory windows, lead frame doors, marble fireplace, and the original retractable chandelier at center.

Books are not included in the price tag. Click here for a slide show of home libraries.

Douglas MacMillan is a reporter at BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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