Decorating with books: The art of decorative books

Decorating with books
A carefully chosen library of books will furnish a room.

Books complete a room. For fans of interior design and home décor, decorative books are essential when designing the ideal living environment. For home stagers and professional designers, beautiful books are tools of trade. Lounges and living rooms, lofts and basements, studies and home offices, and bedrooms and kitchens can all benefit from the presence of books that complement your style and decor.

When designing with books, do not use fake décor books because the real thing is easy to find. If an avid reader visits your home, a collection of fake books could result in an embarrassing situation. There are millions of beautiful used books waiting for a new home – go real or go home.

Chronicles of Narnia
The spines of these Narnia books offer color and illustrations.

Before purchasing decorative books, consider where, and on what, they will be placed. Are your bookshelves made from dark or light materials, vintage or modern, deep or tall? Are your shelves suitable for compact paperbacks or large art books? Do you need bookends?

The size and nature of your tables is also important if you plan to display coffee-table, art or photography books. It’s possible to find large books at small prices, so check if you have the space for them. It also pays to understand book size terminology.

Colour is the vital element. Aim for a colour coordinated collection of books. That could be a series where all the volumes are bound in a single colour, or a collection that offers an organised rainbow effect of colours. Your colour scheme should match or co-ordinate with your room’s overall décor.

When placing books on shelving, consider the height of your books when placed side by side. You may prefer books identical in height, or like a variety of heights placed in an organised gradient.

And finally, consider placing some eye-catching books with their covers facing out… for maximum impact. Again, take inspiration from how used bookshops selectively use this method to help customers focus on certain editions.

Light blue of Pelicans paperbacks

The subtle light blue of vintage Pelicans is ideal for rooms filled with pastel tones. Pelican Books are published by Penguin. They are affordable paperbacks - with light blue covers - covering academic non-fiction topics.

Vintage Pelicans
The subtle light blue of Pelican Books can create a beautiful bookshelf.

Pelican Books are designed to bring serious subject matter to a broad audience. They were originally published from 1937 to 1984, and were relaunched in 2014. A shelf of blue Pelicans says you’re a serious reader of non-fiction.

Vintage Penguins in orange

The most famous paperbacks of them all. You can find little orange Penguin paperbacks in used bookstores around the world. Penguin, founded in 1935, revolutionised marketing and publishing by producing these inexpensive softcovers with their instantly recognisable design.

Breakfast at Tiffany's
A bookshelf of vintage orange Penguins enhances any room.

Those thick bands of orange, and the Gill Sans-Serif Bold font are part of design history. Orange is the most famous colour associated with Penguin but there was whole spectrum of colours to distinguish their books. And best of all - they're cheap.

Green is for crime novels, cerise (or pink if you will) is for travel and adventure, dark blue is for biographies, red is for drama, purple is for essays, yellow is for miscellaneous titles, like crosswords, that did not fit into any of other categories, and grey is for world affairs.

By Captain Von Rintelen
By R.L. Mégroz
By Hesketh Pearson

Leather-bound books

Books bound in leather have class and style, and they are ideal for studies or home offices. You can buy leather-bound books for £5 or £5,000 depending on your budget. Leather book bindings can be plain, brown and protective, or highly decorative and referred to as a fine binding.

Leather-bound books
Leather-bound books tell visitors to your home that you are serious about literature

You can also find inexpensive bonded leather books with colourful designs. It’s possible to shop for mid-range leather-bound books by searching for editions issued by specialist publishers like Easton Press and the Franklin Library.

Step back in time with vintage books

Book design has changed over the decades. They reflect trends in art and fashion. That means you can find books with bindings and dust jackets styled in Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau, Pop Art, Realism, and other styles. Find vintage books that match the artwork in your home.

Coffee-table books for fans of art & photography

Surf Photography of the 1960s and 1970s
Surf Photography of the 1960s and 1970s by Leroy Grannis

Big, bold and beautiful, coffee-table books are a feast for the eye and ideal for being strategically positioned on small tables or shelves amid other objects like vases. Packed with high-class photography of the people, places and objects that we love, these books are almost works of art – ideal for decorative display in homes where art and photography are cherished.

Art, cars, fashion, food, and music are the most common subjects. At AbeBooks, you can shop for coffee-table books printed by all the leading publishers, including Taschen, Rizzoli, Assouline, Phaidon, Abrams, Genesis Publications, teNeues, and Thames & Hudson. Even though these books are large and glossy, you can find gently used coffee-table books at surprisingly low prices.

Books that contain a lot of blue - such as skies and oceans are impactful when combined with pale or white decor. Surf Photography of the 1960s and 1970s by Leroy Grannis and numerous books featuring the lifestyles of the rich and famous by Slim Aarons fit in this category.

Complete a room with a complete book series

Dance to the Music of Time set
This complete set of A Dance to the Music of Time books by Anthony Powell has a strong visual appeal.

From a trilogy like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to the 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time series by Anthony Powell, there are numerous series that can be effectively displayed (in order of publication of course) to create a compelling visual experience on your bookshelves.

A complete series shows your passion for an author or genre. Outlander, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, Dune, Robert Jordan’s 14 volumes of Wheel of Time – there are so many series to display in an attractive way.

There are also numerous non-fiction series. The on-going New Naturalist series is famous for its nature-themed cover designs, and more than 100 titles have been published. There are more than 130 titles in the Britain in Pictures series – a collection of social history books published in the 1940s to record the British way of life.

For world travelers, Taschen’s Portrait of a City series features coffee-table books packed with historical images of the world’s greatest cities - San Francisco, London, Berlin, Los Angeles, Vienna, Rome, Paris and New York. We also recommend the New York Times’ Explorer and 36 Hours series, both of which have color co-ordinated covers.

Make a statement with book spines

When decorating with books, consider the spines. Some have simple text and you can create a visual effect by stacking books with related spines. A thematic series of art books (perhaps Picasso, Dali, Chagall, and Matisse) or travel books (such as Paris, London and New York) are ideal.

Faces on spines bookshelf
Book spines often carry motifs and faces.

Book spine poetry is possible (but not easy) when books are placed in a certain order to create a readable narrative.

Some books have illustrated spines, either on the dust jacket or the spine itself. You can build an eye-catching shelf using spines with portraits, motifs, or just a single consistent style. Get inspiration by visiting second-hand bookshops and seeing how they display shelf after shelf of vintage books by publisher, author, series or genre.

Take a book stand

Some luxury editions, particularly from Taschen, are so big that they come with display stands. Priced at the high end, these notable books include SUMO by Helmut Newton, GOAT Greatest of all Time, Annie Leibovitz, Hockney: A Bigger Book, and various Sebastião Salgado titles.

Annie Leibovitz Whoopi Goldberg variant
Taschen's book of Annie Leibovitz photography includes the Whoopi Goldberg variant and a bookstand.

These hefty books and their stands are intended for Hollywood mansions and superyachts rather than one-bedroom apartments. If you have a tighter budget, consider purchasing your own bookstands and placing on your beloved treasures on them for display purposes.


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