Home & Design Trends

The Popular Bookshelf Trend That’s Gone Too Far

Buying books just to fit in with a room's color scheme—would you?

February  4, 2021
Photo by Ty Mecham

I don’t know how I got there, but one minute I was looking for a seagrass laundry basket, and the next minute I was staring at color-coded book sets wrapped in jute twine. Cool cool, I thought... until I looked again, and realized that this was no bookstore, and these were less about the books, more about... bundles of "cohesive decor." There was something for every kind of decor, too: Spanish moss (cottagecore!), inky black (moody vibes?), driftwood (midcentury)... even “paper and string”, aka, exposed with spines missing (aimed at the antique lover?).

Books as color-coded decor? Wait, when did that...become a thing?

Perhaps around the same time we reported this trend of organizing your bookshelves by color. Posie (Harwood) Brien, author of the article, recalls the intensity of responses it received: "People are so passionate about it being either amazing or completely an affront to readers everywhere. Personally, I find that the trend is lovely and fun, just like beautiful book jacket art is."

No matter which side of the fence you fell on, the trend has grown real roots since. And if you’re on Team Color-Coded and are going to be a real stickler for it, it’s entirely possible you don't have nearly enough books to make proportionate piles of each color. In such a case, you may have to call for help.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I can't imagine buying books by the foot just for pretty decor when my bookshelves are constantly overcrowded with old friends. It seems (with apologies to those who decorate this way) pretentious, since they're probably not being acquired to read. But then, I'm a much better writer and reader than I am an interior decorator!”
— Westcoasty
Comment

Enter: batch books!

Turns out, there’s a whole universe of 'em, all color-coded and ready to decorate: There’s real books, faux books (!), books by the foot, oversized and fabric covered, even ombreé sets. All of which suggest less reading (faux books will make that easy), more adorning (“choose from 15+ colors”).

You might say: Is it really that bad? If we're okay with using our books to decorate around our TVs, why can’t we also buy them to suit those needs? Here's my response: the books-by-color trend was intended to use what books you already have (and read, presumably), not the ones you buy by the yard.

Caroline Mullen, Assistant Editor, Home52, and my gut-check on all things trendy, stepped in with thoughts: “Listen, I'm really guilty of form over function in many areas of my apartment—I never burn my squiggly candles, I rarely remove the decorative blankets from their ladder, and my books are arranged in a rainbow scheme. However, I've got to draw the line somewhere. Buying books just to fit in with a room's color scheme? And some of them even fake? No!”

So, just to be clear: it’s a hard NO for faux books—but decorating with books is not a new idea.

Back in 1956, Betty Pepis, the home editor of The New York Times and the author of the guide, Books In Your Home, as noted here, believed that "decorating a living room with books was important": “They make an effective and pretty picture when used to decorate a whole wall. Often they form the focal point of a room, creating an appropriately personal (as well as colorful) background.” She went on to provide 65 (yes, 65) book-styling decor tips.

A book-nerd friend also reminds me that "decorator books" has always been an established category, comprising books worthy for their "distinguished spines" that made their way to clubhouses and library bars with bookshelves stacked with leather-bound tomes. They were sold by the shelf foot, he added.

As a committed color-coder and an avid reader, (Harwood) Brien emailed to say she owns a few color-coded sets herself. "I think it’s a cool way to visually make books—which deserve to be front and center—even more so." Brien's book sets, she tells me, are gifts bought from Juniper Books, which sells them by the foot and across colors, but also carefully curated by interest and subject. "Some of the best gifts ever," she adds.

“Maybe one way to think of this,” said another friend I looped in for an opinion, “is like if it were a subscription box, where you pay to get a box of clothes or wine, but don’t really know what you will get.” Sure, so if you like surprise recommendations, you might possibly end up with an obscure gem tucked into your set of Blue Spruce that you'd never pick on your own. That way, she adds, you can decorate with them—and maybe just read one along the way.

I'll have to let that sink in.

Until then though, dear reader (pun intended), I'd love you to have the last word. Do you like the idea of buying books by the (colored) foot? Or leave the decorating to your ceramics, posters, and rugs instead?

Let us know in the comments—no judgment, promise. We'll just be here... reading.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Arati Menon

Written by: Arati Menon

Arati grew up hanging off the petticoat-tails of three generations of Indian matriarchs who used food to speak their language of love—and she finds herself instinctually following suit. Life has taken her all across the world, but she carries with her a menagerie of inherited home and kitchen objects that serve as her anchor. Formerly at GQ and Architectural Digest, she's now based in Brooklyn.

37 Comments

Sharon T. February 20, 2021
This reminds me of when I was very young (about 23) and hired by General Motors Acceptance Corp in New York to be their first Documents Librarian. They had shelves of books, documents and magazines with articles they wanted to preserve and no way to see what they had or find anything. I knew the U.S. Documents system, and set about making a system that would work for them and get everything catalogued and rearranged on the shelves. As I progressed, I got a message from the President's Executive Secretary. Mr. X (after 60 years I've forgotten his name!) had a wonderful idea and could I have everything bound and then arrange all the books by color so it would "look nice." I'm proud that as young as I was, I did not submit, but carefully explained why I would not do that. (And I didn't lose my job!).
 
StaceyLynnM February 16, 2021
I’m with everyone else on this; though I am all for decorating; to me it’s pretentious to decorate with books one wouldn't read. If our homes are suppose to represent us; what does it say about us when asked if a book on our shelf is a good book or not? Laugh sheepishly and say we bought it to look smart in a shelf? It’s like buying quality chef quality kitchenware to look like a chef...I’d rather see a home reflect a personality of someone (book-less or not) than seeing a trend that will eventually tire out, trashed( and replaced) by another trend because it was never a part of who they are as a person in the first place.
 
Serena February 16, 2021
To each his/her own. However, having said that, this trend is a big no for me. Like so many here, I am first and foremost a book lover and buy books that I want to read or use. To buy a book merely to decorate with seems a tad pretentious to me, (nor do I have the room to house books merely for decoration). When it comes to interior design, I am of the school of thought that the best interiors are created and curated over time to truly reflect the owner's interests and life story. A home should be as individual as its occupants in order for it to truly feel like a home. The end result of chasing after trends is that every home interior ends up looking the same with no personality.
 
Christine February 15, 2021
They are called bookshelves, not decorating shelves. Perhaps it is because I've volunteered in libraries, because I love to read, because i like to be able to quickly find a book without having to remember what the dustjacket/cover looks like that I think displaying books by color the 2nd dumbest book display idea I've seen; the dumbest is displaying books with pages out/spine to the back. In both of these applications you know immediately that the person is not much of a reader and uses books as an affectation. They should be honest and decorate with items that have meaning, not color coded books by the foot.
 
Mar February 15, 2021
My husband and I are both big readers, so we have bookshelves everywhere. Why would I buy books just bc they match??? Books are natural decoration in that they showcase your interests and tastes. Purchasing them by color seems to indicate a lack of interests!
 
Joritaj February 15, 2021
How about painting the room in a color to match the books? Imagine a room in a lush War and Peace red (The color my college copies happen to be.). Or an understated deep blue of Obama’s The Promised land. Or, for other political leanings, a room in a rousing mustard to match some of the volumes on President Trump’s life and actions as President. If you can’t think of a color scheme, just match your room to match favorite topics!
 
Author Comment
Arati M. February 15, 2021
Now that’s an idea!!!
 
Stephanie D. February 15, 2021
A local designer asked her followers to post pics of their bookshelves. That's when I realized my bookcases are a mess! But I know where every book is and I am happy with 95% books on the shelves and 5% personal things.
 
LyndaTH13 February 15, 2021
Way too “trying too hard” for me.
Other ways a bit more authentic to add some color to a room.
 
DianeZ February 15, 2021
Absolutely not!
 
Lisa M. February 15, 2021
I hate this trend with the heat of 1,000 suns. Guess I'm not neutral about it. LOL
 
Author Comment
Arati M. February 15, 2021
It’s hard to sit on the fence with some trends, amirite? 🤷🏽‍♀️
 
SophieL February 8, 2021
Arranging books by color for decorative reasons disrespects books (IMHO) and deeply offends me.
 
Adriana February 8, 2021
There's a house in my nabe where I can see through the living room window that they've done that books-by-color thing, and I just think "Um, we can't be friends..." But then I'm a bibliophile, and so is my husband. There is something kind of sacred about books. At my house, we arrange books the way a bookstore would. Ha, well, the ones that actually fit in the bookshelves. Our books are everywhere!
 
Miaunow February 8, 2021
I guess for decorating anything is fair right? THAT being said, for a true bibliophile, it feels unauthentic. If I saw this style it would look kind of cool I guess but I would assume obviously it was for looks. I love to check out what books other people find interesting. Authenticity in one’s decor style seems the best bet in my eyes. Use the space for other pieces that reflect that. This decorating tip is fine for some but I prefer to add slowly to my own personal collection. Bravo though for making a business out of the idea. No judgement here!
 
Author Comment
Arati M. February 8, 2021
Agree, why not make a business out of an idea that's found its tribe!
 
Joan C. February 8, 2021
I have bought hundreds of books throughout my life to READ. Yes, I have a shelf method. First divide into genre, then by size (either way). Oversized on their sides, spines out. Great when you are looking for a specific book and are short on time. The farthest I have ventured in the decorative book buying universe is "coffee table books". Even then I have to open and peruse!
 
Author Comment
Arati M. February 8, 2021
I love that method! Also, Joan, there are now stores that sell coffee table books by the batches, too ;)
 
McKenzieMRoss February 7, 2021
I’m just over here trying to figure out where to put all of my books. I will say, however, that I do organize two bookcases’ worth of my collection by color because they’re visible behind me on video calls and make a charming background. I’m very visual, so when I’m looking for a specific title, cover color has always been one of my main navigational aids—the rainbow shelf trend hasn’t hampered my ability to find what I’m looking for and has perhaps made it easier.
 
Kathie H. February 7, 2021
When helping a friend move into their home and years before another relative, The idea was starting to take hold in the designer population. Both times I was told to strip the covers and "throw them in recycling with the collapsed boxes" and I resisted in secret as the boxes were going back to the designer's storefront. I later learned he sold the retrieved covers to the local book seller to increase the value of books that were of more value with the dustcovers. This removal and placing books by binding color says a lot about the taste of the occupant and even more about the intellectual interest in the library collection they have accumulated. Being able to walk to a shelf and lay fingers on a favorite book you wish to share with friend, grandchild or great grandchild speaks volumes about your treasure of the collection meaning.
 
Kathie H. February 7, 2021
The dustcovers are still retained by the homeowners in a box in the cabinets below their bookshelves and replaced on the books when they give certain books to cherished friends.
 
Carol S. February 7, 2021
This trend makes my teeth hurt. Also, those who turn the spines (the TITLE, people) are not readers. May be pretty for a designer’s photo shoot but doesn’t reflect the real life of readers who respect books.
 
Charlene V. February 7, 2021
My largest collection is my cookbooks and they are arranged by general topic (appetizers, baking, seafood, vegetables, etc.) and then by size. Some of the spines have faded over time, so the color method wouldn’t work in that case! Perhaps others with different mental organizing principles remember books by their color, but my mind doesn’t work that way. And as for buying books only for their color, that seems pretentious. But whatever works for you—you’re the chef in your own kitchen and the organizer of your own bookshelves!
 
Westcoasty February 7, 2021
Books that make it into my permanent collection (which I've had to pare down many times over the years) are there because I want to reread them, so I have to be able to find them quickly when I feel the urge for a particular book. Fiction books are organized by author and then by series; non-fiction is organized by subject. My cookbooks live in the kitchen. I don't organize by colour, but I admit to grouping some authors' books by height for a more polished look on the shelf. I can't imagine buying books by the foot just for pretty decor when my bookshelves are constantly overcrowded with old friends. It seems (with apologies to those who decorate this way) pretentious, since they're probably not being acquired to read. But then, I'm a much better writer and reader than I am an interior decorator!
 
Ruth February 7, 2021
Years ago I worked in a bookstore, and we used to joke about organizing the store by color, because so many customers would say "I'm looking for a book; I don't remember the author or title, but it had a yellow cover...."
 
Author Comment
Arati M. February 7, 2021
Haha must’ve been interesting to then try and locate the book! Mental pictures/visual memories do linger, so I can totally imagine that was the case...
 
Joritaj February 15, 2021
A few years ago, I was searching for a book that I was certain had a yellow cover. Searching for yellow books turned up no joy. Then one day, while searching for something else, I found my long-lost book. It had a brown cover. So maybe organizing by what color its cover should be would work for me.