Shelf Life

03rd February 2018

"A room without books is like a body without a soul,” which is why no stylish contemporary home is complete without a domestic library.

Words by Arabella Youens

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In the Georgian era – one of the greatest house-building periods of British history – the library was an indispensable room for the well-educated and very wealthy. The likes of Robert Adam, William Kent and, at Goodwood House, William Chambers were commissioned to create libraries to showcase the magnitude of a collection. At Goodwood, the Small and Large Libraries are considered two of the finest rooms in the house. “This was fundamentally important in society – a demonstration of education and cultural sophistication,” says Lindsay Cuthill of Savills, the upmarket estate agents. In today’s digital age, the assumption might be that this sacred room of printed ink on bound paper would have been rendered redundant. But the reality is – somewhat gratifyingly – quite the opposite, and once again the wealthy are commissioning libraries for their homes.

“Libraries are places that represent the antithesis to our modern way of life – where people can disconnect and enjoy the moment in contrast to the digital world,” states Alexandre Assouline of the Assouline publishing house – which also designs and curates libraries for clients, many of whom are inspired by the handsome library-like space of the company’s Lutyens-designed Maison Assouline in London’s Piccadilly.

A room without books is like a body without a soul

Besides, just as how, in the age of Spotify, vinyl has never been cooler, so the book as a beautiful object – leather-bound by hand perhaps or in a limited “artist’s edition” – has never been so desirable. “Statistics in the book trade at the moment say that the market for paper books is growing and that the digital era has peaked,” says Philip Blackwell, who set up Ultimate Library, which supplies luxury libraries for private clients and hotels, after many years with his family’s publishing and bookshop business. Blackwell cites a number of reasons, including the need to cast aside the “technical tyrant” that rules our lives and the research that reading off a screen at night inhibits sleep. “But I also think that in times of uncertainty – whether that’s economic or geo-political – people crave authenticity. Paper books are just one strand of a broader movement that takes in everything from vinyl, foraging and farmers’ markets to prize a return to real things.”

When interior designer Philippa Thorp is revamping a house – be it in Belgravia, Phuket or the Hamptons – there will almost certainly be a library. For her, that 2,000-year-old adage from Cicero – that a room without books is like a body without a soul – holds truer today than ever before. “The texture, colour and feel of books is an important part of our psyche, and if you strip them out of a house, it becomes bare,” she adds.

But today’s libraries are no longer the strict preserve of buttery leather chairs and polished mahogany bookshelves. Instead, think sophisticated, high-design spaces with industrial-chic modernist shelving or colour-coded collections set off by inlaid LED backlighting. “We’ve just put one in a house in Cap Ferrat which is light and bright with the joinery in a sharp off-white, while others are contemporary clubby,” says Thorp. “One constant, however, is that they are rarely digital vacuums; clients never want to be too far from Google.”

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