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Bookshelves are a necessity in most homes, not only for the obvious, but as a catch-all for other stuff. Some people, even in this day of the Kindle, have more books than yards of shelving to contain them. For others, books may be limited to just a few, perhaps of the coffee table variety. And the stuff — well, everything from tchotchkes to personal treasures, including heirlooms, collectibles, travel souvenirs to framed family photos — gets a home, with a few volumes to share space, if they’re lucky.

Freestanding bookcases are fairly standard issue, with only wood, stain or paint finish, molding details and thickness of shelves the distinguishing parameters. But with open shelving, design really has stepped up. As a retail category, it has grown steadily in recent years. From industrial wire looks to touches of Hollywood Regency, the choice of styles runs from sleek polished stainless steel and brass to earthy weathered woods and burnished metals.

From skinny 15-inch-wide towers to medium-sized open shelving (say, 3 feet across) to wider (nearly 8 feet), most top out between 55 and 91 inches. But it’s the way these pieces are configured that raises the question: Are these etageres or bookcases? The truth is, a little of each.

By definition, the French word, pronounced ay-ta-ZHER, means a piece of furniture or a stand with open shelves “for small ornaments,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, or “for small objects, bric-a-brac, etc.,” according to Random House, which cites that it came into use around 1840. Ironically, another label for this furniture is “whatnot,” which often loosely describes what people put on it: knickknacks. Then there’s a relative, the baker’s rack, which, of course, was strictly utilitarian in origin.

We tend to think about these examples as metal pieces, and many of today’s models are, or at least they combine metal and wood. But the earliest models actually were crafted from wood, especially exotic grains or even gilt wood, in the time of Louis XV. Elaborate carvings were not unusual, nor was embellishment, such as spindles between shelves.

One of the more fanciful examples from the mid-19th century is actually English, a high Rococo Revival piece currently in the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, not only is its silhouette over the top, with undulations and gilt wood and mother-of-pearl embellishments, all in the style of Japanese lacquer, it rests almost bizarrely on a gigantic central cabriole and a pair of substantial, turned legs.

What’s popular today never approaches such excess. Most styles are modern, which not only suits the uptick in simplicity we’ve been seeing in home decor, but also serves a need for more pivotal and easier to mix furnishings. Even pieces with turn-of-the century industrial inspiration are clean-lined. Some pieces even are fitted with casters, like bar carts, for easy mobility.

What we like about the open style shelves is their simple shapes. Even if they are embellished, the accenting (say, a hammered edge) is barely there. We love the architectural form of some pieces, which adds especially to boxlike rooms devoid of character. We love the honest materials from which many are made. We love them solo or ganged together, against a wall or as room dividers. And we love that they are so versatile.

Stretched out wide and upward, shelves can be off kilter, appear to be floating or even be reconfigured into maze-like cubbies. Versatility is one thing driving interest. Etageres, narrow or wide, can fit into almost any room of the house: foyer, living and dining rooms, kitchen, family room, bedroom and bath. That they’re decorative and functional is a plus. In the bath, for example, they provide extra storage, and a handsome way to store towels, bath salts and soaps, as well as sponges. In an office, they can hold references and supplies as well as objects. They’re chameleons that adapt and can be changed up easily to display collections that are fluid.

A love of metallic finishes in home decor is boosting interest in metal etageres. Some of the newer brass and stainless steel designs have strong mid-century to 1980s references. The iconic designer Billy Baldwin designed a set of tubular brass etageres for Cole Porter’s New York City apartment in 1955, and they towered at 9 feet 4 inches. As in his own place, Baldwin placed a pair of towers and a wider version on either side of a doorway, all on one wall, to dramatic effect. The late Milo Baughman, who long designed for Thayer Coggin, and whose works are collectible, often appearing on 1st dibs, an online marketplace for design and antiques, created a series of striking, modern gleaming glass and chrome designs in the ’60s and ’70s, many with the kinds of staggered shelves we see today.

So admit it, you’ve seen plenty of wonderful images of open bookshelves and etageres in magazines and on retailer websites, where they all look so ... perfect. If you’re intimidated by the idea of filling one, lest it look sloppy or not quite magazine worthy, don’t fret. At least one retailer, Wisteria, actually has tackled the subject, with illustrations, on its blog.

“How to Style a Bookshelf” features three easy steps. First, gather books and accessories. “We suggest using items of varying shapes and sizes. You’ll need a few round shapes, square shapes and more organic ones as well.” They suggest one of their amethyst geodes, which could be used on a shelf, on top of a book, as a decorative accessory or as a bookend. Baskets are recommended not only to add warmth and texture but also to organize.

Their second step is to arrange. “Order (decorative and functional items) by size, color or subject depending on personal preference. Be sure to mix it up by having some books standing and a few lying down — this will break up groupings and create a visual flow. ... Juxtapose the square shapes of books with something round and add a pop of color while you’re at it!”

And finally, Wisteria suggests creating height on each shelf. “Use a mix of taller and shorter items to create a dynamic movement. Glass risers are perfect for lifting up shorter items and they blend perfectly into any decor, while they add a bit of shine.”

Looking at each shelf as a unit or “block” is another suggestion. In other words, consider each grouping, whether it’s a stack of books, an object or an object on a stack of books; so there may be two groups on one shelf, three on the next two, two on the bottom. Strive for balance.

Of course, if you need storage, there are baskets as well as pretty boxes that handle the task with style. But don’t forget the books.

Billy Baldwin had plenty of them on his own etageres — and as pictures tell the story, they appear to have been well read, not just props. Still, hardbacks add life and warmth to a room. Said Baldwin: “The best decoration in the world is a room full of books.”

Sources

CB2, 800-606-6252, cb2.com

Jayson Home, 800-472-1885, jaysonhome.com

Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams, 800-489-4195, mgbwhome.com

Restoration Hardware, 800-910-9836, rh.com

West Elm, 888-922-4119, westelm.com

Wisteria, 800-320-9757, wisteria.com

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