New designs help bookcases hold their own in home decor

Elaine Markoutsas
Universal Uclick
An etagere with a hip look is worth its weight in gold -- in this case, polished stainless steel finished in soft champagne gold. Kidney-shaped keyhole cutouts are part of the simple, elegant design, serving as slots where five shelves can be moved up or down. From Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop brand for CB2.

E-books may be gaining popularity, and the hard-cover variety may not populate as many homes as in the past, but the need for a bookcase or two hasn't waned. In fact, on retailer sites it's still its own category, sometimes teamed with storage and shelves, and the old-fashioned freestanding bookcase has been reimagined.

It's still recognizable, but the tweaks have given it a range of styles and looks, and increased modularity has created options — for those blessed with an abundance of space or those with serious storage challenges. And greater attention is being paid to its expanded function: as a room divider, a spot for artsy objects and collectibles, as well as for boxes or baskets to corral clutter — or even solo as a decorative tour de force.

Changes are being reflected both in very large formats — single pieces or modules ganged together -- or more compact, slender units designed for small-scale living. A dominant shift has been to more open shelving, often resembling an etagere. During EuroCucina, part of the massive Salone del Mobile show in Milan last spring, there was an abundance of these shelving systems that integrated seamlessly into living spaces, stylishly defining kitchens and function within.

What is most striking about these components is the mix of materials -- metal or stones and porcelains with wood. Often the shelving coordinated with cabinetry. At Veneta Cucine, for example, the black iron framework look created a graphic rhythm throughout the space, with tall open shelving lined with weathered sabbia wood shelves in the foreground, and medium-height closed shelves framed in brushed stainless steel, with the rich grain of the wood as a backdrop, rising just high enough to mask the work island behind it. The rich columnar cabinets in the back, finished in a metallic liquid mercury look, also were framed in stainless steel, a handsome design melange.

That emphasis on modern design has affected shelving throughout the home.

— Riffs on the familiar bookcase and etagere mix materials — sometimes more than two -- introducing color and varying the heights and widths of dividers.

— Asymmetry and cantilevering unexpectedly throw off the accustomed formula.

— Undulation within the format or the shape itself adds a dynamic that commands the eye.

— Playing with positive and negative spaces offers both closed and open options, sometimes with sliding panels that can change up the look.

— Patterned accents, such as opaque shades that lend a decorative element that stands out, even when nothing is in the cubbies.

— Leaning ladder styles suggest a relaxed, casual look.

— Wall-hung shelving also has morphed: While floating shelves have been an option for some time, now the shelves themselves are being housed in frames that may emphasize shape.

Color alone can be pivotal, as anyone who has ever painted a built-in bookcase a bold color like apple green or cobalt blue can attest. Manufacturers more and more are offering choices. A new series at Ligne Roset called Book and Look has several configurations, available in fashion-forward colors like mustard and khaki, with an option of ganging all together for pop. Harto's Edgar shelving actually is a furniture hybrid: an open console on legs, with a column rising from the right side, and bold blue panels to the left and at the base of the column.

One of the most eye-popping introductions in the last year is Marcel Wanders' Dojo cabinet, part of his Globe Trotters collection for Roche Bobois. The black frame is dressed with stunning, highly lacquered blue panels that slide, inspired by sliding doors in Japanese architecture, plus a round golden mirror at the top, a geometric triumph.

Metals range from raw black iron to warm metallics, like the smart brass-finished etagere from Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop lifestyle collection for CB2.

Pattern also has been employed in fresh ways. Etro Home's open bookcase, its framework in warm brass, is decorated with panels that show off some of the Italian fabric brand's signature prints — paisleys, stripes, along with solids, as well as a rattan weave that lets light in.

In a similar fashion, Roberto Cavalli Home popped some of the palm prints that give alternating panels a tropical vibe, as well as sophisticated embroidered leather panels, especially effective as the modules team medium, narrow and skinny widths.Just as pattern changes the face of the bookcase, so does form. It can be sculptural, as in a red spiral in plastic that London designer Ron Arad created for Kartell several years ago. Or it can be architectural, as in a simple framework with cross supports at the Italian brand De Padova. It creates a strong backdrop for furnishings, height and solidity without intruding on even large-scale sofas or sectionals.

A dimensional piece like the Portuguese brand Green Apple's newest Hobart is arresting and still familiar, as the elements break down into cubes set on their sides to create a honeycomb pattern. And Wewood turns the bookcase at a seemingly precarious angle — an open form intersected with an equal size, askew and visually unnerving.

Even the more conventional Everywhere by Christian Werner for Ligne Roset has an element of surprise: Appended to its open shelving is a floating asymmetrical closed door that shifts the boundaries of the piece. That brand is especially adept at addressing multiple storage needs by combining vertical elements, like bookcases, with low-slung consoles or open sideboards to suit entertainment and TV storage needs, with attractive combinations like black marble-effect ceramic stoneware, black-stained oak veneer and black perforated steel back panels (in Clyde), with occasional contrasting brass elements.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the new, minimal Jack bookcase by London-based Cypriot designer Michael Anastassiades for B and B Italia. Its bare essential dual support poles pierce the shelves, stretch to the ceiling and taper at ends to single rods.

For those who don't want to commit floor space, the number of stylish wall-hung shelves has been growing. The French brand Harto channeled a bit of mid-century with a hint of eastern style in the staggered look of pole supports, most striking in black with gold accents (also in natural), that create a fetching composition, even before decorative pieces are added.

A very different look at Anthropologie combines Lucite with brass supports (that read as accents) in a compelling arch, with transparent shelves. That retailer also features a piece reminiscent of curios, this one in an exaggerated oval.

Whatever you call them, these new storage solutions are useful in just about any room in the house.

— Place a slender etagere as a focal point at the end of a foyer.

— Divide space with a larger piece, perfectly suited for loft-style living.

— Position open shelving in front of a window with a less than attractive view.

— Add a sculptural or architectural bookcase to ground and add visual verve.

Even with brilliant solutions for containing, your job is not finished. Now it's up to you to act as curator, editing your own collections so they'll look fabulous on your new shelves.