Books are central to interiors - the hashtags don't lie.

July 8, 2019

Ultimate Library sells books by the metre to international luxury hotels like the Ham Yard. Founded in 2011, it has capitalized on an explosion of interest in books as decorative objects, shown plainly in popular bookshelf images on Instagram and Pinterest, with the hashtags #shelfie or #bookstagram.

We’re not surprised – for decades, we’ve been ranting and raving about books being central to interiors, the ultimate finishing touch that can be used like works of art. They are decorative, interesting and great company. Read more, ‘Why Books Will Never Go Out Of Style.’

Old or new, good books are a statement you are interested in the world.

Melissa’s coffee table at her country house is piled with stacks of books, both old and new. Photo: Abbie Melle.

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Mr. Blackwell, founder of Ultimate Library, 60, who is erudite, affable and well-read; says he gets “twitchy” when he doesn’t have a book with him. He comes from family that has been in the book-selling business since 1879, when one of his ancestors founded Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. Mr. Blackwell was involved with the company until 2006, when he stepped down as C.E.O. of the book-selling arm and began travelling while on gardening leave. Read more, ‘What to do With Coffee Table Books.’

“It was then that something started to bother him: In the hotels where he stayed, the libraries were ill-kempt, full of what he called “orphan books.” They were also, apparently, ugly.”

Hotels would put so much effort into every other aspect of interior design, but not books,” he said. That led to The Ultimate Library, which Mr. Blackwell affectionately calls his “gap-year project gone wrong.”

The company has selected books for clients in more than 40 countries, including the Philippines, Greece, the Maldives and Tanzania. In addition to hotels, they include restaurants, private apartments, shops and boats (in case, for example, your yacht lacks a suitable library).

The Ultimate Library honours highly specific requests: a restaurant in Paris that wanted only books with red spines, or another client who wanted a library based around the subjects of China and horse racing.

Books as design objects are nothing new.

In the 1820s in Britain, custom-bound books started to become popular for elites, with collections that were meant to be uniform for a single-family, sometimes bearing their crest or other signature design.

The concept of collections trickled down into the mass market. In the 1920s, American publishers like Modern Library put out reissued set of classics with pretty spines that you could buy as a set: starter kits, both for reading and showing off your reading. Read more, ‘The Best Coffee Table Books To Gift (Or Keep) Right Now.’

Melissa’s coffee table is piled with neat stacks of books at her country house – which she says are “decorative, interesting and great company. It means no one need ever get bored.” Photo: Abbie Melle.

The rise of the #shelfie has created a whole new economy of books-as-backdrops.

At the high end of the market is Ultimate Library, which peddles what Mr. Blackwell calls “intelligent luxury,” books handpicked one by one to give a highly specified feel to a space. Mr. Blackwell said prices range from roughly $2,000 for small collections to $150,000 for whole libraries on a grander scale.

But there are also D.I.Y. options for anyone interested in pulling together a pretty library quickly. Nancy Martin, the owner Decades of Vintage, sells vintage books by the foot, in sets by colour or style. One foot of blue or red books costs $68; you can get rainbow shades for $80.

Before social media, you decorated your living space and then you went and lived in it,” Ms. Martin says. “Now, with the onset of the pictorial engagement, you have people who want to be influencers or popular online, and the way to do that is new content.”

“So people have started styling for holidays or seasons, and just making tweaks to their living environments. Books are a really inexpensive way to decorate.”

Her colours sell seasonally. “Around this time of year people start buying green, and in the summer, acquis and turquoises and yellows,” Ms. Martin said. “In the fall, what a phenomenon. People buy brown, brick, terracotta and orange.” Around the holidays, people will buy gold and white, or sometimes special collections she makes of red and green. Blue is evergreen. Read more, ’10 Uber-Cool Ways to Style a Coffee Table.’

Melissa’s coffee table at her country house is stacked with beautiful and interesting hardbacks with lovely pictures covering subjects from houses to travel, gardens, architecture, art and food. Books show you are interested in the world. Photo: Abbie Melle.

It’s easy to feel a little uneasy about the idea of books intended explicitly for staging photos. The old decorator’s trick of arranging them by the rainbow is particularly polarizing; Kinsey Marable, a private library curator whose clients include Oprah Winfrey, says, “I really scoff at that. I think it’s just ridiculous. It’s just absurd.” Read more, ‘This is How You Decorate a Room From Start To Finish.’

Then there’s the obvious question: Are people actually reading any of these books?

Mr. Blackwell thinks they are, though even if they aren’t, there’s still value to it. “Someone might see a book on a hotel shelf they’ve always wanted to read, and then it’s in their head, that title, and they’ll carry it with them later,” he said. And even if nobody does, clients are at least buying books, some of which no one wanted to read in the first place, giving them a second life.

Chuck Roberts, a used-book seller, calls this “book rescue.” He had always sold decorative books in his stores and eventually started a side business, Books by the Foot, as a way of repurposing books that wouldn’t sell in his stores: a health or diet book that’s gone out of fashion, or a Stephen King best seller, of which the store has hundreds of copies. Almost all these books would be pulped by other book dealers, Mr. Roberts says.

Books by the Foot sells by the colour (“Rainbow Ombre,” a best seller, goes for $69.99 per foot) and by subject matter, including “Architecture” and “Well-Read Bibles.” The company also does styled collections around themes whose names are reminiscent of air fresheners. “Cape Cod” is a best-seller; there’s also “Irish Stout” and “Whispering Willows” and “Modern Enchanted Forest.”

Karl Lagerfield at home in Paris in his famed library, image via

“I went to the Aran Islands a while ago, and they have all these sweaters there, and I felt we could duplicate that feel with books,” Mr. Roberts said. “So that’s our ‘Aran Islands’ mix, which sells pretty well.”

At Vintry & Mercer, a new boutique hotel in the City of London, the lit-mosphere created by Ultimate Library might be best described as Funny Money. “We were really focused on location here, which is the City, with its financial history, but also East London, which has a certain quirkiness,” Mr. Blackwell said.

In a coffer along the high perimeter of the hotel’s downstairs library, all out of reach, are “Kudos,” by Rachel Cusk; “The Last London,” by Iain Sinclair; “Empire of Secret,” by Calder Walton; and a collection of Virginia Woolf. The spines are mostly shades of white and grey and black and brown to match the ceiling, which is wallpapered with a vintage map.

But there are some light blue spines that pop out, to match the robin’s-egg blue of the walls. “Look at those accents,” Mr. Blackwell said. *This is an excerpt from an article that appeared in Wall Street Journal.

related stories

Living By Design


Don’t miss the style set’s fave newsletter

Get Melissa's weekly rundown of where top interior designers source their things and find inspiration - that will instantly transform your pad.

Close and please don't show again