A BOOK LOOK

Times Staff Writer

A room without books, says Los Angeles interior designer Peter Dunham, is "a tragedy. It feels unfinished, like there is no intellectual presence."

In a city derided for its cerebral shortcomings, the home library -- once merely a quaint signature of old money -- is asserting itself as a showcase for personal taste, designers say. Los Angeles houses may balloon with gadget-laden spa baths, elaborate outdoor kitchens and high-tech media lounges, but it's the humble bookcase-lined reading room that's becoming a symbol of respite and refinement.

It's a trend propelled by novel ideas in the marketplace. An Umbra bookshelf called Conceal, which supports a vertical stack of titles so they seem to levitate above the floor, has sold nearly 200,000 units. Based on that success, the firm recently premiered a similar system for displaying books horizontally called the Flybrary.

Berkeley artist Jim Rosenau creates shelves made of books instead of wood, with intriguing and humorous messages delivered on the spines. One bookshelf is constructed of "Who Pushed Humpty Dumpty?" and "All the Kings Men," both supported by a wedge of "Anatomy of a Murder" -- pierced by an egg whisk.

"They still convey stories in your mind even if you are just reading the titles," says Rosenau, who sells his work at the Gallery of Functional Art in Santa Monica and through www.thisintothat.com.

In an age of tabloids and celebrity scandal blogs, books signify wit and learnedness -- or at least the pretense of them.

New York designer Harry Allen uses the embellished hard covers of antique books as a facade on the cast-resin blocks that make up his faux Bookshelf, which sells for $180 at local design stores such as Show in Los Feliz.

Even when the fakes couldn't look less like a book, they still exude a scholarly gravitas. Just look at the porcelain volumes from KleinReid and carved wooden books designed to match old vellum-bound volumes from Voila! gallery in Los Angeles. Designer Kelly Wearstler's collection of accessories for Bergdorf Goodman in New York includes a stack of old tomes with untrimmed pages, all carved from black, gray and white marble.

The wall-covering firm Starck offers Library, a 3-foot-wide hand-painted mural that resembles shelves of books in an arched case, and the Eagle Rock design studio Bughouse produces "Radical Chic," a silk-screened graphic for your wall depicting the photographic image of provocative political tracts lined up on a shelf. Shoppers can even find inexpensive room dividers such as the Silverton (available at www.netshops.com) that are painted to resemble rows of bookshelves.

BIBLIOPHILES may read these products as sad substitutes for the real things, but most of the designs are meant as a homage to literature, not a cheap replacement. They bear a post-modern sense of humor and irony that depart from the "books by the yard" approach -- old hardcovers sold for their decorative spines for $10 to $400 per foot -- which is loathed by collectors and most interior designers.

"It is such a cliche," says Sara Nelson, editor in chief of the trade magazine Publishers Weekly. "When I see homes with leather-bound volumes of the complete works of Shakespeare or Thackeray, I assume those books have never been read."

Writer, historian and antique book dealer Victoria Dailey recalls the time a decorator came into the bookstore she once owned and announced, "I want the look of books."

"It was so insulting to the books," Dailey says. "Just to pretend you have books is offensive."

A library is a reflection of your mind, your being, your essence, Dailey says. Like a strand of DNA, a collection of books is a catalog "of all the ideas that have gone into your head and all the experiences in your constitution."

The San Francisco design team Mike and Maaike created its own catalog of ideas for "Juxtaposed: Religion," their limited-edition piece for the design firm Blankblank. Sold at high-end L.A. furniture galleries including Twentieth and Limn for $2,500, it consists of a slab of reclaimed hardwood that is carved to hold the Bible, Koran, Torah and four other texts of faiths from around the world so that the tops of each volume are equal in height.

"Books do have a terrific impact on who we are. They also make a statement about who owns them," says Mark McLaughlin, spokesman for the annual America's Most Literate Cities report compiled by Central Connecticut State University. "People who cherish their books give them a favorite domain."

The Los Angeles metropolitan area accounts for more than 5% of U.S. book sales, a figure surpassed only by New York City, according to Nielsen BookScan. But even though a study by the National Endowment for the Arts says Angelenos read more than their Manhattan counterparts, Los Angeles still ranks 53rd on the America's Most Literate Cities report measuring per-capita usage of bookstores and libraries, among other things.

Which is perhaps why a certain segment of the population in Southern California has begun to showcase the home library as an image-enhancing badge of literacy. The trend has even spawned a service: the library consultant.

"People move into new houses or second homes with all these empty shelves, and they just don't have enough books," says Nick Harvill, who catalogs and curates personal collections.

For an hourly fee starting at $45, West Hollywood-based Harvill will appraise books and create extensive bibliographies based on clients' passions. He also can help organize and present a collection.

"The faux English lord approach fools no one," says Harvill, who stores his personal holdings covering art, architecture, fashion and culture on industrial steel and walnut shelves designed by Oliver Furth.

INTERIOR designer Dunham would rather see empty shelves than books that bear no witness to their owners. In the Pacific Palisades home of veteran sitcom and film producer Caryn Mandabach, he created an inviting library from wood-paneled space with picture windows offering verdant views.

"The identity of a library in most people's minds is a dark and clubby room," Dunham says. "This was filled with light and connected to the outdoors, so it needed to be rich and atmospheric."

The designer struck the balance with layers of printed and textured fabric: a graphic floral on the walls, a Suzani embroidery on a coffee-table-sized ottoman, a tufted green velvet sofa and richly aged brown leather chairs. There is a TV, placed almost as an afterthought, high up on a wall. The main attraction is clear: a 12-foot-high wall of books with a rolling library ladder.

"A library is truly a status room," Dunham says. "Before the printing press and the paperback, books were tremendous luxuries that people collected as trophies."

If it were up to him, says the designer who has transformed his own dining room into a library, "I'd put bookcases in every room."

In the Beverly Hills home that historian and book dealer Dailey shares with her husband, contemporary art gallery owner Steve Turner, the books number into the tens of thousands. Here, Dunham's dream is a necessity. There are bookcases in the living room, books covering a converted wet bar in the home office and bookshelves lining the perimeter of a reading room furnished with an old library table, Arts and Crafts chairs and 20th century chinoiserie figurine lamps.

The piece de resistance is in guest quarters converted into a sort of collectors' playroom, for which the couple had a modern curio cabinet built. Made from bird's-eye maple with UV-protective glass and slide-out document drawers, the piece built by Chicago cabinetmaker Travis Glazebrook soars to the angled ceiling like a jazzy, cubist construction reminiscent of architect Paul Frankl's 1930s Skyscraper furniture.

"We like having them accessible to look at and rearrange and think about," says Turner, whose collection includes thousands of pamphlets and photographs detailing Southern California and African American history. "The more you examine what you collect, the more you open yourself up to new ideas."

Aside from the convenience of having research materials close at hand, Dailey treasures living among books.

"Collectors are idealists, and a library is a way of perfecting and ordering the world," she says, sitting in a red leather reading chair in one of her libraries. "Being in here, I feel that this is the way the universe would be if I was in charge."

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david.keeps@latimes.com

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Bookish and so much fun

Fresh, fun or pure faux? These designs play with the presence of books in the home. For more, look for the photo gallery on latimes.com/home.

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