Despite the growing popularity of iPads, Kindles, and other e-book readers, rooms designed to showcase and enjoy the humble book are still in demand for the modern-day manse. Although most libraries often double as a home office or TV room, some homeowners are opting for the low-tech and old-school aesthetic of yesteryear: rich wood-cloaked environs with towering bookcases, the quintessential ladder, and even the plucked-from-a-mystery-novel revolving bookcase and hidden passageway.
Library purists and bibliophiles—most of Beverly Hills designer Kenneth Bordewick’s celebrity and royal family clients—are adamant that their space evokes an almost forgotten era, hearkening back to Dickensian England and bedecked in dark mahogany, gilded in gold or bronze accents, and devoid of telltale signs of technology. Occasionally some might jump the channel, recalling classic French style with vivid Napoleonic blues and golds, but as a general rule there’s little color and few distractions, he says.
"Formal libraries have reading tables and not a lot of accessories except a Baccarat chandelier and bronze statuary," says Bordewick. "Libraries are all wood and the only color is the fabric on the chairs."
Custom bookcases, paneling, and ceilings in plume mahogany, bold walnut, and other exotic woods easily account for $12 million to $56 million of a library’s budget. When Bordewick’s clients do incorporate technology, it’s more of a necessity—Crestron and Lutron systems tied into the home’s automation and LED lighting that won’t produce heat or ultraviolet rays that can damage first editions and rare manuscripts.
"I have a different way of lighting the shelves," he says. "I use holes with LED lighting and mirrors to create a sense of vertical space. It makes it interesting, romantic, and ominous. It casts wonderful shadows."
Sometimes technology serves merely to showcase the library. "People like to be seen in a library when they’re on the Polycom," the designer says.
Many Bordewick-designed libraries provide a secret passageway to the master room others connect to the study or the "real" library, where the special books are housed.
Chicago architect Michael Donohue’s clients fall into two camps: "those who are either avid readers and want a library to store actual books or those with Kindles and iPads who want the aesthetic of a library. Libraries have a certain feel that people love and appreciate," he says.
All of the residential libraries Donohue has designed on behalf of Stillwater Architecture also multitask as home offices. All of his requests have been from men.
"I’ve never had a female client ask for a library," he says. "It’s an old-world experience men seem to be looking for. The libraries we’ve done become the focal points for our clients and they spend a significant chunk of time in there. It’s almost like a man cave."
Donohue’s largest project was a two-story library in Harbor Springs, Mich., designed to accommodate a client’s 7,500-book collection. "It has incredible woodwork," says Donohue, noting the client also incorporated a cataloging system. "He entertains all the time and visitors often start reading a book but don’t finish it during the weekend. He has a scanner that helps him track books guests take home."
One of Donohue’s smaller and more outside-the-box designs was for his own loft. He took a cubist approach—literally—mounting cubes to a wall. "The cubes provide storage for books, double as display space, and become a piece of artwork on their own," he says. "The idea literally came together on a napkin during dinner with a cabinetmaker."
He’s using a similar concept for a current project, mounting the cubes on large windows in the library of an Illinois client.
Libraries are also factoring into luxury high-rise condos, where they may not be as large as their estate-home counterparts but offer city- and water-spanning views. Atlanta-area designer Patricia McLean added a library to the model she created for the St. Regis, a 151-room resort with 53 luxury homes on its top 14 floors. She opted for antiqued cedar for a more rustic, vintage look, an aesthetic that recalls her studies in Europe. The library, with its brass wire grills and space-enhancing mirror, blends French, English, and American furnishings and has been a standout for potential buyers, according to developer Tavistock Group.
"It’s this gem," McLean says. "I’m an Anglophile at heart and love traditional design, the classic country home of the gentry and scholarly, which always has a library."
Designer Michael Friedes created a multipurpose room for his clients’ condo on the 48th floor of the Millennium Tower in San Francisco. The space, the home’s only other bedroom, conveys a warm contemporary aesthetic with handcrafted walnut cabinetry, a cantilevered desk, stainless steel accents, and shelf-illuminating LED lighting. "They’re big travelers and wanted a lot of bookshelves," he says. "They’re old-school and tend to buy travel books based on upcoming trips. They use them and refer to them later."
Off-white furnishings, including an upholstered ottoman/coffee table, contrast with the dark espresso wood floor and pops of persimmon.
"My clients wanted the room to function as a library, home office, TV room, and guest room," says Friedes. "And it does. It has the only TV in the house. They use it all the time and can entertain guests in there."
Another Friedes project is diametrically opposite: an update to an existing library rendered in trend-on charcoal gray with an illuminated dome ceiling and round cowhide rug "to keep it funky. It has a bar, leather wingback chair, a built-in sofa, and it’s mostly his room," the designer says. "He likes to have the guys in for a drink and a cigar.
"It’s interesting: You think someone who wants a library must have a book collection," adds Friedes. "A library is more about having this unique, cozy little space that’s different from the rest of the house. It echoes back to another time but interprets elements for modern living with a chair to sit with an iPad while enjoying a glass of wine and a cigar. Technology definitely plays a role."
Donohue thinks technology may eventually cancel out the residential library. "E-books outsold hard copies for the first time," he says. "I think the days of the big grand library might be winding down. There is that classic element that will always appeal to some people. The actual function of a library is going to radically change during the next two decades. At some point technology is going to get there; we just don’t know what it is yet."