I was once at a party with some designer shoes. They did have a person in them, but she mostly talked about the shoes, under the impression that a designer name imparted some mystic quality to them. Unfortunately, what they imparted to me was a sense that Minnie Mouse was doing well in the foot size department. Neither did they do anything for her legs, her torso, or the cut, colour, or fabric of her dress. But they were designer, and so the other guests ooed and awed while I tried to find another drink.
Unfortunately, what I like to call “designer creep” — the tendency for every consumer product to be positioned as a designed object — has infiltrated our culture to such an extent that one can no longer escape it simply by wandering off in search of gin. Beginning with the iPod in the late 90s, and buoyed by the easy credit of the pre-crash economy, design trickled down onto the high street and crept through the internet into the consciousness of average consumers. And now it’s followed me into the very last bastion of old-fashioned, unselfconscious nerdery: the library.
You can’t go a day, it seems, without running across an example of designed bookshelves. They pop up on quality book blogs and news sites, but also feature regularly in low quality “best” lists, the type of no-content content that’s so easy for time-strapped bloggers to produce. It’s not that I don’t sympathise; it can be difficult to come up with good topics on a regular basis, and an unusual or funny looking bookshelf can seem like a godsend. The problem is that few writers look at these shelves critically. Much like the Minnie Mouse shoes, they’re passed around the web being oohed and awed even though many of them barely function as bookshelves.
Yanko Design’s tagline is “Form Beyond Function”, so at least they’re honest. This gets to the heart of my problem with most designer bookcases. Design isn’t just about pushing aesthetic boundaries. It’s about making products that are beautiful and functional, whether that product is as complex as a smartphone or as simple as a ceramic pitcher.
But, in most of these bookshelf designs, function is relegated to the back-burner. The example above wastes a huge amount of space to store only fifteen, maybe thirty, volumes. A normal set of shelves sitting in approximately the same area could hold double or triple that number of books. And all those books would be standing upright, easy to see and to pull off the shelf without pinching your fingers, and not at risk of damage because the shelf rolled and they all bumped around in their little compartments. It’s the damage-causing potential of these shelves that really drives me crazy.
This, for instance, is just terrible. So of course it won some kind of award.
“But the world is changing,” you say. “We read digitally now and don’t need to worry about damaging physical books or conserving space. We can be creative. Bookcases don’t have to be purely functional, they can represent our personalities and aspirations.”
And I agree with part of that! I’m a tech geek myself, and I appreciate the possibilities of digital reading. Not only for the books we read electronically, but for those we hold onto as physical objects. In the future there will still be physical books, but they’ll be nicer than the ones we’re used to. Instead of buying cheap paper copies of bestsellers we’ll read the latest crazes electronically. Hard copies will be produced in smaller numbers to higher standards, made to give as gifts and keep as cherished objects. Spend any time with books printed during the early modern era, or by the private presses of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and you start to see the possibilities. It’ll be the best of both worlds: free flowing digital information and beautiful physical copies of the books we love best.
So why, at precisely this moment, would you want to start buying shelves that destroy your books?
I wish this shelf, for example, was a joke. But it isn’t. I can’t find the original site for this particular model, but the same people also designed this travesty. Not a single one of the books pictured here is sitting comfortably. They’re being damaged as the dust jackets and edges of the covers wear, light attacks every surface, and the spines warp, slowly and inexorably.
We’ve also heard lots recently about bookshelf design for the “post-book world”, in which bookshelves become less about books and more about other types of objects. But does anything look happy here? I wouldn’t trust much to this curvy shelf, certainly not any antiques or objects of sentimental value, and it’s not really made to store everyday things like the sunglasses, either. This shelf just looks like a big waste of space.
But a shelf doesn’t have to be large to be a waste of space:
You, too, can have a headache for only $959.
Autum [sic] is a shelving system that gives a new take on the standard bookshelf. It is uniquely designed to give the effect of a leafless tree… With varying heights and widths you can find storage for numerous items that wouldn’t usually fit on a book shelf.
Newsflash: most items meant to go on bookshelves fit on normal bookshelves.
This example demonstrates the problem with many of these shelves: they’re designed without the books in mind. Instead of thinking “How can I make the books and the shelves look good together?” the designer wonders, “How can I make a shelf that looks cool, maybe like a tree?”. I’m not strictly opposed to cool shelves, and I like autumn trees. But once you start filling this shelf it all goes wrong. The books don’t look like scattered leaves on a tree. They ruin the lines of the case, and the case ruins the lines and beauty of the books.
Here’s another egregious example that pops up regularly:
The Bookworm by Ron Arad ticks all my rage boxes. By far one of the most widely available of these designs, it’s for sale in the MOMA shop and at a few high street retailers. I believe part of the appeal is that you can mount the shelf in any way you like, making a worm or even a spiral. This has been described as “daring and revolutionary” (see the last link), but in addition to being a waste of space, damaging to the books, and difficult to use, it’s ugly as sin. Books and other objects never look good on it — just do an image search to see people’s photos of the completed shelves. It’s the disconnect between the flowing lines of the shelf and the straight lines of the books, which end up clumped together at odd intervals. Again, I’m all for interesting, even challenging, juxtapositions where appropriate in design, but this just looks cheap and gimmicky.
The argument in these designs’ favour is that the whole point is to push boundaries. But artists, fashion designers, and engineers become great because they force on the viewer new ideas and perspectives. I’m not sure what these bookshelf designs are supposed to accomplish, but it’s certainly not that. A big round bookshelf with room for 15 books doesn’t make me question the nature of the book or its role in my life, just how to get a volume off the shelf without jamming my fingers. Though if you bought one you would have to question why you have books at all if they’re barely visible, inconveniently stored, and getting damaged by the very thing that’s supposed to protect them.
These problems are by no means restricted to bookshelves; I’ve run across lots of other design travesties in technology and home decorating. The difference is that an annoying can opener can be left harmlessly in a drawer, but once your books are broken they’re broken forever. If this is the future of “shelving systems”, just give me an e-reader and be done with it.