Text by Robert Spuhler
Images courtesy of Assouline
As children, we read books in part to escape ourselves. Pirates don’t have bedtimes, and astronauts can have dehydrated ice cream for dinner, if they want. But as we grow, our books tend to become more than an escape, they’re also a reflection of who we are, of what we care about, and who we want to be. Naturally, at some point we want to display this accumulated desire and knowledge, although the task can seem daunting. Thankfully, there’s help. Combining the knowledge of a librarian or a publisher with the touch of a luxury stylist, private library curators help create collections and enclaves that feel unique to the individual.
“You’re trying to find the books that have resonated with them in their life,” says Philip Blackwell, the CEO and founder of Ultimate Library, “whether it’s childhood, their degree, their line of work or pleasure, interests, and pursuits.”
There are, in a way, two sides to creating a home library: design and collection. Both share a similar genesis, a central question to be answered: What do you want out of your reading sanctuary?
“The library should feel alive,” Alex Assouline says. The son of the couple behind the Assouline publishing house, he started offering curation and design services for both home and professional libraries after being commissioned to do so by a friend in 2017. “It should always be there to provide the right moment for escape and to inspire.”
To find that inspiration, curators start with the clients drawing out motivations, ideas, themes, and goals for their libraries. These could be cherished books from childhood, deep dives on areas of passion, or even a mood; a collection that invokes a feeling of Zen, perhaps, or energizes.
“It should really be an engaging and fun exercise for both parties,” says Blackwell, “to understand what people are looking for, and then take your encyclopedic knowledge of the four million books available, drilling down to the 300 that are going to press the hot buttons in these people.”
This may sound like some sort of shortcut, a way to buy an image of culture and erudition. But there’s more to a library than its brainy aesthetic.
“I expected more people to want to hire me to look smart,” says Christy Smirl, the owner of Foxtail Books & Literary Services in Jackson Hole, WY. “And that’s not what they’re looking to do. They’re book people and they want their guests to see the things that make them interesting.”
“We talk about them internally as books that people have lied about reading,” Blackwell says of those stereotypical collections of the great works of literature that make for a beautiful, but bland, backdrop. “We say we’re happy to make all the books red as long as they’re well-read.”
In many cases, these library collections help add a sense of place to a home. Working in Jackson Hole means that Smirl often works on the libraries of either newcomers or those with well-established second homes. Reflecting that location in clients’ book choices separates that particular shelf from one in another residence.
“If you live somewhere like Jackson, or L.A., San Francisco, [or] New York, you’re there because you’re really excited about that place,” she says. “And whether you’re into the nature, history, great restaurants, I think having books on your shelf, similar to having local art or something else visual, reminds you where you are.”
When the collection’s main idea is decided upon, curators (and their teams) get to work. In some cases, that may mean choosing between different editions of the same book for aesthetic purposes , but it could also be tracking down, through networks of dealers and specialists around the world, first editions, autographed copies, or even copies with alternate cover art.
All of the effort, no matter what form it takes, serves to create a library that can double as a representation of a person’s DNA, one that engenders the sort of ineffable passion that only art can create.
“I’ve had clients that hold a book to their chest, because it means so much [to them],” Smirl says. “There’s something about books…some people might want a home that gives them a spiritual vibe, or some might want a party atmosphere, and literature can, in a special way, provide that.”
SIDEBAR: The Centerpiece
It’s the book that draws everyone’s eyes. It’s the book that your friends can’t stop flipping through when they visit. “You always need a centerpiece,” says Assouline. Whether displayed on their eponymous fixtures, cover out on a shelf, or even on a custom-made bookstand, these are the titles that will grab your visitor’s attention. If you’re looking for the pièce de résistance of your collection, this is a sampling of publishers who specialize in the books that will “wow” friends before they even read a word.
If you’re looking for a reminder of that mind-expanding trip, Assouline might be able to help. Alongside the publisher’s art and culture titles, its city-specific books bring destinations to life, with gorgeous photography and great writing. It can even help you display that travelogue; the company has branched out into library furniture, as well.
Perhaps the largest and most famous of the “centerpiece” brands, Taschen has stores around the world that attract browsers looking for large-format artist retrospectives and deep dives into culture (orcounter-culture).
For a contemporary twist, this German publisher stays on the cutting edge of trends in design, architecture, and adventure (think backpacking, hiking, and even #vanlife). It is consistently updating its Monocle series of practical travel books with advice for off-the-beaten-path gems.