Turn up for the books: How shelving has become an art form in itself
With practical and aesthetic appeal, shelving has become an art form in itself
My friend's brother came around to put up her new bedroom shelf. Normally, she'd have asked her boyfriend to do it, but he'd dumped her the week before. Later, down at the pub, she was passing around photos of the beautiful new shelf in situ. "Is that the shelf you've been left on?" someone asked.
The shelf looked great though.
It was painted in the same colour as the rest of the room and arranged with carefully curated items: a pile of books, a ceramic vase, a trailing plant, and an old silver candlestick. The display was a piece of art in its own right, but the shelf also fulfilled a practical role. Because the bedroom is very small and the bed is pushed up against the wall, it made use of an otherwise inaccessible corner.
"Never underestimate the power of shelving!" says Natasha Rocca Devine, interior designer. For her, the most important thing about shelving is choosing an arrangement that suits the architecture of the room and her advice is to think carefully about the space that it's going in to.
A tall shelving unit, for example, is a dominant piece of furniture, especially if the shelves are chunky. It could look statuesque in a large room with high ceilings. But then, it might also make a low-ceilinged space feel claustrophobic. "If the ceiling is low, I'd recommend a thin, linear shelving, possibly even glass." Bespoke shelving - like tailored clothing - is always going to fit the room better than something that you buy ready-made. But measure carefully before you commit.
Off-the-peg shelving ranges hugely in price. At the higher end, options are often customisable, with the option of LED lighting. If you can't afford built-in lighting, a five-metre strip of LED lighting costs €78.80 from Eames Lighting (or Lidl is currently selling it at €10 for two half metre strips). Moderately priced shelving units include the straightforward Ford bookcase from Harvey Norman (185cm high) which costs €149, or the asymmetrical Frida bookcase (same height, same price).
For serious shelving installations, the modular Regal system from Cubit is incredibly versatile. It comes in great colours, units cost between €26 and €70, but you have to order from Germany (delivery is free if you spend more than €2,000). For smaller items, Ikea's Sammanhang range of shelves, stands, and cabinets are designed for people who want to display their collections. Prices range from €10 to €125. But, as Rocca Devine points out, it doesn't really matter how much you spend on shelves - it's what you put on them that counts.
Natasha Rocca Devine describes herself as a "design nerd" (her initials do seem to fit the claim wonderfully) and one of her main activities is staging homes before they go on the market.
"When I'm staging a house, I imagine three different clients and design with those characters in mind. Is it a space where they could relax? Would it make them happy? My job is to create emotion within a space. Otherwise, what's the point?" Shelving, she finds, is a useful tool for creating an imagined lifestyle. "You might not have a budget for art," she says. "So the shelving - or what you put on it - has to become art."
This is easier said than done, especially in a real home where shelving will probably have a storage function as well.
There are a couple of ways of styling a shelf. One is based on the traditional Irish mantelpiece with a clock in the middle, a candlestick at each end, and a couple of ornaments lined up between them. It's a symmetrical way of thinking.
Kate Watson-Smyth, author of Mad About the House, suggests a different approach. First of all, she writes, make sure that there is variation in height. Put some books upright and leave others on their sides; include a short candlestick and, unless the shelf is very narrow, create a layering effect. "Try not to have everything in a straight line. Put the candlestick in front of the postcard that's propped up at the back. Let the necklaces hang down from the jewellery stand and pool on the book below." Then, she gives some very interesting advice. Group things in odd numbers. "Generally speaking, things group better in threes or fives. If you can mix the height within the group, you're already halfway there."
I've tried this, and it works! And, unlike most interior design advice, it's something that can be practiced at home and it doesn't cost a thing.
Another tip is to include some random items. "This is the perfect place for that fabulous stone you brought back from the beach last summer, or that shell that you haven't been quite sure what to do with," Watson-Smyth writes. For me, it would be the wooden horse that my son made, aged seven, from a few sticks and a bit of firewood. In fact, it currently has a shelf to itself. One is an odd number!
A final tip. Don't be afraid of empty space. "Allocate three or four shelves for your books, but leave some of the shelves almost empty so that you can create a balance between the busy shelves and the quiet ones," Rocca Devine suggests.
I found this one counter-intuitive. An empty shelf? The world is ending! But I gave it a go. At first, the empty shelves looked as weird as a face with a missing tooth but, when I came down in the morning, my belongings looked as though they appreciated the elbow room.
See theinteriorsnrd.com, eameslighting.com, harveynorman.ie, cubit-shop.com, and ikea.com/ie. Mad About the House (2018) by Kate Watson-Smyth is published by Pavilion and costs around €20
Pigs might fly
Carolyn Donnelly Eclectic is playing a blinder with this year's Christmas decorations for Dunnes. This flying pig (€5 from dunnesstores.com) is sure to become a family favourite. The range also includes a festive octopus, a flamingo and a mermaid.
The Theodore Daybed was designed for Vogue Williams and her new baby, Theodore, as part of a nursery range by Ventura Design. At €1,400 (fabric not included) it's a bit on the pricey side, but breastfeeding and naps are important. See babyventura.ie.
Candles are great in the long dark evenings and, if you can have a candle stick in the shape of a gilded banana peel, why wouldn't you? The Banana Candle Holder (12 cm high) costs around €28 from audenza.com and would make a great stocking filler.
Flight of fancy
These Japanese shades (from €35) come all the way from Cork. They're the work of up-and-coming designers Jade Hogan and Jo Slevin of Mr Kite Designs. You'll can track them down on Facebook, Etsy or meet them in person at dublinchristmasflea.ie.
Aisling McElwain is the rising star of Irish ceramics. You'll find this set of Green and Gold Pottery (€80) at cliffhome.ie and at Pop Up Pottery and Craft shop, which runs at Cleo, Kildare Street, Dublin, until Sunday (see aislingmcelwain.com).