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Catching Up With Celerie Kemble

Top designer Celerie Kemble has definite views on what should—and shouldn’t—be on your bookshelves.

Photography by Nick Johnson

The proverbial acorn didn’t fall far from the tree with Celerie Kemble. The daughter of interior designer Mimi Maddock McMakin and founder of Kemble Interiors, Kemble grew up in the world. However, she didn’t rush into the world of fabric swatches, paint chips, and furniture catalogues. A graduate of Harvard University, Kemble worked first in the world of film before turning to design. Since then, she has developed a fabric line with F. Schumacher, faux leathers with Valley Forge, and coming this summer, a collection of floorcoverings with Merida Meridian. We decided to check in with her on bookcases.

How do you start organizing a bookshelf?
The first thing I do is figure out what my shelf depth is. I try to determine whether the bookcase is for the housing of books. These days, I think of books as something more emotionally attached to, not necessarily the most relevant reference point. Books are like a memory, almost a photo album but they are also a warm and humanizing element in any room.
I will assess someone’s book collections to see if they are an art book person and they will need the really deep ones or if they are a fiction collector and need the shorter shelves. I want to know what we have and what we are housing. Beyond that, I try to get people to start collecting objects they might find interesting or pieces of art that fall within the scale of their bookcase so we can break up strict horizontal and vertical rigidity of the space.

What is the ratio of books to objects and do you like a full or spare bookshelf?
I would like to see a full bookcase, which is not always possible because people would need to immediately collect. I like 80 percent filled with books, 20 percent filled with objects, paintings, family pictures, boxes. I like it when the books look like they are in there tightly. There is something wonderful when a bookshelf feels slightly overstuffed because that is when it has the most resonance. I really like to see it full. The priority for the bookcase is abundance, that controlled chaos because you have all the colors, all the titles, and inevitably, different types of books. At least in a real bookcase, unless you are just collecting bound volumes of books. People like to think their bookcases should only be these matching, full-volume sets of something that nobody is ever going to touch. I find when I walk into somebody’s house and I can scan their reading, I think it is a really engaging conversation, which is always spoken. When I walk in and see tons of leather-bound books that are nowhere part of their story, then [the books] are just decorative object. I can enjoy it in a great library in England but when I’m in somebody’s house, I think it is a little bit form over substance. I feel a little sad.

Are there other mistakes people commonly make?
People build bookcases and they don’t have the books. I think the biggest mistake somebody can do is throw away their books. That is what your parents’ garage and basement is for.
I think a mistake some people do is they put all the books upright and they forget to create interesting gaps, the juxtaposition of horizontals and verticals. I love a few family photos, boxes, little vases, or sculptural objects.
I have a little pedestal with the most enormous sea urchin I have ever seen on it. It is flanked on either side by books but it provides this sort of starburst shape of open air. It’s nice to have a whole line of books feeling heavy and solid and to have the breathing room of something breaking through.

Tell me about this bookcase at the Kip’s Bay Showhouse.
We took the horizontal pieces of wood out and put in big long stretches of Lucite to lighten up the bookcase. We lined the back inside of the bookcase in pale cream faux leather. I like taking the art outside the confines of the bookcase. We hung the painting up higher. If that piece of art weren’t there, the room would have a much lower profile. The painting raises the eye up closer to the ceiling height. And placing the art on the front of the bookcase like that is a great way of disguising the fact that you are short a lot of books.

What is that on the upper shelf?
It’s a collection of poetry journals. If people subscribe to journals or auction catalogues, they can keep them. People don’t have to just think books. They can think series of publications of any kind. I’m not against magazines if they are reference points for you, something you use and appreciate.

Is there a trick to organizing a bookcase?
A bookcase is a place where you are working that balance between symmetry and that naturalistic disarray. You have to look to find your own sense of proportion of those elements. It tells what you love, what you have chosen to put your time into, what you have selected to display and how you put that out.
I think bookcases are more telling than people’s art collections. Bookcases you don’t make in one purchase; it is usually an evolution.

Do you always cover the back of the bookcase?
I like to. I am one of those people who thinks there is enough wood in the world. So sometimes I put a mirror in the back or paint it a contrast color or line it with leather or faux leather. It is a little place to put some extra sparkle. And I like to see them lit from above.

What would you suggest people add to their bookshelves, beyond books?
Things that are fun to put in a bookcase: Something like an old clock, something with a round shape, and not purely rectangle. A branch of coral works but it is not really p.c. now.

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