There may be two kinds of bookcase owners: those who own more books than they can accommodate, cramming tomes into every crevice – and those who dot their shelves with artfully placed stacks, and have space to burn on potted plants and framed photos.
And then there’s Ashley Tisdale, whose bookshelves are just empty. The High School Musical star recently went viral for admitting to Architectural Digest that she had rushed to fill the in-built shelves in her Hollywood Hills home specifically for an on-camera tour.
“These bookshelves, I have to be honest, actually did not have books in [them] a couple of days ago,” Tisdale said. “I had my husband go to a bookstore, like, ‘You need to get 400 books.’” (Her husband’s alternative plan, of “collecting books over time, and putting them in the shelves”, Tisdale promptly dismissed.)
A Twitter pile-on naturally ensued. “I am speechless,” declared the tweeter who first circulated the clip.
But it turns out the bookshelf bulk-buy is standard practice among the rich and famous – and increasingly so, since books have become established as an erudite backdrop for Zoom.
According to MailOnline, Adele spent more than £1,000 in a spree at Daunt Books before the pandemic, “pulling books off the shelves without even looking at the spines or reading the blurbs”.
At least Adele bought them herself, points out Miles de Lange, an interior designer at the Alexander Lamont + Miles showroom at the Design Center in Chelsea. He says interior designers are often charged with supplying books for clients. “They are props, just like you buy a little object.”
But filling shelves with desirable coffee-table books can cost as much as £5,000 – which clients rarely want to spend, says De Lange. “They’ll give you £1,000, and you can buy 20, but it’s not enough to fill a wall.” The compromise is often a stack of two or three books, with a vase or knick-knack on top.
If you do have the budget to splash around on books you won’t read, there are dedicated bookshelf curators such as Thatcher Wine, whom Gwyneth Paltrow hired on finding herself some 600 books short after a home renovation.
Wine’s company Juniper Books sells sets of classic literature with custom jackets – a patented approach, he explains, that allows someone to own “the complete works of Jane Austen, but in a certain Pantone chip color that matches the rest of the room”.
Juniper Books and its Colorado “showroom” may seem like the ultimate celebrity weak, but since the pandemic some bookshops have started offering shelf curation services. Publishers, too, accept that many do judge books by their covers.
Penguin’s Clothbound Classics series of titles like Ulysses and Emma with Instagram-friendly covers has been hugely successful, with a box set spotted on the Duchess of Cambridge’s desk; a small-format range of 48 titles is coming in August.
Bea Carvalho, head of fiction at Waterstones, says books with strong design tend to get shared on social media, driving sales: “Having beautiful images to show off is so important … Sprayed edges go down very well on BookTok and Instagram.”
It has encouraged the industry to innovate. Waterstones’ special edition of Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – out Tuesday, and tipped as the book of the summer – has exclusive endpapers, displaying the periodic table.
It is a fantastic novel, adds Carvalho, but the design does it justice: “If you love a book, you want to display it proudly.”
It is for that reason, Karen Howes of interior design studio Taylor Howes says, designers with a book-buying brief tend to stick to non-fiction, not novels. She tends to “dress the bookcase” with titles relating to her clients’ interests such as wine or aviation – “so that when their friends come it does feel like they have selected all their books themselves”.
Novels are where you would get caught out, Howes says: “’Have you read the latest so-and-so?’ – and you haven’t.”
The rise of working from home has allowed for exposure on an even greater scale. The Twitter account @BookcaseCredibilityfollowed by more than 115,000 people, collates screenshots of celebrities’ bookish backdrops, arguing: “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.”
In a video interview with Vogue from her LA home, Adele’s shelves were recently revealed to bear titles such as The Mosaics of Rome and Japanese Prints. “There are some good ones up there,” she said as the camera broke across.
Likewise, a close study of Tisdale’s shelves reveals celebrity biographies, reference books, cookbooks and titles on fashion, psychology, wealth generation and self-help – her taste for fiction seeming to extend only to a novel by Ken Follett.
Tisdale was at least good-humored about the criticism she received, sharing her favorite book recommendations (and asking for more) in a post to her French lifestyle website. She apologized for being slow to respond: “I’ve recently just got a lot of new books to get through.” At least she can see the shelf as half-full.