A lackluster living room was transformed into the most popular spot in the house. Savvy furniture arrangement and a new bookcase did the trick.
Bland to Grand
Credit: Jean Allsopp

Often, the secret to creating a room that warms your heart and comforts your soul is no secret at all. A single item you own and love can jump-start a style. For Gwen and Jim Williams of Homewood, Alabama, the inspiration they needed was already in their very bare family room.

Hatching a Plan
"We wanted a place where we could sit down, curl up with a book, or listen to our girls play the piano," Gwen says. The couple asked decorator Sandra Lynn to let only two things guide the room's new decor: a glossy grand piano and a treasured portrait of their three daughters sitting at that piano. They also asked Sandra to design a floor-to-ceiling bookcase.

The couple got their wish. Watch how this room went from boring to welcoming without a hitch.

A Book-Lover's Dream
When Sandra prepared a budget for Jim and Gwen , she asked how much money they'd like to spend on books. A custom bookcase was going to span one wall and range in height from 12 feet on each end to 14 feet high at its peak; Sandra would need plenty of tomes to fill the shelves.

Jim and Gwen just looked at her questioningly, the way any self-respecting book-lovers would. "We had boxes of books scattered from our attic to my mom's basement," Gwen says. "We both love to read."

On display, the books are like works of art. Designed by Sandra, with the help of carpenter Steven Coletta, the shelves echo the majestic windows on the opposite wall.

Here are a few ideas for turning your tired bookshelves into a true focal point.

  • Begin with empty bookshelves. Start your arrangement on the shelf that is closest to eye level.
  • Rather than lining up all of your books side by side, stack some horizontally.
  • If a book has a beautiful cover you'd like to display, lean it at an angle or set it on a small easel. Tip: Valuable books should be shelved vertically to put less strain on the bindings and keep them in their best condition.
  • Group your collection by similar color and size.
  • Arrange accessories in odd numbers.
  • Use a stack of books to add height to a decorative item.
  • Leave empty space. Every inch of the bookshelf does not have to be filled.
  • Bring the books forward to the edge of the shelf instead of pushing them against the back.

Library Style
Steven used the same molding on the bookshelves that is on the windows to add to the authentic feel. The baseboard that wraps around the room continues along the bottom of the bookcase as well.

"We worked to create a bookcase that looks as if it's always been there," Sandra says.

A rolling ladder enhances the cozy library atmosphere while allowing access to books on higher shelves. The red oak ladder pushes in, flush against the shelves, when it's not in use. When needed, it pulls out at an angle for easier climbing.

Comfort Zone
Once the bookcase was complete, Sandra had the piano moved in front of it. The combination of extensive book collection and sophisticated instrument works perfectly together.

Sandra also created a comfortable seating area. The portrait of the girls hangs over the new sofa and echoes the warm color palette. The walls are painted a creamy gold, topped with a rich glaze. The rug's red and chocolate tones are repeated in pillows on the sofa and armchairs.

Antique stools are used as side tables next to the chairs, and matching apothecary lamps provide reading light. Lamps made from vintage balusters sit on either side of the sofa. Sandra positioned an antique console table, topped with simple accessories, in front of the large window.

The end result is so enticing that it's hard to believe the room was once so empty. "We never went in there before," Gwen says. "Now, the girls go in there to read or do homework or play the piano. Somebody is in there almost all the time."

Decorator was Sandra Lynn, Lynn Allen Design, Birmingham, 205-870-1381; carpenter was Steven Coletta, Birmingham, (205) 602-7758; wall, trim, and bookcase paint color is Warm Patina (SW 1401) by Sherwin-Williams ( Note: Wall paint is also topped with a glaze); library ladder from Putnam Rolling Ladder, Co., Inc., New York, (212) 226-5147 or www.putnamrollingladder.com.

This article is from the March 2005 issue of Southern Living.