Tuesday, September 06, 2016
What Libraries Are For
"What's the room with all the books for?" If you read Peter Haldeman's recent New York Times article on his experience with using a home stager ("The Twilight Zone of Home Staging"), then you were likely horrified by this quote, which was uttered by the stager upon seeing the author's home library for the first time. Honestly, if someone came into my home and asked such a dumb question, I wouldn't know whether to laugh or cry. I realize that people don't read like they once did, and I understand that, sadly, libraries are no longer symbols of aspiration like they were in the recent past. But have our standards slipped so much that a home library is considered a detraction and not a luxury by many?
It seems to me that the Eighties was the last decade in which the library was lavished with attention, and two stellar examples from this decade are the libraries of Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard (today better remembered as the mother of Annette de la Renta) and Carter Burden. Both serious book collectors, Engelhard and Burden created not just some of the finest book collections in private hands, but two of the finest libraries to house them.
Converted from a former bedroom suite, Mrs. Engelhard's library was designed by architect Robert Raley and Parish-Hadley. Perhaps reflecting the American focus of Mrs. Engelhard's collection of rare books and manuscripts, the library is efficiently designed and somewhat restrained in its furnishings. The glass bookshelves were inspired by those at the Morgan Library, while the lighting was copied from that at Yale's Beinecke Library. With its fireplace, round reading table, and leather-covered chairs, the library was, to quote Albert Hadley, "a little jewel of a room."
Burden's library, on the other hand, was more decoratively effusive, famously decorated by first Parish-Hadley and, later, the great Mark Hampton. An obsessive collector of modern American literature, the late Burden said, "Books do not merely furnish my rooms, they engulf them." (This was the man who also quipped, "You can never be too thin, too rich, or have too many books.") But alongside those books were personal mementos, a flock of comfortable chairs, and layers of cosseting fabric, all of which must have encouraged hours upon hours of reading, reflecting, and relaxing, which is exactly what a room with all the books is for.
The library of Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard, decorated by Parish-Hadley:
Carter Burden's library, decorated by Parish-Hadley and Mark Hampton:
All photos from House & Garden, March 1987, Oberto Gili, photographer