To add a library to a house is to give that house soul – at least, so said Cicero. Unfortunately we're not all as blessed in the book department as Ernest Hemingway, whose Cuban library boasted a ten-foot long desk 'curved like a boomerang'. Modern living is often short on space. But that does not mean you can't create a cosy corner to hide away from the world with a book.
Reading nooks are all the rage – everyone from Sophie Dahl to Nigella Lawson is carving out space for one. Even Jamie Oliver, who has spoken about his childhood battle with dyslexia, has sequestered a fireside armchair, snapped by his wife Jools for Instagram napping with a cookery book across his lap.
During lockdown, the wonders of zoom drew our attention to how other people organise their reading. We learned that Channel 4’s news anchor, Jon Snow, owns an impressive art book collection, with titles on Caravaggio, Andy Warhol and Aubrey Beardsley, and wasn’t above a little free PR for his distinguished historian cousin Peter and son, Dan Snow, with their joint 2016 title, Treasures of British History, in clear sight on the shelves. And we learned also that Dominic Raab owns a biography of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Is it any wonder then, that with all this focus on what our bookshelves say about us, that creating a reading nook is one of the most popular improvements this year? Almost a fifth (16 per cent) of UK adults told online marketplace NotOnTheHighStreet that they would rather have a reading nook – or a home gym, to be fair – than a new kitchen, en-suite bathroom, living room or garden.
Interior designers Sarah Vanrenen and Louisa Greville Williams of Vanrenen GW Designs say that the pandemic has led to an increase in requests: 'Clients want smaller spaces to be interesting and useful now. A reading nook can double up as extra seating when the house is full.'
A bay window is often the most convenient place to site a nook. A window seat is perfect. 'The curving window creates a cocooning effect – an essential element to any cosy reading space – flooded with natural light so you don’t have to worry about artificial lighting during the day,' says Rachel Hall, head of Octagon Interiors.
An armchair or bench can work equally well. You’re aiming for a feeling of protection, so pitch seating low, with somewhere to stretch out and put your feet up. Karl Lagerfeld, estimated to have owned up to 300,000 books, had the right idea; in the two-storey library of his Parisian atelier, his low-slung charcoal grey sofas were surrounded by veritable canyons of large-format coffee table books, arranged sideways, to utilise every millimetre of shelving. Others have opted for chairs with built in shelving.
At the very least try to tuck the nook into a corner or against a wall. 'If yours is an open-plan space where nooks are few and far between, consider breaking it up and creating different zones for different purposes,' says Wayne Dance, founder and managing director of InHouse Inspired Room Design.
Above all, start with a place that makes you feel comfortable and evokes a feeling of relaxation, believes Nia Wyn Rossiter, interiors expert, director and co-founder of Penderyn Antiques. This means away from rooms associated with work, chores and general noise: 'The quieter the better. If you find the ideal spot, but unfortunately there’s no plug points for a lamp or charger, a rug is a good way to disguise an extension lead.'
Still can’t squeeze one in? 'Think about transitional spaces, those parts of the home that we use to get from one to another, such as hallways, corridors and landings,' says interior designer Kelly Collins, head of creative at furniture company Swfyt Home: 'Often there is wasted space here which could easily be big enough for a reading area.' Or you might find space under the stairs or even by transforming an existing built-in cupboard.
Nigella Lawson, who professes to spending at least six hours a day reading at weekends, has a library stocked to the rafters with all kinds of books. With a huge plant and a slightly wonky lamp, it has all the raffish charm of a classic reading nook, but it’s not one – because it also has an elegant black gloss desk. Desks, which smack of work, are definitely not a reading nook requirement.
Keep in mind the dictionary definition of ‘nook’ as 'a small quiet place or corner that is sheltered or hidden from other people'. You’re aiming for a recessed enclave, ideally with bookshelves on three sides, says Hall.
Bring in big and bold plants such as Monstera Deliciosa (Swiss Cheese Plant), Yuccas and ferns to create a living wall between your nook and the rest of the house.
'I prefer to keep the area as uncluttered as possible,' says interior designer Simone Suss. 'Yes, electricity for lighting...but apart from that, a small table with a notepad and pen to take any notes if you’re reading something inspirational. If storage is required, make it beautiful.'
For the actual business of reading, you’re going to need ‘task’ lighting such as a table lamp with a moveable head or an adjustable floor lamp, says Ann Marie Cousins, founder of AMC Design. Combine this with soft low-level lighting for a calming ambience to support natural light.
Author Sophie Dahl, who began collecting antiquarian books in her early twenties, after stumbling upon Bernard Shapero’s Mayfair bookshop and found, to her delight, a first edition of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, has a nook with curved shelving under the seat, which she shares with her Greek rescue Labrador/Lurcher cross, JoJo, who sleeps on cushions under the window.
Philipp Nagel, owner of Neatsmith, a bespoke wardrobe company, recently completed a significant project for another trader in rare books: 'LED lights were incorporated at the rear of the shelving to illuminate the books. And in a nod to the modern, we integrated a wireless charging point and also a small fridge.'
Try a colour palette for the shelving or seating that is distinct from your main living space to create that all-important sense of differentiation. This colour zoning is as important as the physical, to segment your space effectively. And don’t forget a scented candle or an essential oil burner to enhance the mood.