Artistic shelf arrangements take time, experimentation

Arranging shelves creatively is a little decorating project unto itself. It takes time and patience, and many people still fail to reognize the demands and subtleties of artful put-togethers. They simply plop books, objects, and pictures on shelves in random way and hope for the best.

Interior designers usually leave such important finishing touches until the very last. Then they spend hours working out just the right arrangements, experimenting, adding and subtracting until they have achieved just the right effects.

I have watched professionals work out my own shelf arrangements and have helped a few friends and relatives come to terms with their own shelves. The one thing I have learned is that shelves cannot be arranged in a hurry. Choosing just the right assortment of treasures to display on them requires both thought and artistic experimentation.

More restraint is necessary than most people imagine because most of us own far too many unrelated items that we would like to show off. It takes forebearance to edit and delete and put away possessions, and then to give those that deserve to be seen a balanced and pleasing arrangement.

Once when I was helping a relative arrange two sets of built-in shelves on either side of a fireplace, we soon discovered that, for balance, we needed more bibelots. So we went around the house collecting grandma's old sugar bowl, Aunt Nellie's antique painted cannister, some bronzed baby shoes, a handblown glass pitcher, some interesting bookends and small framed paintings, a piece of sculpture or two, and a few rhododendron plants in nice pots and baskets.

We then began to mix things from this homey little stockpile with books, standing back across the room periodically to check out the effects. Often, we would replace and rearrange. But eventually a pleasant overall arrangement emerged and we sat down to enjoy our efforts. This little decorative exercise had taken the entire evening.

Naomi Gale is a New York designer who has spent years working out the most functional and attractive wall systems and shelf arrangements.

This leading authority on wall design advises her customers to opt for multileveled, adjustable shelves that afford maximum flexibility in the way they are placed.

She tells them to treat the wall being decorated as if it were a canvas and they were the artist standing in front of it. She shows them how to sketch the wall and plan the shelf layout with an eye for total composition.

"Once the shelves are on the wall, and you begin to arrange books and objects on them, strive for an upsweeping effect," Mrs. Gale urges, saying, "I like to put what is light in color and shape at the top, and what is brighter and bolder at the bottom, although this is not an absolute rule. It may sometimes be necessary to put a heavy, dark object at the top in order to 'hold down' and balance the total arrangement." She is emphatic, however, in advising that those things you need immediate access to should be placed on lower shelves.

Other hints from Naomi Gale include these:

* If you want to highlight something, place it next to a commanding color like red and orange.

* Combine various shapes and colors for contrast, and alternate books, plants , objects of art, etc. Experiment by making little compositions which combine three objects, such as a tall, narrow vase, a squat, low bowl, and a pretty box. You can develop a 'feel' for composition as you practice moving objects about until you discover the most pleasing visual effects. A safe rule is to mingle three or six objects, not two or four.

* Remember that like goes with like, and so mix things of like textures, and like moods. Do not, for instance, place a heavy rustic basket against a piece of delicate porcelain.

* Mix objects at different levels and arrange them at different heights. If books are old and faded looking, try covering a few with wallpaper of an indefinite pattern, or mottled with metallic silver or gold. This could unify the total effect.

* Manipulate all the variables of space, color, and form until they exactly suit your needs and tastes.

* Never be afraid of open spaces. They can be very effective in enhancing the total effect.

Mrs. Gale admits that different designers have different views about the mixture of books and objects. Some insist that book shelves be nine-tenths books, and one-tenth art objects, and that shelves that emphasize the display of collections should feature only a sprinkling of books. In the end, the choice is a personal one.

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