The Vest-Pocket Library

Washington Post, by Patricia Dane Rogers

March 15, 2001: page H1

Having a "library" sounds so grand, calling up images of plush carpets, cushy club chairs and towering walls of leather-bound volumes fit for a British country house. But great spaces for books can be found in small quarters too.

Consider Washington architect Reena Racki's plan for a pint-size apartment library barely 10 feet wide. Two adjacent walls of floor-to-ceiling bookcases provide plenty of storage while not overwhelming the rest of the room. "In a bigger space, you could put books on three or four walls," Racki says, "but if we had done that here, there would not be room for a library table, two comfortable club chairs and a footstool." French doors that open to a balcony and a view of Kalorama rooftops make the small room feel more expansive, but it's the sleek and precise design of the bookcases themselves that keeps the space from feeling claustrophobic.

Inspired by the "egg-crate" bookshelves popularized by Washington architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Racki created a floor-to-ceiling grid for books and collectibles using the thinnest, strongest material she could find: 3/8-inch birch plywood. "Most bookshelves are built with half-inch or even three-quarter-inch plywood, but compared to three-eighths of an inch," she says, "the thick woods seem much chunkier."

Racki, the principal of Reena Racki Associates, says that in a space where every square inch counts, "thin bookshelves are a more elegant solution. The narrow wood gives them a lighter, airier look." Extending the lines of the built-ins all the way to the ceiling -- which in this case is nine feet high -- makes the shelves look even more svelte.

But Racki cautions that using wood this thin imposes certain restrictions: The custom work requires a meticulous cabinetmaker and can cost up to 40 percent more than standard construction. Plus, the shelves need to be on the short side. You can build a two-foot-long shelf with 1/2-inch plywood, and a span of up to 30 inches with the 3/4-inch size, according to Racki. But with 3/8-inch wood, "you can't have a span of much more than 12 inches, or the shelf will sag under the weight of the books." Shorter shelves have several advantages, Racki says. "Short spans are very strong, and the openings are nice for art objects too." What's more, "you won't need bookends. The books can't fall over if you take one out."

In this design, each cubbyhole is almost a perfect cube, one foot square and 13 inches deep. The strength and stability of the shelves come from their interlocking construction. Narrow channels called rabbets in the plywood backing hold the vertical boards in place. The horizontal shelves are notched to fit snugly and brace the verticals. Decorative cornices, baseboards and slender edging bands tie the units together and provide additional support and rigidity.

Although the bookcase design is modern, the architect acknowledged the 1910 character of the apartment by incorporating fluted pilasters as well as moldings and baseboards that echo the original trim. (She also repeated the shape of two existing stained glass windows with an oval floor medallion.) Unlike a British library with its traditional dark woods, Racki chose light colors for this small space: The shelves are painted ivory, and the backs of the bookcases and the surrounding walls are a warm contrasting shade of mango. Even when the cubbies are empty, she says, color gives a sense of continuity. Racki made sure her client had plenty of niches for tall art books and a collection of vintage bottles. She also tucked a built-in desk between the pilasters.

Most houses, however small, have space that can be devoted to books, Racki says. She has built bookcases on stair landings and on either side of a windowseat. She has lined foyers with books, and dining rooms too, complete with a rail and library ladder so clients could reach the uppermost shelves. And she has even found room for books in stairwells and along narrow hallways: "If the walls are thick enough, you can sometimes use the space between the studs," she says. "You take what you've got and make the most of it." And you can call it a library even without benefit of hardback or fancy leather-bound books. "If they're organized nicely," Racki says, "Paperbacks are just fine."