Shelf worth – how shelving became the status symbol of 2020
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Before I owned a house, I’d stare moodily at websites featuring homes with vast walls – even small ones – framed by Vitsœ’s Universal 606 Shelving System. In my mind, I’d chant a bitter mantra that went along the lines of, “When I buy a house I’ll be having some of that, thank you very much.”
Some years later and the chanting has paid off. I now have a home and a wall of 606 shelving – and life is perfect. No, not really, but I have my shelves: 20 of them in durable grey, epoxy-polyester powder-coated laser-cut steel, arranged idiosyncratically to house books from Penguin classics to photography bibles, stacked in size and colour (oh yes), as well as hundreds of my husband’s vinyl records, a 1960s lamp from eBay, papier-mâché animals, a philodendron and a cactus – because what is a shelf these days without a trailing houseplant and a cactus?
In the early evenings, when the light is just so, sometimes I sit and watch the Vitsœ shelving like television. That’s the kind of thing you do when you’re an obsessive. Not familiar? First thing to know then is that it’s pronounced Vits-ooh, but if you’re in any way serious about this thing, you will of course be referring to it as simply “the 606”.
Created in 1960 by the industrial-design guru Dieter Rams for the German company (now UK run and based in Leamington Spa), it is a system of vertical aluminium tracks from which you can hang shelves, drawers and table tops in any arrangement you like. It’s easy to assemble and disassemble, so you can take it with you when you move house – and people tend to have it for life. According to Vitsœ’s CEO, Mark Adams, the brand currently receives 10,000 sales orders for the 606 each year, and eBay transactions for old pieces can sometimes be greater than the new retail price.
I live in a 1964 modernist house and the 606 is the perfect era and aesthetic for its square minimalism. But while I like a skeleton of modernism, I take the Charles and Ray Eames approach to midcentury interiors, throwing colour and texture, bright rugs and textiles into the mix to make it homely. The 606’s unobtrusive aesthetic is good for this as it allows anything you place upon it to shine. It’s also the ideal backdrop for a social media #shelfie, as shelving has become not merely a handy horizontal arrangement for storing stuff, but a framing device for a tasteful curation of one’s life – be it in the sitting room, bedroom or bathroom – photographed for the world to applaud.
There are other designs that inspire passion. String, the Swedish modular system created by Nisse Strinning in 1949, the 835 Infinito by Franco Albini for Cassina and, at the more affordable end, Muji’s SUS shelves. Even Ikea’s Billy bookcase has become something of a style icon.
But possibly no one has had more fun in shelving than the British-Israeli designer Ron Arad, who in 1993 disrupted the very linear nature of the shelf with Bookworm, his bookcase for Kartell, which can be arranged in a spiral or a wave and is as much artwork as storage. “When I showed the Bookworm to Kartell, they thought it would get them lots of interest but wouldn’t be commercially successful,” Arad says. “There are so many reasons why it shouldn’t work – it’s not straight, not so easy to install, but it became their bestselling item for many years. They sell over 1,000 kilometres of it per year. That’s nearly as long as mainland Italy.”
Since then, Arad has created many sculptural takes on the bookshelf. This Mortal Coil, a freestanding spiral bookshelf in tempered steel that Kartell also put into production in 1993, went on to win Best 20th Century Design at PAD London Art + Design in 2018. And he’s currently working on commercialising a remarkable chair-bookcase that he designed several years ago for the library of a client who collects livres d’artistes.
My own shelves may not be bespoke masterpieces, but I still felt chuffed when at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown, Vitsœ decided to use a photograph of our particular arrangement for its advertising campaign. Mark Adams tells me it has proved a popular image (well, what else could he say?) over the past few months, but then lockdown has been a big moment for shelving of all kinds. With working from home a necessity, home offices and the shelving choices therein have been a backdrop not only to Zoom meetings but also to national and international television broadcasts, with politicians, presenters, journalists and experts’ homes all on display. Adams says that every time Claudia Winkleman or Robert Peston appear on TV in front of their respective 606 shelving, he receives a string of text messages alerting him to the fact. He also, quite rightly, points out that Peston lives in the home of his girlfriend, the journalist Charlotte Edwardes: “So she’s the discerning customer.”
This has only given fuel to our collective obsession with shelves – most of us appear to be equally fascinated by the content they hold. Case, ahem, in point is Michael Gove’s personal library, revealed to the world in May when his wife, Sarah Vine, posted a picture of her husband on television with their bookcase in view behind. It included a book by the Holocaust-denier David Irving, as well as biographies of Mussolini and Stalin sharing space with Margaret Thatcher.
Google “Michael Gove’s bookshelves” today and you can immerse yourself in the vast commentary this moment inspired. Favourite analytical delights include, “The strange case of Michael Gove’s bookshelf”, “The sociology of the Vine/Gove bookcase”, “Michael Gove and the modern-day book-burners” and “The hidden culture war behind Michael Gove’s bookshelf”.
“Don’t judge me by my bookshelves,” one columnist pleaded in the wake of this biblio-scandal, adding, “which I did arrange before my first Zoom call.” And who of us can say we wouldn’t do the same now, when scathing judgement of the shelf has become an international leisure pursuit?
The Twitter account Room Rater (@ratemyskyperoom) posts pictures of the decor choices of celebrities and news anchors on television, including their shelving, and scores them out of 10. Poor Meryl Streep got a shameful three when she appeared before some admittedly rather soulless, empty shelves – perhaps she’d cleared her Oscars minutes before so as not to look boastful.
There’s also the screamingly funny Bookcase Credibility (@BCredibility), which has more than 100,000 Twitter followers and homes in specifically on the literature visible on a shelf. Laugh along if you will, but its tagline “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you” is something to forget at one’s peril.