Before the new British Library opened in 1998, when it was still a target for those with a generally unfocused hatred of the new, there was a rumour that its state-of-the-art shelving system was spitting out books. This rumour hurt. Library shelves are supposed to cradle and cherish, and the idea that those in Colin St John Wilson's building juggled with precious volumes became emblematic of everything thought to be wrong with the architect's design.
But what holds for a library doesn't carry so much weight in a living-room. In a domestic setting nonchalant bookshelves continue to divide people passionately, but all the same they have become a design trait of the last few years. The best known of all these shelving systems is Ron Arad's Bookworm, designed in 1994 and still a best-seller. Made from extruded plastic and available in three lengths and six colours, this spiralling wall-mounted shelf is divided into sections by a series of props, on which books either rest lightly or tumble in heaps, depending on their angle. Shelved on a Bookworm, books are hard to extract and prone to broken spines, but that's as nothing compared to what happens to them on the Sticklebook, a more recent contender in the nonchalant bookshelf category. Designed in 1999, the Sticklebook works by grasping the pages and cover of the book with a combed strip, making your books appear to be suspended in mid-air. Gusto, the manufacturers of Sticklebook, stress that the shelf is intended for used books; stomping on the sensibilities of book fetishists, they advertise it chewing the pages of a series of vintage Penguins. Another of Gusto's shelving designs is called the Flying V and is a face-up or face-down rest for a half-read book. Highly impractical as a means of saving your place, this piece of furniture is all to do with readerly self-advertisement.
Working books into contemporary lifestyle settings - the loft or the stripped-out Victorian semi - these systems are all sophisticated reworkings of the 1980s interior design trope 'books by the yard'. In the same vein, but less overtly non-literary, are the shelves designed by Andrew Miller. Creating a library for the artist Douglas Gordon, Miller made a series of variously sized and coloured boxes and mounted them the length and breadth of a couple of walls. The form of these shelves suggests some very unorthodox systems of classification - by dimension or even by hue - although I'm sure that once it is filled with books, the arrangement of Gordon's library is going to be so smart as to dismiss immediately any suspicion of mere decoration. Miller has also designed a library for a new arts centre in Trinidad. A room-sized cylindrical structure of translucent corrugated plastic walls and plywood shelves, in this case books make up the walls of the reading room. This library needs content, not just for the obvious reasons but also to become the private work space that Miller envisaged.
Another shelving system that corrals books into architecture is the Jakob + Macfarland design for Florence Loewy's artists' bookshop in Paris. Here books are held in a mesh of 36 cm3 cavities, massed together into three large, curvy plywood structures that entirely fill the space of the shop. The overall effect is of a printed grotto, a place built of readable fabric. Architects Jakob + Macfarland also designed the restaurant at the top of the Pompidou Centre, but where the blobs in that room tend to emphasize the dowdiness of the customers, the structures in the shop render even the most ordinary book a treasure. That has to be a worthy aim for any shelf.