Simple and easy are not synonymous


Photo by Anna Schink, WFIU. (Click on image for related web page.)

During a recent bookcase installation for the Monroe County History Center, one of the organization’s volunteers happened to walk through the room. He stopped for a moment, leaned back, and shared his assessment:

“Your basic wooden bookshelves.”

Not so fast, I wanted to reply. Granted, the bookcase is simple and made from wood. But getting the piece to look so right in its place–so unpretentious and natural that it would inspire this distinctly “underwhelmed” response–required a level of sophistication in space  planning, period design, and carpentry that “your basic wooden bookshelves” doesn’t quite capture.

The design maximizes storage capacity while respecting the room’s spatial constraints and architectural character. What you cannot see behind the finished bookcases are the metal conduit, surface-mounted to the old brick walls and protruding approximately 1-1/2 inches; an electrical receptacle and junction box that needed to remain accessible; the fabulously irregular surfaces of the walls; and a floor that slopes dramatically from one end of the space to the other, in addition to presenting a large hump near its center, where another wall once stood.

Working with these site challenges was just the beginning of the design. The new bookcase also had to fit the room’s aesthetic. Although it would be installed in a Beaux Arts Carnegie Library, the primary public space of which is ornamented with cast acanthus leaves, elaborate crown molding, etc., the room for which I was designing is in the basement–a space that was never intended to be on display. Here, in contrast to the main floor, windows and doors are trimmed with plain square-edged fir casing. No crown molding, and certainly no fancy columns. To deck out this space with ornate built-ins would, in my view, have been an affront to the building and its history.

I designed the bookcase in seven sections that would fit together on site to become a single unit. Wherever possible, the face frames are “shared” to avoid the appearance of modular built-ins:

Clamping two sections together so that they appear to be one.

The  backs are faced in oak and finished to match the rest of the bookcase. Shelves have solid edges to discourage sagging. The faces, counters, and trim are riftsawn red oak, finished to match the room’s original fir trim. (We considered using fir, but the cost was far higher than that of oak, which grows plentifully in our region.)

The bookcase had to be shimmed out from the wall by approximately 1-5/8 inches to clear the conduit. I used finished end panels, as well as the counter on the horizontal section, to conceal these gaps. Every piece of the bookcase that abuts a wall or part of the floor in this wonderful old room had to be scribed (cut or planed) to conform to quirky irregularities of the surfaces.

Here, I used a small piece of shim material to transfer the wavy surface of the wall onto the cabinet side so that I could plane it to fit.

This photo shows the finished side, now fitted into place, conforming to the surface of the wall. The short piece of baseboard also had to be scribed to fit, as illustrated in the photo below.

The return baseboard at the left of the bookcase had to be scribed–not only to fit the floor, but also to fit seamlessly against the room’s existing baseboard, which was neither flat nor plumb.

The dramatic bulge in the floor where a wall once stood shows up in the scribe marking on the long baseboard. Carefully cutting the bookcase parts to conform to such irregularities makes the whole look perfectly at home in its setting.

Details make the job. This one is a tiny mitered return below the counter that notches over the face of the tall section.

The completed bookcase, filled with beautiful old clothbound volumes, city directories, and colorful yearbooks from Bloomington High School and Indiana University, looks as though it might always have been where it now stands. “Your basic wooden bookshelves,” indeed. Yet the simplicity of this ensemble was anything but easy to achieve.

Thanks to Mark Longacre, who helped me deliver the bookcases on a Saturday in order to stay ahead of an approaching autumn storm, and Adam Bonney, who helped with the first day’s installation.

2 responses to “Simple and easy are not synonymous

  1. Nicely done Nancy! Are the shelves extra thick to cope with the load of the larger books?

    Bill: The shelves are no thicker than the rest of the parts–they’re made from 3/4-inch veneer-core plywood–but the solid front edge, which is sized for the span, will keep the shelves from deflecting under load.

  2. yeah, just a basic wooden bookcase, don’t you love it! Your attention to detail is just amazing young lady.

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