“Furniture by the Book: Book-form Furniture” Antiques & Collecting Magazine 113 (June 2008) Books are often sold as furniture.  Stop by the local saleroom, and you will find leather bound sets mixed in with the tables and chairs. Sometimes, though, books really are furniture. For more than two centuries bindings and faux bindings have been used to make objects both decorative and practical. The fashion dates back to the second-half of the 18th century, when there emerged a taste for boxes disguised as a few stray volumes.  They are sold today as tea caddies, though there could have been any number of uses for a small hideaway.  The novelty probably got its start as a way to make use of cast-off bindings.  For proof, it is worth noting the differences between the book boxes and fashionable bindings. The boxes were made from worn dark brown bindings, while the taste in bookbinding was for gilt-tooled tan calf with red morocco spine labels. Over the years, the book-look has evolved. While actual bindings continue to be used, many book-form objects are made from other materials.  In the late 18th or early 19th century appeared the book-form box in carved and painted wood.  The look was the same: dark and shabby books, neatly stacked, except for the top volume, which is typically askew. Another distinguishing characteristic is that the spines are not aligned. Instead the books have an alternating spine-edge arrangement. This was done, no doubt, with real books to prevent the spines from becoming crushed and weakened. A representative early 19th-century model, made of painted pine, is for sale at a New York gallery for $5,400. Modern book-form furniture is bright and pretty. This is evident in the repertoire of furniture trifles. Small tables are especially popular. An example is the painted trompe-l’œil table that sold in New York (together with two unrelated objects) for $840. The green bindings are stacked on an Adams-style stand. Note that the spines are aligned, which is one indication of later production. The cheerful color is another. The sculptural possibilities of the genre are captured by another modern book-form table.  It is made of painted tôle and has a pell-mell arrangement with three haphazardly arranged volumes supporting a folio (the table top); it sold at auction in 2005 for $600. It is not clear when the book-form table was first made. Most are of recent vintage, though occasionally a specimen crops up in the saleroom that suggests a longer history. A low table, combining sham-tomes with a more-or-less George II base, sold in London for $8,770. But when were they brought together? The bindings evoke literary works published before the end of the 18th century and are stacked in the alternating spine-edge arrangement.  Perhaps a clever Georgian decorator cobbled the table together, using a cast-off stool.   In the case of objects made from old bindings, the collector needs to distinguish between the period the binding was made and the period it was converted to a secondary use. Presumably, this was done only after the profit from selling the book was less than the profit to be earned from gutting and adapting the binding. For that reason, solid-sellers like Dickens and Thackeray are rarely transformed into jokey bric-a-brac. Not so protected are the many cracked and soiled books of sermons and law. By contrast, one constant of the sham bindings is the reliance on the classics. They never evoke anything faddish or ephemeral. Rather, these book-form objects are based on “Milton” or “Dante,” to cite two poets in favor with shoppers, if not readers. The book, it should be noted, was originally a masculine motif. The library belonged to the man just as the boudoir belonged to his wife.  Book-form furniture was associated with male pursuits and freedom. Although book-form furniture is acquired today as an accent piece, it was originally used to camouflage. Any number of activities could be concealed behind a façade of gilt-tooled bindings.  Drinking, for example.  Twelve inches of respectable literature was a useful front for the tantalus, an object for storing liquor. The gin habit could stay a secret with the help of Burke’s Peerage, Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, and French & English Dictionary—to read from the spines of one model ($850).  Even grander was the version that was knocked down for $560.50. It is made out of folios—the largest book format—so it can hold a lot of booze. The top volume opens to reveal three jumbo decanters and a half-dozen glasses in fitted compartments. There were other uses for book-form furniture. For the bibliophile, the commode is a discomfiting sight. At a distance, it looks like four folios stacked on a bench. The top volume is, in fact, a hinged lid that conceals a chamber pot.  An example—minus the pot—sold two years ago for $975. In the days before indoor plumbing and central heating, it was hardship to leave the cozy sanctuary of the library; hence this discreet receptacle. Books were also used for architectural elements, most famously for the secret door. Clearly, there is a market for this haunted-house fantasy, judging by the prices they achieve. One sumptuous bookcase-door embellished with a coronet and Latin motto sold in New York for $27,000.  Of course, for the door to be a secret, it must blend in with the rest of the décor. Dim lighting also helps. It was easier to confuse the dummy books with the real thing in the days of candlelight.  Book-form furniture is suited to the collector with a sense of wit and fantasy.
Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Collecting Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971