My Ideal Bookshelf: The Books That Make the Designer

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Visually, the average bookshelf is a mess. Arranged along single planks are these hundreds of objects of every conceivable dimension and color, spanning decades—centuries, even—of our cultural history. Stately black-and-orange Penguin Classics butt against the garish hues of a science fiction series that we secretly devour, which rubs covers with our starkly minimal art books. The personal library is rarely as organized as the public library, and the exhibition of our book collections reflects the myriad changes of opinion, attitude, and taste that occur in our lives.

The bookshelf exerts a magnetic pull on us when we go visiting, and that voyeuristic thrill of peeping at a friend’s collection is strongly felt in Jane Mount and Thessaly La Force’s My Ideal Bookshelf, which is being published by Little, Brown next month. It’s a pictorial journey through the reading lives of 100 contemporary cultural figures, who worked from a prompt to “select a small shelf of books that made you who you are today.” Mount’s paintings of the selected books are sketch-like and playful, capturing the messy, haphazard way that we collect and acquire books. Accompanying each painting are essays by the contributors that detail the “why” of their selections.

Several designers and artists provided insightful peeks of their bookshelves. Influences and heroes are well represented: the designers Tina Roth Eisenberg and Jakob Trollbäck both selected works by the graphic designer Josef Müller-Brockmann. The book cover designer Henry Sene Yee picked The Graphic Language of Neville Brody for his desert-island shelf.

While some used the ideal-bookshelf idea to construct shrines to their inspirations, a few artists and designers took the opportunity to play with the presentation of the books themselves. Tauba Auerbach, for instance, lined up her favorites in ascending order of size.

Christoph Niemann and Stefan Sagmeister both reveal an affinity for Jonathan Franzen novels—but Neimann opts for a neat fan-shape for his perfect bookshelf.

But the most ubiquitous presence throughout the book is that of the Penguin Books penguin, which graces nearly every page of My Ideal Bookshelf. Fittingly, the Penguin book-cover designer Coralie Bickford-Smith’s shelf is here as well, and it includes one of her best designs, of the clothbound cover of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which features lovely foil wreathes of garlic “to keep the evil in,” she writes.


You might also be interested in Tim Lapetin and Jason Adam’s Damn Good, another book in which top designers select their favorite projects and works, now available from