The Real Reason Designers Style Books Backwards on Shelves

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If you want to learn a lot about a person, look at what’s on their bookshelves. It became everyone’s favorite quarantine pastime as they watched celebrity interviews conducted via Zoom, as people tried to read into what each book and trinket meant. (“The Catcher in the Rye and every play Shakespeare wrote? Must be a fan of…required reading.”)

But what’s the deal when a person’s books are all facing with their pages exposed, spines turned toward the wall? It creates a neutral, minimalist look—and it’s a surefire way to rile up bibliophiles. In fact, people have debated whether this look is aesthetically pleasing (or straight-up blasphemy) since 2017, when it was first heralded as a controversial new design trend. But the real story behind this trend is that it wasn’t supposed to be a trend at all; it’s a TV show secret that trickled into the mainstream.

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books styled backwards hero
Jasmine Roth/Built Custom Homes

If you watch a lot of design shows, you’ve probably noticed books styled this way in, well, just about every major reveal. You rarely see covers or spines; it’s always pages. While it does make for less busy-looking shelves, the actual reason designers rely on it again and again is due to copyright issues.

“The network would have to get copyright clearance from every single title in order to display them,” HGTV designer Jasmine Roth explained on her blog.

Once you factor in how many books appear on the typical set of shelves—and the back-and-forth necessary to clear the rights, compounded by the tight turnarounds of TV shows—it becomes a whole lot easier to hide the spines altogether.

The need for copyright clearance extends to artwork as well, which is why some designers will create their own art for the walls, or work with local artists they have relationships with and can easily get the greenlight from.

In real life, it’s less common for decorators to recommend arranging books with their pages showing, for the very reason bibliophiles complain: It’s hard to know which book is which, making leisure reading feel like more of a chore. Most designers aim to marry form and function, so after the cameras stop rolling, the books will go back to their traditional position.

books backward joyce mccown
Joyce McCown/Unsplash

As the look became increasingly common, it started to develop its own fandom, becoming a trend in its own right. For titles you rarely read but can’t dream of parting with, the style can work. However, if you tend to use your bookshelves all the time but still crave a more neutral, uniform look, there’s another option. You could always create your own book covers out of craft paper, just like you did your sixth-grade textbooks. It looks just as sleek, only it’s way more functional for day-to-day use.

Oh, and we totally understand if, in the process of all this crafting, you have to fight the urge to sketch the ‘Cool S’ on each one.

candace davison bio

VP of editorial, recipe developer, kitsch-lover

Candace Davison oversees PureWow's food and home content, as well as its franchises, like the PureWow100 review series and the Happy Kid Awards. She’s covered all things lifestyle...