Part II in a series about elegant room dividing and concealment solutions covers how to use a bookcase room divider to define an open living space
see Part I discussing Room Dividing Screens in my Hide & Divide series
Part II in my hiding (things) & dividing (spaces) series is finally here! And the series has a name! I’m sorry for the delay, have you heard there’s a pandemic interrupting, well, everything? In case you missed it, we’re now doing homeschool upstairs in a hybrid studio/schoolroom space. But today, we’re getting into the topic of dividing living areas with bookcases. Breaking up an open floor plan, creating a home office, home gym, play area, reading nook – whatever you need, a bookcase room divider has you covered. We’ll discuss variations with examples, and I’ve included a roundup at the end of bookcase picks that suit traditional interiors.
I started looking into bookcase room dividers when I was planning on using one in our master suite gym area in our second house, but we moved before we got to it. But I’m sharing what I learned here to help you all!
This is a follow-up to my post on how to effectively style a room dividing screen vignette (including tips on how to stretch coverage with furniture placement), where I share how we hide our elliptical machine in our master bedroom. And you can see our current bedroom floor screen setup here.
Get the Look: Florals, Dots & Greens
Floor screens are a great affordable, temporary solution (perfect for apartments!) that require no handyman skills and can provide a great accent to boot – but they don’t work in every space functionally. They’re tipping risks for little kids and they aren’t stable on thick carpeting. And while you can definitely style them to work in any space, they don’t offer any additional storage space. If floor screens aren’t right for you, you can’t go wrong with a bookcase room divider for a classic, timeless solution. Okay you can, but I have some tips you need to prevent that from happening.
You will need a bookcase or two (duh), and possibly trim for molding – but there are ways to go that don’t require carpentry skills.
And bear in mind, you MUST, for any bookcase room divider, secure these pieces to your walls or risk perishing under literary greatness. I don’t want the byline of this pandemic to be, “Stuck at home, professionals on stay-at-home orders avert COVID only to meet untimely end building privacy barriers as advised by novice décor blogger.”
So yeah, you’ll need wall anchors. They’re a highly situational ball game depending on the bookcase in question, but I’ll show you a couple of options. Let’s go!
Bookcase Room Divider Rules & Examples
A Note on Hiding vs. Dividing
If you simply need to define a separate living area in one room or open floor plan, you don’t need a lot of height. Just having any bookcase to visually divide the space will be enough. Lower bookcases at a half wall or console height will do this for you. Go higher for more privacy and room definition.
Positioning: To Flank, or Not to Flank?
That is the question. You absolutely can have an divider coming out from just one wall if your room isn’t wide enough for two, or you just simply don’t need the hiding & dividing power of two bookcases. In the event that you choose not to flank, I’d recommend you use a bookcase at least 3 feet wide so that it doesn’t look ill-proportioned (space permitting, of course). That will also allow you to style a bit of a cozy seating vignette in front of it.
Whether you flank or not, remember not to crowd the flow for foot traffic around your divider. Ideally you want an opening of at least 3 feet wide to pass through between your bookshelves and any other walls or furniture. Standard interior doors are 32″ wide – so just a hare wider. Specifically, a 4″ wide hare.
Another option is to use a standalone bookcase in the center of the room, with either: a double-sided bookcase that is wide enough to be stable, a lower bookcase and some furniture behind it, or two identical bookcases back to back. We’ll cover all of this. Read on.
1. Half Wall Bookcase Room Dividers & Consoles
A half wall (or pony wall) height bookcase is ideal for smaller spaces because it allows natural light to flow, and may even permit a line of sight for supervising kids if the angles work – though you might want to skip the enormous urn and sculpted heads seen above if you’ve got kids causing melee.
What is considered half wall height? Roughly 3-4.5 feet high. It’s not necessarily literally half of your ceiling height.
What I love about using half wall bookcases as room dividers is that they not only easily define passage into a new living area behind them, they maximize storage and opportunities to display personality, as seen here in the perfection of textile designer Carolina Irving’s NYC apartment.
Lamps, candelabras, bowls, topiaries, 2 foot heads, peacocks – all fair game.
Did you notice she hung framed photos on the side of the bookcases? Brilliant!
Let’s discuss when it’s right to use half wall height bookcases.
A half wall height bookcase is probably plenty high enough to properly hide whatever you need to put behind it if you don’t need total privacy. (but always measure!)
It will adequately:
- conceal most cardio (elliptical, Peloton and treadmill) exercise equipment – you can absolutely section off a dedicated home gym area
- create a home office space. (know anyone working from home lately? too soon to be glib?) You would have to take into consideration the extended height of a standing desk plus your computer, though, if you have one
- create as many room divisions as needed, while keeping things bright and airy
Half wall height dividers are ideal for breaking up a long living room – you can create a central living area with new sections at one or either end. Let’s turn around so we’re facing the opposite direction in Carolina Irving’s apartment. You’ll she uses another pair of bookcases at the other end of her apartment to create a third living area. Behind us here is the area we saw above with that lovely ikat printed table covering (Irving’s own design, if I’m not mistaken), we’re standing in a living room/conversational set up, and finally we see a library/dining room combo at the far end.
Get the Look: Cheery Layered Pillows
Obviously, natural light is not a problem for Carolina – she could probably pull off floor-to-ceiling shelving in this room with the high windows in each section. She’s put even taller sculptures on the bookcases on this side (see the stalagmite-esque piece on the left, and the tortoise shell urn on the right?). Still there is an airiness about this room that would be impeded with full height bookcases. (But read on for tips on full-height bookcases!)
So exactly how do you achieve this in your own home, you ask?
Any squared off bookcase that can be placed flush against the wall can be used to similar effect, but adding molding around the top of the bookcase like Irving’s creates a traditional, timeless finish.
These could absolutely be a DIY finish option with some woodworking experience, or the help of a handyman by just adding some molding around the tops of a basic shelving unit with squared edges.
You will need to add some trim along the wall edge meeting the bookcase for a totally built-in look – but a more simple, contemporary shelf can forego it, if the look is right and the gap against the wall isn’t too wide. In fact, if you scroll back up to photo #2 of Carolina’s apartment, you can see hers aren’t actually perfectly built in – there’s a seam visible between the wall and the edge of the shelving unit.
And really, who’s noticing that seam if they’re visiting Carolina with her soaring ceilings and bevy of antiquities? No one.
Here’s an example of a bookcase divider that’s not perfectly flush due to its top edge flaring out a bit, in the late author Julia Reed’s home. Hers abuts one of the columns due to their spacing, but this style bookcase could be used as a standalone divider centered if the columns weren’t there. This is more of a console height bookcase, which can go from 2.5-4 feet. This shows a shorter bookcase can divide a space just as well, albeit with less concealment of what lay beyond.
Notice her desk beyond isn’t visible while standing back, even with such a low divider. A bit of height is added with plants and books stacked on it. Let’s take a closer look at her lovely styling, with potted flowers, more books, sculptures and terrariums:
And here’s a look at the office that lies beyond:
Another low bookcase room divider solution I love in a more relatable setup is this clever DIY shared by Tara from Just Call Me Homegirl – replacing the railing in her ever-problematic raised ranch/split-level entry, BRAVA:
2. Etageres & Tall Bookcase Room Dividers
Tall bookcases create more clearly defined living areas than half wall height dividers. The tradeoff? Less natural light, and less of opportunity to display enormous urns and sculpted heads atop them.
And for any full-height bookcase with a closed back, you’re going to have make sure the back panel is either finished decoratively, or you’ll have to add some finishing of some kind – especially if you’re blessed with a pressed composite backing panel.
To avoid finishing the reverse side and keep a sense of airiness, one option is to use open shelves to create room definition and allow some light to pass through.
The key word to search for is étagère: fancy French for a supremely versatile, straight-edged open-shelved unit. IDEAL for room dividing, since they have flush edges and no ornamental molding. And you don’t have to worry about whether the backing looks presentable since it’s open.
Typically you’re going to want to avoid any sort of flourish or added elements on top – things like a raised edge…
(Sidebar: this one is actually only 5 feet tall – there are half wall height options in the étagère scene. Nice.)
…or curved top…
These would be fine flat against a wall, but are not ideal for dividing a room. You want them to be simply squared off. Though, the raised edge on that dark wood piece may work if it were taller, since it is squared off in a rather clean fashion. It’s always a case-by-case basis.
OR SHOULD I SAY CASEGOODS-BY-CASE BASIS???
Here, vintage rattan-wrapped Parsons-esque étagères skillfully create an entryway to a chic home office space off of a master bedroom in the Hamptons. You can juuust see the gap left between the edge of the shelves on the right side, due to that gorgeous teal baseboard projecting slightly.
Parsons style étagères (completely squared off edges, even thickness throughout frame and negative space) are an ingenious pick for bookcase room dividers not only structurally, but also because they’re so versatile they will work in any decor scheme. And so easy to implement, with no trim work needed – just find the right bookcases for your space and secure to the wall and you’re done.
Speaking of, here’s a safety alert that bears repeating:
PLEASE don’t forget to anchor your bookcase to the wall!
But how do you anchor open shelves? It’ll depend on your walls (is a stud available?) and exact bookcase (color, material), but options to consider are furniture straps (slightly visible in gap between wall and shelving unit), or anti-tip wires (skinny wires would show around the edges of the piece against the wall, if wrapping around the support posts).
furniture straps / anti-tip wire kit
3. Floor-to-Ceiling Bookcase Room Dividing Walls
If you’re looking for a more permanent solution to divide an open concept home design, a floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcase wall adds wonderful height, drama and plenty of storage. As we’ve discussed, it’s up to you whether to extend from one or both sides of a room. I’ve had this room from celebrity* chef Alex Hitz’s home pinned for inspiration for our home library for a long time now.
*Okay I’d not heard of him before discovering his library. But the cross-promotion is working on me, it looks like his cookbooks (here and here) have delicious Southern comfort food recipes in it and I might pick up a copy. ANYHOO
The only difficulty here is finding enough books to fill a bookcase of this size!
Did you notice the peek of robin’s egg blue painted on the inside of the shelves?
Any shelving can be fitted into any cased opening and finished with trim. Bookcase walls are also well-suited to add character to builder grade homes with squared off drywall openings between rooms that aren’t trimmed out.
And, as we know, you can always buy and anchor the bookcase building blocks, then have them trimmed out by a handyman or carpenter.
Achieving this look is most definitely a custom build. It will be expensive.
But it will be stunning.
4. Double-Sided Bookcases as Room Dividers
My search for double-sided bookcases has proved grim and yielded mostly expensive and inadequate results. There’s not much out there ready-made for you that’s not open backed like an étagère. Maybe an astute vendor will create a properly finished double-sided bookcase that’s not an antique from the UK, or barebones contemporary for schools, in this age of needing to create new living areas as we all spend more time at home? Time will tell.
There are double sided bookcases made for education institutions, which require trim to look finished for a home and are PRICEY because they’re built to withstand years of use and abuse in schools and libraries:
Sidebar: I just double-checked why it’s so expensive – built to last, but also made in the USA and Greenguard certified. Legit. But its still not a ready-made, trimmed-out solution.
The…contemporary…well, frankly cheap looking baseboard troubles me most. If you style it with your books and knickknacks, will it be offensive? No. It’s probably going to look good. Take a page out of Carolina’s playbook and put a huge sculpted head on it, and no one will notice your “cheap” baseboard! (in quotations because you paid hundreds of dollars for it) But for $700+ I’d hope for either cleaner lines or more ornate trim. You can always buy this style for a bookcase room divider as a starting point, and add your DIY molding or hire a carpenter.
It’s a trade-off, pay more up front or put two bookcases back-to-back and have to finish off the sides to hide the seam? It all depends on your budget and skills, really.
I’d keep an eye out for double-sided bookcases on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and antique vendors if you want more character and warmth. If you can wait it out, set up alerts on vintage sites and scrimp and save or sell a body part because the finishings on the real deal are spectacular.
And these – which are not double-sided, but WHAAAAT:
Many of the ready-made options are better suited as stand-alone dividers, but some have flush edges you can flank out from the wall – like this double sided console table with bookshelves. There’s a small gap on the end between the middle and edge, but a book scooted up against the side would mostly hide it.
And really, like I’ve said, I don’t think anyone will care if it’s not flush once it’s filled with books and personal effects.
Here’s a standalone piece with wow factor: a double sided oriental waterfall bookcase room divider, a perfect marriage of our coromandel room dividing screen and a bookcase.
We’ve covered a lot of bases here – a lot of different sizes and positions for the hypothetical bookcase room divider of your dreams. [My persistent use of baseball metaphors befuddles me, as I only played little league for a year or two at most, and halfheartedly at that.]
So, I can’t give any one-size-fits-all styling tips to wrap this up. I can touch on a few point here though.
As far as where furniture placement around your bookcase room divider, treat it like a wall. You don’t let your room divider cut into the useable space you have.
A lot of the tips covered in creating a vignette for a room divider can apply here as well – its worth a look to see if it’s relevant to your set up.
You can definitely place chairs in front of your bookshelves – don’t feel like the shelves need full walk up access. Just put books you’re not going to reference as often behind the furniture.
Look back at the rooms in the examples from our discussion above for ideas – no two set ups are alike: two chairs backing shelves with a table for drinks in between, standalone flanking étagères, various seating arrangements on all sides of Irving’s apartment shelves.
Other ideas: place a chair catty corner (actually Tara did that above by her stairs), or two chairs at a 90º angle in a corner, or even a loveseat of sofa in front of your shelves.
A sofa is especially useful behind a bookcase being used as a standalone divider in the middle of a room, so you don’t have to worry about finishing the back.
Finishing Bookshelf Backs and Sides
If you’re not putting two bookcases back to back or using an elusive double-sided bookcase, you’ll have to figure out what to do with the back side of your bookcase.
Paint or wallpaper it like a wall, add picture frame molding, add shiplap, tongue and groove or beadboard panels…
Hanging art is always welcome – just make sure you use command strips or their hanging kits (these or these) to prevent puncturing through to your books.
You can also hang art on the ends of your bookcases like Carolina Irving showed us back in the beginning of this discussion.
Wallpaper might even be sufficient to artificially cover the seam on the end of two back to back bookcases – but adding a panel cut to size of plywood or veneer first will be more durable.
C’est tout! Maura
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Bookcase Room Divider Roundup
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