Steven Guarnaccia's Bookcases

By Peggy Roalf   Friday January 17, 2020

Pimp Your Bookcases 20/20 begins with the massive library of Steven Guarnaccia, from somewhere in Brooklyn. I was thrilled that Steve replied to the invite, and took time from his busy days to tell his story: 

Peggy Roalf: When did you realize that books were a drug of choice?  Above: Children’s books (with a side of books on toys)

Steven Guarnaccia: They began as talismans, devotional objects. I remember finding a paperback copy of Jules Feiffer’s Sick, Sick, Sick amongst a pile of girlie magazines in the woods with friends when I was maybe ten or eleven. The Feiffer was the only thing I wanted of the stash. They took the magazines. I took the Feiffer. I had no idea what any of the words or pictures meant but I was mesmerized by the book.

Ever since I can remember I’ve haunted book shops (even now, if I hear a phone ring when I’m lost in thought in front of the shelves at a book store, my first thought is that it’s my mother calling to ask if I’m there, because it’s time to come home for dinner). Growing up, I would attend the local Brandeis book sale and the Pequot Library Book Sale religiously (meaning once a year). When I travel, I always look for the local second-hand book store in town.

Only later, maybe when I was working at the Brown University Bookstore in college and was getting an employee’s discount, did the drug kick in.

PR: What is the longest you have gone without acquiring a new title—and why?

SG: Maybe a week. If I’m not buying a book online, or stopping at the Strand for a fix (dangerously close to where I teach, at Parsons) then I’m digging in a box of books left on the sidewalk, which seems to happen all the time in Brooklyn.

1960’s subculture paperbacks

PR: What you like most about your bookcases?

SG: That they’re modular and can be broken down and reassembled anywhere I end up, and can be reconfigured to fit any length of wall. I’ve had them for more than 30 years.

PR: Are they everything you every hoped for or is there room for improvement?

SG: Well, my fantasy is a permanent library with built-in wooden shelves.

PR: What went into your choice of bookcases—any research? 

SG: I found these Metro shelves on the Bowery at a restaurant supply house in the 1980s. This was the era of Industrial modern furnishings, when chic Soho home furnishing stores like D.F. Sanders featured steel modular shelving to hold their stock.

Left: The illustration wall

PR: Have your shelves ever collapsed under the weight of your books? Or have your photo- and artbooks caused any other type of disaster caused by big heavy objects?

SG: Metro shelving can stand up to any number of oversized and overweight art books. And no sagging in the middle.

PR: How you organize your photo-and-artbooks?

SG: I have general categories for my books. Upstairs in my studio there are children’s books, organized alphabetically (by illustrator, of course), and broken into subcategories: alphabet books, pop-ups and other books with movable parts and then French, Italian, German, Japanese, Eastern European children’s books. On the opposite wall are illustrated adult books and comics. And there are subcategories like 1960s paperbacks and books with covers designed by Edward Gorey.

Downstairs are fine art, photography and graphic design books. Artists’ books are there as well, and my collection of blank books. Flip books and miniature books are in two old sterilizer cases in the studio. The library in my office at Parsons has whatever books are relevant to what I’m teaching at the moment—kid’s books in unusual formats for my Experimental Children’s Book class, zines for the Pictozine class. I also keep my fairly extensive collection of illustrated editions of Alice in Wonderland (50 or so) there.

PR: What do you do when you run out of shelf space?

SG: Stack and winnow.

PR; How do you maintain your library?

SG: I just moved the nonfiction books out of our four-year-old daughter’s bedroom (it used to be a guest room and library), so she can have some wall space, and set up the shelves in the upstairs corridor. The fiction still keeps her company while she sleeps. Every couple of years I comb all the shelves for discards, which I sell to dealers at our semi-regular yard sales, donate to our daughter’s school’s book box or put on the street.

PR: Have you ever had to move your library? What are the best and worst things about moving this kind of collection

SG: I’ve moved the library a number of times over the years. Portions of it have been in and out of storage, as well. The worst thing about moving a library is that books are heavy. The best part is that opening the boxes when you get them to the new place is like acquiring a whole new library. This is especially true when you welcome books back into your home after they’ve been in storage for a while.

PR: What is the first photo-or-artbook you ever bought and why did it catch your attention?

Alice in Bookland

SG: There used to be a Bonanza book sale in my hometown when I was in high school (it was essentially a remainder book sale). I bought a copy of Marcel Duchamp: Ready-mades (1913-1964), published by Le Terrain Vague for a couple of bucks. It had a torn cover. 

PR: What was the last photo- or artbook you purchased?

SG: Crazy Quilt, a collection of early innovative newspaper comics, published by Sunday Press, last week.

PR: What is the next photo or artbook you plan to purchase?

SG: I’m planning to go back in time, and re-purchase Andy Warhol’s Index Book, a weird and wonderful silver and black pop-up book. It was signed about a million times by Warhol. I bought it in the 90s after much hesitation (it seemed astronomically priced at the time) at a great defunct second-hand bookstore on Greenwich Avenue, the name of which I can no longer remember.

Right: If you can’t shelve them, stack them/ photo and design books

PR: What are the best bookcases you have ever seen and what do you envy about them?

SG: Karl Lagerfeld’s [view]. Because he never seemed to say “no” to a book purchase.

PR: Can you advise the readers on anything you feel should be avoided in the planning and construction/installation of bookcases?

SG: Never assume that you have enough shelf space.

Editor’s note: If you have a story to tell about your bookcases, see the  Interview Invite  and be in touch.

Steven Guarnaccia is an illustrator and designer, and Associate Professor of Illustration at Parsons School of Design, where he was the director of the Illustration Program from 2004-2011. He was previously the art-director of the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. During his 40-year career as an internationally recognized illustrator he has worked for major magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times, Abitare, Rolling Stone and Domus, has created murals for Disney Cruise Lines, and exhibition drawings for a show of Achille Castiglione’s work at the Museum of Modern Art. He is the author of books on popular culture and design, including Black and White, a book on the absence of color, published by Chronicle Books. Guarnaccia has designed watches and packaging for Swatch, and greeting cards for the Museum of Modern Art. He has won awards from the AIGA, the Art Directors Club, and the Bologna Book Fair and has exhibited his work in one-man shows in the USA and Europe. His children’s books include The Three Bears: A Tale Moderne, The Three Little Pigs: An Architectural Tale and Cinderella: A Fashionable Tale, all published by Corraini Editore in Italy and Abrams in the US. His exhibition, Fatherland, was first shown at the Hamelin Gallery in Bologna in 2015, and has since traveled to London for the East London Comic Arts Festival, Barcelona for the FLIC festival, Berlin at the Ministerium fuer Illustration to the Tabook Festival in the Czech Republic and to Yui Gallery, NY.

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