Ask a Designer: Tips on bookcases, other built-ins


By Melissa Rayworth

Interior designer Betsy Burnham doesn’t buy many bookcases these days. She’s more likely to create built-in bookshelves for the homes she designs.

Ditto for custom-made desks, built-in beds, window seats and more.

“I find so many of my clients are really interested in built-ins,” said Burnham, who is based in Los Angeles. “Anywhere there is a niche, we’re considering the space as an opportunity to build in.”

The popularity of custom, built-in pieces may be partly a backlash against the cookie-cutter conformity of furniture at many major retailers. But for some homeowners, choosing a built-in piece is just practical: Small spare rooms or awkward spaces can take on new life when a built-in is added.

Custom-designed items may seem too costly to be practical. But if you make the right choices, said designer Brian Flynn, founder of, “built-ins don’t have to be expensive.”

“Everybody hears ‘custom’ and they freak out,” Flynn said, but it’s possible to create something beautiful using lower-priced materials. And the cost of a built-in piece may be offset by what it adds to your home.

Small area, big impact

“Built-ins are great for opening up possibilities in small spaces,” said Atlanta-based interior designer Mallory Mathison. Depending on your needs and interests, she said, a small corner of your kitchen can become anything from a wine closet to a children’s “art closet” to a built-in coffee station. For those who love to cook, a custom-designed pantry might be worth the cost.

For others, a custom-built bedroom closet might improve the way each day begins.

Burnham gave a small guest room the feel of “a little ship’s cabin” by adding a built-in bed with storage underneath.

A small home office can feel more professional with built-in shelving and cabinets.

How to save

“If people want to go the extra mile and go with walnut or high-end exotic wood, you can,” Flynn said. But a custom interior for a walk-in closet can be done beautifully and affordably with stain-grade plywood trimmed with MDF (medium-density fiberboard), “which is like particleboard, but it’s perfectly smooth and looks great painted.”

A smaller closet in a guest room or office can take on the feel of a built-in, Flynn said. Just remove the doors and use the Container Store’s Elfa system to customize the space. “You only need a drill,” he said, and the cost is kept down “because you do it yourself.”

Another trick: Flynn suggests buying several Ikea “Billy” bookcases, which run about $50 each. Then have a carpenter add MDF trim to the front to “make them look like they’re an inch and a half thick.” Three “Billys” with trim will take up about 8 1/2 feet, he said, which may be enough to fill an entire wall. “Line them up along the wall,” he said, “and it gives it a nice chunky look.”

Any style

Built-in cabinetry doesn’t have to be stately and made of richly stained wood, Mathison said. A huge range of colors and styles, from ornate to sleek and simple, can work well.

Burnham agrees: “Built-ins don’t have to be boring. You can have fun with painting them, what kind of wood you use, what kind of veneer you use,” she said. “And it’s a great opportunity to use lots of fun hardware.”

For open shelving pieces, Mathison suggests choosing colors and styles based on what you’ll be displaying. The built-in should belong to the room.

If shelves will be used for display, rather than being fully stacked with books, paint the interior an accent color so pieces will pop, Flynn said. Mathison likes playing with texture in that spot: antique mirrors, hardwood flooring, grasscloth and textured wallpaper all can “bring a graphic punch and bring in color” to the interior of a built-in bookcase.

Open and closed

Built-ins can show off your most precious items, but they’re often prized for hiding clutter.

Custom shelves and cabinets flanking a fireplace offer prime space for displaying treasures, plus room for stashing things like craft projects that are used in a family room.

For open storage, said Flynn, “it makes sense to spend money on decorative baskets.” Simple canvas boxes or woven wood baskets can be gorgeous, he said, “or if you want something industrial, go with metal.”

A window seat can offer seating plus hidden storage. — AP