Our homes express who we are. The pictures we hang on the wall, the furniture we arrange in the room and the objects we admire on the shelf all describe our interests and passions. In this case, treasured personal libraries tell the story of a lifetime devoted to art and literature. Ken Carbone, Carbone Smolan Agency Co-Founder and 50,000feet Advisor, shared his extensive book collections—and the career upbringing that brought him to our team—with DART: Design Arts Daily. Read the full interview below.
“Pimp Your Bookcases” continues with Ken Carbone, founding partner of Carbone Smolan Agency, who currently spends most of his working hours drawing and painting in his sun-drenched studio upstate.
PR: How many libraries do you have? How do they differ? Where are they located?
KC: I have three main libraries: my main studio near my home, my bedroom studio, and my living room. My "minor" libraries include cookbooks in the kitchen, a music library where I play guitar, a library of periodicals in my art supply closet. The one bookcase in the attic contains the "neglected" books, LP's, CD's and DVD's I continue to keep for some mysterious reason.
PR: What were you involved in when you decided on your career choice?
KC: I was a freshman at The Philadelphia College of Art (now The University of the Arts) and explored several career paths. Initially, I thought I would be an illustrator because I love to draw. However, after learning about graphic design, I found that the balance of logic and emotion it requires, along with the scale of creative opportunities it offered, to be more exciting.
PR: Would you say that you are more of an “art/design reader” than a “lit reader”?
KC: Admittedly, due to my early focus on art-making, I always considered myself embarrassingly "under-read." Aside from art and design books, I never spent much time in the higher realm of literature. For example, I read "Catcher in the Rye" for the first time only a few years ago. Now I read two books at once—usually, one fiction, one non-fiction, and I love audiobooks. I just finished listening to Bill Bryson's The Body, and it was outstanding.
PR: Ken, is there anything you might want to include about favorite libraries for doing research in the early years?
KC: Early on, I relied on the great public library resources available in New York City. I would also spend time in book stores such as Rizzoli, The Strand, Morton Books, Barnes & Noble, and Argosy. I was a regular customer at "Nikkos Newsstand" on 11th Street and 6th Ave that had an incredible assortment of weird and wonderful periodicals from around the world. Such a gem, now gone.
PR: What went into your choice of bookcases — any research? Any seen/envied among friends/colleagues? Any particular manufacturer?
KC: Like many "book junkies," I've used an assortment of bookcase designs from milk crates, IKEA, Metro Steel Shelving, to custom-built shelves integrated into interior living spaces. The exploration of the best storage system is an ongoing process that needs to respond to collecting habits and genres of books. When your library consists of everything from paperbacks to Taschen XXL books, a one size fits all system is an unrealistic goal.
PR: What do you like most about your bookcases? Are they everything you ever hoped for or is there room for improvement?
KC: Over the last ten years, I've found that the Muji Stacking Shelf system is a very reliable solution. It is brilliantly designed, comes in oak and walnut finishes, is very sturdy, and easy to assemble (only the supplied Allen wrench is required). It comes in a variety of expandable and customizable units that are perfect for books on art in their size, depth, and modularity.
KC: If you have built your own bookcases: What went into your research and design process when you contemplated building your own?
PR: I’m not a carpenter and never tried to build my own system. However, in collaborating with an experienced millworker, I offer my design ideas, which are not always wise. For example, I insisted that the shelves in our living room library be adjustable. He warned of the extra expense that would be incurred and asked: "Are you sure?" That was nearly ten years ago, and I have never moved one shelf.
PR: If you had planned on building your own but changed your mind in favor of readymades, what happened?
KC: I know my limitations regarding working in 3D. I'm not afraid of assembling a well designed "readymade" but building from scratch? No thanks. I'd rather be drawing.
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 books?
KC: DON’T EVEN MENTION IT! It's never happened, and I hope it never will.
PR: How you organize your photo, design and art books?
KC: I’ve tried various cataloging ideas. Size of publication, how frequently I use individual books, even by the color of the spine. I also organize books according to the subject. Most of my Picasso books are together. The same with John Singer Sargent. Presently, things are relatively unstructured, but I have little problem finding a book when I need it. I am thinking about a reorganization of my living room library according to monographs, anthologies, reference, and technical publications. I also like my bookshelves to be "punctuated" with small objects for visual relief. My Muji bookcase, in my bedroom studio, includes a collection of clear glass bottles I like for their sinuous silhouettes. These ghost-like objects compliment the books and make the cabinet less dense.
PR: What do you do when you run out of shelf space?
KC: Call Muji.
PR: How do you maintain your library? For example, do you periodically take it apart and reorganize, or something along those lines?
KC: My books are in constant circulation, from one location to another. Books are tools for me as much as they are objects of enjoyment. I need them to be readily available, that's why small piles of books are everywhere.
PR: Have you ever had to move your library? What are the best and worst things about moving this kind of collection?
KC: There is no "best thing" about moving your library. I've moved several times, both home and in offices. It gets worse each time because you are continually adding to your library. For the last move, I packed nearly 100 boxes of heavy books. Not fun, but they're with me now, and I enjoy them each day. Maybe that's the best thing.
PR: Please feel free to make this a mashup: What is the first photo-or-artbook you ever bought and why did it catch your attention? What was the last photo-or-artbook you purchased? Is there a rarity that somehow got away that you regret not grabbing when it was affordable?
KC: I believe the first art book I ever purchased was H.W. Janson's History of Art. However, as a child, I remember we had a bible in the house with excellent illustrations. I know now that the book contained the classic drawings of Gustave Dore. Some of my prized possessions include the first edition of Paul Rand's Thoughts on Design, a case bound edition of Picasso sketchbooks, Je Suis le Cahier, a beautiful catalog of fashion watercolors: Dior by Mats Gustafson and a rare (signed) book of doodles by Claes Oldenberg called Notes in Hand.
PR: What is the next photo-or-artbook you might purchase?
KC: I have pre-ordered a copy of Peter Beard's new book from Taschen that will be released soon.
PR: What are the best bookcases you have ever seen and what do you envy about them?
KC: One of the great libraries I've seen was in Pierre Chareau's iconic house, Le Maison de Verre, in Paris. It had towering, heavy steel shelving full of gorgeous books. The library was a natural extension of the original industrial style of the architecture, in a grand, softly lit space—a masterpiece.
PR: Can you advise the readers on anything you feel should be avoided in the planning and construction/installation of bookcases?
KC: I might suggest avoiding over-planning. Building a library requires the self-awareness that tastes change, books change, and unless you are J.P Morgan you will always run out of space. I made an unfortunate mistake in planning our living room library. It faces east and gets "fried" in the morning light, which can bleach out book spines, especially the red ones.
PR: Do you consider being a bibliophile a form of madness?
KC: Bibliophile is such a nice way of describing a "book junkie." My lovely wife has often asked, "What's with all the books?" I have tried the "one book in one book out" policy but have failed. However, I have developed a helpful "nice to have vs. need to have" approach to purchases, which is curbing my appetite…slightly
Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, musician, author, and teacher. For over forty years he was the Co-Founder and Artist-in-Residence of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design and branding company in New York City. In 2019 he and his partner Leslie Smolan formed a strategic alliance with 50,000 Feet, a branding agency with offices in Chicago and NYC. He now devotes his time to drawing, painting, and music. pimp_bookcase