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House & Home

Victoria Summerley: Town Life

Know what my favourite Disney film is? Beauty and the Beast. I love the scene where the Beast takes Belle into the vast library in his castle and she decides that there might be more to him between the covers, as it were. There's something very appealing about a heroine who can be seduced by the prospect of a book at bedtime.

But mainly I lusted after the library. No matter how many bookshelves I buy or build, there never seem to be enough to accommodate all the books that accumulate in our house. At my last address, practically every room was shelved from floor to ceiling, so when we moved to our present abode (number of built-in bookshelves at that point: nil), I almost had a nervous breakdown. It's only when you unpack books that you realise how many you have.

Today's interior design does not favour those who read. You can buy off-the-peg bookshelves, of course, but they don't seem to be designed to house books. Ikea, who do one of the most comprehensive ranges of storage at high-street prices, have a maximum weight-per-shelf limit on many of their units. The average paperback weighs between 300g and 500g, and the average glossy hardback (a book on gardening or art, say) weighs at least a kilo. You won't get many of the latter on an Ikea bookshelf.

The only time I've ever seen a feature in a magazine about displaying books in the home, it advocated arranging them by colour, rather than by content or author's name. It said it promoted a calm, contemplative ambience. I've tried this and it looked lovely but it wasn't very calming. You can't find anything when everything's jumbled up together - Enid Blyton instead of The Aeneid and the Trollopes cheek by jowl with the Marquis de Sade.

An astonishing number of off-the-peg bookcases are open-ended, which means that if you have a serious paperback habit, your precious volumes will fall straight off. But then, you're not supposed to have books on them, just a few objets, such as a lurid vase or a Buddha's head.

So I was delighted to hear that private libraries seem to be coming back into fashion. There's even one on the cover of John D Wood's latest London property brochure, complete with buttoned-leather fender seat in front of a cosy fire. It's in a house in Kensington Square (guide price £6.9m). I can just imagine myself curling up in an armchair (though I can't imagine ever affording £6.9m).

Aidan Mortimer, who is chief executive of a company called Symm, reports that they have had an unprecedented demand for libraries in the past year. Symm specialises in upmarket restoration and construction projects and they also provide a bespoke architectural joinery service, which uses English and European oak from sustainable forestry.

What sort of person commissions a private library these days? A rich one, that's for sure. But that's as far as the generalisation goes. According to Mr Mortimer, his clients don't fall into any particular category, other than that they tend to be book-lovers (not Footballers' Wives types who go out and buy secondhand books by the yard).

One client, a passionate collector, devoted three rooms in his house to antique volumes and rare first editions, but as Mr Mortimer points out, this is unusual. More common, especially in London, is to create a mezzanine study/ library, often on a landing.

And while there is a demand for the traditional library, a Symm version will probably incorporate 21st-century technology. Not only does a library provide somewhere peaceful to read and work, these days it also offers a haven in which to relax. Audio-visual systems, flat-screen televisions and air-conditioning will all be concealed behind the wood panelling, while Symm's craftsmen can even create a secret door, complete with trompe l'oeil books.

"I think books are a good way of expressing yourself," says Mr Mortimer. "Art and décor can do that of course, but your books can tell people a lot about you."

Indeed. One might even go so far as to say they speak volumes...

www.symm.co.uk; 01865 254900