Here was the place where we would finally address our teetering stack of plastic milk crates stuffed with all the books we’d been hauling around for years. They deserved a proper display, their spines upright and facing out.
I had a vague idea of something industrial, yet clean. One Google search led to another, and before long, I was staying up late, scrutinizing seductively staged photographs of remarkably flexible shelving systems.
The first one that my roving eye fixated on was the String Shelving System, created in 1949 by Swedish designer Nils Strinning. It looks as modern today as it did then, its shelves supported by slender, ladderlike panels made of powder-coated steel; the objects on display look like they’re floating on air. An ever-evolving selection of mix-and-match components—plastic bins, a fold-up desk, a chest of two drawers—allow for customization whether you install it in a kitchen, bathroom or bedroom closet.
I moved on to the Royal System, designed by Danish master Poul Cadovius, which is widely credited with kicking off the mass-market, wall-mounted-shelving revolution when it debuted, in 1948. Something about those dark brown teak shelves reminded me of my girlfriend’s imitation of Will Ferrell’s “Anchorman” character, Ron Burgundy. “I’m very important,” goes her spot-on Ron. “I have many leather-bound books. And my apartment smells of rich mahogany.”
I trawled the web for every option I could find, from Home Depot’s heavy-duty shelf brackets to the ideas in the online listicle “17 Genius Ikea Hacks That Will Change Your Apartment Forever.” I became conversant in Pinterest, which exposed me to a dizzying array of compositions. Should I go maximalist, with a shelving unit spanning the wall? Or multipurpose, something kitted out with cabinets and a TV stand?
And then, I got my first glimpse of the ultimate storage design for modern living, the 606 Universal Shelving System, designed by Dieter Rams in 1960. It’s made of sturdy, modern stuff—metal shelves, aluminum e-tracks—in a minimal palette of black, off-white and silver. Naked, the 606 looks striking; laden with objects, it disappears into the wall. Even today, it stands as one of the most dynamic yet practical illustrations of Mr. Rams’s “less but better” approach to design.
With the postwar years ushering in a new era of prosperity, “People just had a lot more stuff,” said Erik Heywood, who created Books at Home, my favorite shelving geek blog, and now owns Book/Shop, an Oakland storefront that sells book-related furniture and accessories. “This new type of shelving and storage wasn’t there to show off itself, but what was on it.” Sophie Lovell, author of “Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible,” has a 606 in her apartment and her office and told me she appreciates it more the longer she has it. “It’s the precise opposite of the built-in obsolescence mentality,” she said.
No matter how much money it would save us in the long run, not even I, at the height of my fever, could justify splashing out many thousands of dollars for it. I took another long look at the String System, spending more time than I care to admit playing around with its “build-your-own” tool. I kept subtracting components from my ideal model, but I couldn’t make it work for our budget.
And while Danish company dk3 reissued the Royal System with modernized finishes a few years ago, the latest components aren’t compatible with the original version—a deal breaker for me on principle. The AS4, a newer system by Brooklyn’s Atlas Industries that makes wooden shelving look stylish, was priced beyond reach.
It was a little-known Santa Monica-based studio called ISS Designs that helped me find what I’d been looking for: clear, satin anodized aluminum shelves, which rest on rectangular aluminum racks that slide and lock into aluminum standards. (They have wood and laminate options, too.) Though there’s nothing outwardly design-forward about it, the overall look is simple, clean and self-effacing in all the ways that I like.
I sketched out some possible approaches, then showed them to my girlfriend. We covered the wall with electrical tape, to indicate where the shelves would go, and ultimately settled on a five-bay system, spanning 8 feet across with four long shelves, each one separated from the next by a foot. And then my girlfriend called in her one request: Wouldn’t blond wooden shelves look better than an all-aluminum system? I saw it so clearly. Of course they would.
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After moving to a new apartment, a writer undertakes the search for an ideal aluminum shelving system. To get it, he had to go to the fringes of the Internet, and make a few compromises
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