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I can’t tell you how filled with envy I was when, years ago, I was visiting a friend and saw she’d just added a beautiful barrister bookcase to her living room. She’d found it by complete happenstance on the side of a road, and the bookcase was in near perfect condition, save for a few scuffs.
This old staple, also referred to as a lawyer’s bookcase, comes in many shapes and sizes. However, all barrister bookcases feature glass panes to protect books and trinkets from dust. I think what I like about them most is that they offer both old-school charm and a sense of regality. If you’re not yet familiar, let me acquaint you with this elegant workhorse.
The History of the Barrister Bookcase
To understand the significance of barrister bookcases, it’s important to know that, back in the day, owning books was a pretty big deal.
“In the 17th and 18th centuries, not everyone could afford a book, so having a bookcase put you in a higher class group that was wealthy and educated and scholarly,” explains Angela Reynolds, a celebrity interior decorator and former owner of an antique store in London. “It was elitist to have a bookcase. It said a lot about who you were and your achievements.”
Back then, having shelves filled with books was akin to owning a fleet of smart TVs, iPads, and other pricey digital gadgets. And because books were so expensive and treasured, keeping them in good condition was a top priority. Marry that with the fact that barristers — an English term for lawyer in the 1800s — owned many law books to aid their practice, and it’s clear how this piece of furniture got its name. “Because of the monetary value of legal books, barristers did everything they could to protect them,” says Reynolds. “They built these bookcases out of wood or metal with glass fronts to keep the elements out when they transported the bookcases between locations through the dirty streets of London. Sometimes they’d put them on carriages to bring them to the next destination.”
While barrister bookcases come in many variations, they’re generally modular-shaped and built to be stacked on top of each other — flexibility for when your library of books outgrows its original shell.
How to Incorporate a Barrister Bookcase Into Your Decor
Though traditionally intended for hefty law books, barrister bookcases are used in many different ways today. “They’re a great piece for someone who has a lot of collectables or any items that they want to be seen and protected in their house,” notes Jessica Leigh Smith, a vintage furniture expert and co-founder of MisFlip’s Design. “For example, they’d be great in a media room to house a vinyl collection. Or, with some of the more modern versions of this classic piece, they can easily be used as a bar in a living room as an amazing statement piece.” You could even use them in a kitchen for dish and glassware storage, as these Brooklyn renters did in their loft.
Because of their narrow design, barrister bookcases also work well in tight spaces, including hallways, entryways, or mudrooms. Really, though, their place in your home is only limited by your imagination.
What to Look for When Shopping Vintage
Whenever you’re shopping for vintage furniture, keep an eye out for a few key features to ensure you’re purchasing a quality piece. Original markers — typically found on the back or on the interior — are a great place to start. Once you know the name of the manufacturer, you can do some cursory research. Additionally, look for signs of superior craftsmanship, such as unique design elements, dovetailing, and ease of opening/closing the glass panels.
“When shopping for a barrister bookcase, look at the material it’s made from,” advises Reynolds. “The type of wood tells a lot about value. Mahogany and walnut are very expensive types of wood.” Additionally, look at the hardware and accoutrements. “The more detailed and advanced the features, the greater the value. Also, if you find one that has lead glass, then you know it is high quality.”
Old pieces may be scuffed up, but that’s no reason to pass them by. These superficial defects can be fixed with refinishing or painting. For example, Reynolds says you could paint one a robin’s egg blue hue for a home with a beachy vibe. You could even put a cushion on top and turn the piece into a chic storage bench.
Want to bring this classic staple into your space? Check out the following modern picks.