Born into the Oxford-based bookselling dynasty, you could say that literature runs in the veins of Philip Blackwell. Having worked in the family business as well as other leading book publishers, Philip is like a go-to manual when it comes to what’s hot in the book world. With a wealth of experience stemming from his own personal collection, as well as those collections he has had a hand in curating for leading hotels, designers and private homes, Philip engages and entertains with behind the scenes stories as well as his insights into the art of collecting and the seduction of books. We talk to Philip about his current business, Ultimate Library.
Curating entire libraries sounds like a dream for us book lovers – tell us how this business came about.
Ultimate Library was first conceived whilst spending time travelling through Egypt on a Nile riverboat. Someone suggested I read Daniel Martin by John Fowles, which has a brilliant description of exactly such a trip. This book added so much to the enjoyment of my holiday that I have made it my mission to seek out the best books on every place I visit. I’d also spent much of my career travelling the globe and staying in a variety of hotels, which generally had rather poor book collections and I knew we could do it better. One thing led to another and ten years later, we have now worked in over 30 countries across the globe supplying hotels and private homes alike with a range of beautiful and engaging book collections.
How do you choose what books go into a library you are working on?
Designing a book collection starts with a number of core elements. First of all we research the location of the property and ensure we can reflect what is special about the surrounding area. Secondly, we consider who the client is and what they (or their guests) may be interested in reading. Thirdly, we integrate the collection with the interior design and decor to create a visually engaging selection. Using these inputs we organize our book collections around six key categories which we call the six senses – sense of place being the corner stone, we also have sense of purpose (business, global trends), perspective (history, biography, nature and environment), style (the arts, food and wine), sense of adventure (books to stretch the mind, creativity, travel) and escape (mainly fiction genres).
Are they mainly there to look pretty, or do people actually read the books?
A well-conceived library should have a wow factor which primarily comes from intelligent selection –the books are there to inform, educate and inspire and create a greater sense of place. Second, books make a house a home; they add soul to what can be a very functional environment. Combined, we call this ‘intelligent luxury’. Our aim is to surprise and delight; from fine editions of classics you always meant to read, through to helping people develop fresh perspectives – the key purpose of travel after all. Books should be well laid out; but not too well! The voyage of discovery along the shelves is part of the fun for bibliophiles.
As an entrepreneur yourself, are there any books that you feel have had a defining impact on your career/ life?
Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital was transformational for me in 1994. It opened my eyes to the digital future, and prompted a lifestyle change in time to catch the first wave of the 90’s tech boom. Gary Hamel’s Competing for the Future was the framework through which to evaluate the opportunities; Chris Robson’s Confessions of an Entrepreneur is an invaluable emotional support through the highs and lows of building a business. And I try to read at least a couple of ‘big Ideas’ books a year to stay fresh – this year I have been reading Lynda Grant’s Hundred Year Life and Pippa Malmgren’s Signals to try and make sense of the uncertain world in which we operate.
How do you personally decide what to read?
I read a lot of book reviews across the FT, Economist and weekend papers to stay current with the books of the moment and what matters each publishing season. Then I talk to a network of other bibliophiles for balance. I’m probably reading 2-3 books at any one time; something challenging, something familiar and something related to where I’m travelling next for sense of place; a healthy mix of fiction and fact.
What are you reading and the moment, and would you recommend it? If so, why?
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow is one of those clever yet lucid books that recalibrates the way you see the world; it’s both fascinating and slightly disturbing. Pierre Lemaitre’s Brigade Criminelle trilogy is darkly comic and ingeniously plotted in equal measure. His brand of Paris Noir is a cut above the rest and brilliantly translated.
What do you believe the future holds for traditional printed books?
Recent findings show that the death of the traditional book has been greatly exaggerated. The sales of printed books are rising again, while the digital sales are down for the first time since 2011. Why? In uncertain times people crave authenticity which in part explains the resurgence of vinyl, the rise of farmers’ markets and thankfully demand for ‘real’ books. People are re-discovering the quiet satisfaction that is to be had by immersing themselves in a physical book, temporarily casting aside their raft of technical tyrants. Clients also want their shelves to be visually engaging and even in some cases be the stars of social media. As Cicero so aptly put it, ‘a room without books is like a body without a soul’ and so it goes that a room laden with literature has enormous uplifting appeal to the spirit. Long may it continue.