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Lisa Occhipinti’s Narrative Vases are often made with illustrated books. (Lisa Occhipinti/Lisa Occhipinti)
Lisa Occhipinti’s Narrative Vases are often made with illustrated books. (Lisa Occhipinti/Lisa Occhipinti)

What do you do with old books? Turn them into decor, of course Add to ...

For some people, the most potent smell of summer has nothing to do with Coppertone. It's a decidedly earthier bouquet: pine sap, wood smoke - and books.

Those would be the people who ignore the crisp paperback in their beach tote and instead spend the weekend riffling through the swayback bookshelf at the musty cottage they rented off the Internet, then poring over un-putdownable titles like Puck of Pook's Hill or Bourinot's Rules of Order.

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For them (okay, us), old books are like identity documents, household gods with bent spines and beloved covers - "conduits of memory" is how Toronto curator Noa Bronstein describes them. "Carriers of fingerprints, coffee and wine stains, folds, tears and annotations, books become a reflection and extension of the self."

What happens to memory, then, as we enter a post-book age, where the physical form is becoming a quaint throwback, replaced by the sleek lines of the latest eReader?

Clearly, nostalgia is helping fuel the trend to repurposing old books as objects of design - elevating them, according to U.S. artist Lisa Occhipinti, "to a new form where the cover can be seen as an image and the insides, the pages, can be freed to reveal their tone, their words, their typography, their illustration."

Examples are stacking up. Vintage hardcover books are used for lamp bases and shades, a clever play on the culture of reading lamps. Anthropologie stores feature  lights incorporating old book spines, while haute U.K. upcycler Lula Dot offers a stunning chandelier using vintage books splayed into sconces.

In Esquire, a review of hardboiled fiction featured a skull fashioned from the pages of a book, a technique made famous by Italy's Stefano Arienti. Meanwhile, shops show off shoes perched on book pedestals, while Toronto's EQ3 furniture shop pleats the pages of display books like fancy napkins.

Occhipinti offers more possibilities in The Repurposed Library (yes, that's a book), turning old tomes into mobiles, desktop sculptures and kitchen containers. She even gets meta with a set of bookshelves made of books.

But are these inventive interventions an homage to the book or another page torn from Gutenberg's achievement?

Both, depending on the project and the viewer, says Bronstein, who's the acting curator for the Toronto-based Design Exchange's Out of Sorts: Print Culture and Book Design, a show that explores the future of the book. The works on display include Occhipinti's Bookmobile, a poignant construction of looped pages created from a 1901 book on bees, and Jardin de la Connaissance, a bench built of books by Thilo Folkerts and Rodney LaTourelle.

"I find appropriative book art quite moving and rarely if ever an assault, while others would say the reverse," Bronstein says. "I think that is precisely why these works are so effective."

Jardin was originally designed for a landscape installation at Quebec's Reford Gardens, in which walls and paths of books were allowed to decay in the woods. Some design bloggers found the idea of returning books to nature lovely, while others were like vegetarians told it was okay to eat roadkill: "The idea of deliberately letting books perish like this just makes me cringe and curl up inside," one wrote. "Any other material than Books!!!"

Occhipinti is sensitive to the charge that any kind of messing with books is sacrilege and sticks to those headed for landfill (often a subjective evaluation).

Perhaps the more irredeemable a book, the more thoughtfulness its transformation requires. Beyond her crafty projects, Occhipinti has created more austere works, gathering ruined fragments of obsolete information into sculptural statements.

Book nerds both, Occhipinti and Bronstein have their summer reading lined up, including A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Bronstein) and The Summer Before Dark by Doris Lessing (Occhipinti).

Of course, if they happen to be at a cottage with a good bookshelf, they may never get around to them.

Out of Sorts continues at the Design Exchange until Aug. 21.

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