Things move pretty quickly on the internet — just a few short months ago, for example, everything was made of cake, and now all anyone can talk about is Four Seasons Total Landscaping. And still, there are some online controversies that never die: Yanny or Laurel, black-and-blue or white-and-gold, washing your legs in the shower. Among these protracted battles is one that hits, quite literally, close to home for many of us. I am talking, of course, about the great ROYGBIV bookshelf debate, the thing that has been dividing our nation for what feels like an eternity on the internet.
Over the last decade, coinciding with the omnipresence of social media, the concept of color-coordinating one’s books has been pilloried everywhere from Tumblr to Twitter, largely by people who fancy themselves too, I don’t know, respectful of the integrity of books or something, to fall for such childish and fetishistic home decor hacks. For them, books are not aesthetic objects, but rather intellectual ones, and so shouldn’t be arranged by methods seemingly designed for Instagram.
But, there have also been passionate defenses of pretty bookshelves. In 2012, Apartment Therapy wrote a blog about color-coded bookshelves that extolled the practicality of the method, but noted how controversial it was, and opened with the caveat, “No, this post isn’t intended as an invitation for a full-on throwdown in the comments section (entirely).” Two years later, Slate was moved to publish an article titled “Arranging Your Books by Color Is Not a Moral Failure,” wherein author Kristin Hohenadel wrote, “Surely those who judge the color-coded bookshelf as a sign of fashion-conscious frivolity must acknowledge that the bookshelf itself has always been a trophy case of sorts.” A year later, the Washington Post asked its readers to weigh in on the debate after the world realized websites were selling bundles of colorfully spined books for the express purpose of creating rainbow bookshelves. The horror!
In more recent years, it seemed we had collectively moved on. (I guess we had bigger things to worry about?) But the debate was recently reinvigorated thanks in large part to The Home Edit, the color-obsessed design duo known for ROYGBIV-ing such places as Khloe Kardashian’s fridge and Jessie James Decker’s closet, and whose Netflix show extols the many virtues of tonal Container Store vessels. And so, it is spreading: to kitchens and pantries, to childrens’ playrooms, to bathroom cabinets across America, where color-blocked Drunk Elephant bottles serve as radiant pillars separating Sunday Riley lotions from Glossier serums. It’s not exactly new, but it is becoming ubiquitous, and somehow, after all these years, it still maintains an aura of minor controversy.
Jenna Rennert, a fashion and beauty expert and former Vogue beauty editor, recently posted photos of her own impressively stocked, expertly ROYGBIV’d bathroom cabinet to Instagram. She says she’s been organizing her products this way since 2017: “Once, while shooting my bathroom for a story, a colleague suggested we transform it. Seriously, a major upgrade. Haven’t looked back since!”
Rennert, who also color-coordinates her shoe collection, admits she isn’t a super organized person, but that ordering things this way helps her keep messier tendencies in check. And apparently, many of her 66k followers are following suit. “I have received so many DMs from followers who have color-coded their medicine cabinet. It makes me so happy to spread a little organizing joy — especially from a totally non-organizer,” she shares. “There’s honestly nothing more satisfying than the look of a color-coordinated medicine cabinet. But during this crazy and unpredictable year, isn’t it the most satisfying to open up your cabinet and know exactly where everything is going to be, every single time?”
Indeed, if there were ever a time to embark on the task of color-coordinating one’s worldly possessions, the most simultaneously boring and anxiety-inducing year on record would be it. Eleftheria Karipidi, an expert in the psychology of design, agrees that spending more time at home has spurred people to invest in organization hacks. “I think the fact that we are currently spending more of our time at home is giving us the answer [to why we’re seeing more of this trend right now],” she says. “Most people had to transform their bedrooms or living rooms into office spaces. This need has made people start looking for creative ideas that can make their background on video call conferences look more interesting.” But there is also, clearly, a timeless quality to the art of ROYGBIV, one that seems to inspire some people and disgust others in equal measure.
“Some people seem to think it is an affront to the books themselves. As if you aren't treating them as books anymore. It can get quite intense!” the person behind the Twitter account Bookcase Credibility told Refinery29 via DM, noting that it considered taking down a post about the rainbow-ordered bookcase of writer Jennifer Wright after things became especially acrimonious in the comments. (Several respondents characterized Wright’s bookcase as “criminal” and “the Devil’s work.”) “None of my posts get as reliably strong a reaction as ones about color-coded bookcases. People have views!”
Wright later told OprahMag.com writer Elena Nicoleau, who penned color-coded bookshelves’ most impassioned defense yet earlier this year, “If the goal is to make them take me seriously, I suppose I can arrange all of my books alphabetically, and I can wear a tweed suit with my glasses, instead of contact lenses. But then they’ll just say I’m a bitter shrew.”
There’s an obvious reason why the same level of vitriol has yet to emerge around, say, color-coordinated closets or cosmetic cabinets as it has bookshelves: those spaces are still seen as the domain of women and thus, environments where such frivolities are acceptable. While there has been some legitimate criticism of The Home Edit’s style of organization-as-consumption, nobody — even the otherwise very opinionated denizens of the internet — seems to really give a shit if some celebrity wants to make their fruit look like a rainbow. So long as they keep it away from more serious pursuits.
Beyond looking nice, though, there are legitimate reasons to color-coordinate. As Rennert touched on, it can be extremely useful in staying organized, especially if you’re a more visually-oriented person. “Generally speaking, color stimulates emotions and as an essential sensory element in our daily lives, it can help brain function and more specifically enhance concentration, creativity and peace of mind; in contrast with a monotonous sensory environment that can lead to a state of ‘sensory deprivation’ and disorganization of the brain,” explains Karipidi, who adds, “There is actually research evidence that color can strengthen memory and that some people can find it easier to remember things and places based on color.” Think about it: You may not remember the author of a novel you read three months ago, but there’s a good chance you remember what the cover looks like.
Whether the emergence of color-coordination as an interior design trend beyond the realm of the bookshelf has any real impact on this now years-long internet controversy remains to be seen, but it seems likely that, if anything, it will only cause both sides to dig their heels in deeper. After all, if it’s the association with consumerism and showiness that ROYGBIV bookshelf haters dislike, a Netflix show where two women bippity-boppity-boo a bunch of celebrity homes is unlikely to change too many minds. And still, the spread from personal libraries to bathrooms and kitchens to who knows where else marches on.
“Some people find it impractical or even insane, others just love it and find it really creative, something they can enjoy spending time doing it. It’s so simple but true that whatever we do or like defines us and that says a lot about our personality. There is no right or wrong really, it’s our personality traits and past experiences that make us like or dislike something and that’s totally fine,” Karipidi diplomatically offers. Hey, maybe after all these years, unity really is possible.