Little Free Libraries — those cute, pop-up community book depositories found in more than 50,000 neighborhoods in 70 countries across the globe — usually take the form of simple, bird feeder-esque wooden boxes that anyone can construct and install in just a couple of hours with basic materials.

More often than not, Little Free Libraries eschew ornate, ultra-complicated designs as to not irk local HOAs and also not upstage the printed matter held within — printed matter that, based on personal experience, can range from a stack of tattered Dean Koontz paperbacks to more obscure sci-fi tomes from the 1970s with wild cover art that beg to be borrowed and devoured. You really never know what you'll find.

Every once in a while, you might encounter a flashy, ornate or avant-garde Free Little Library that practically screams for the attention of curious passersby. These pedestrian-halting, high-design micro-libraries function just as much as architectural statement pieces as they do whimsical neighborhood fixtures that implore residents and visitors to “take a book, leave a book.”

Recognizing the adventurous — yet totally functional — design elements being incorporated into a growing number of Little Free Libraries, Chronicle Books, the publisher of titles including “What’s Your Poo Telling You?” and “All My Friends are Dead,” partnered with American Institute of Architects San Francisco and the folks at Little Free Library (a Hudson, Wisconsin-based nonprofit) to launch the first-ever Little Free Library Design Competition this past October.

A runner-up in the Little Free Library Design Competition by Lea Randebrock of Lahti, Finland Finnish flat-pack: A runner-up in the Little Free Library Design Competition's Chronicle Books' Choice category, which focused on green materials and the potential for large-scale production. (Rendering: Lea Randebrock)

While largely open-ended, the inaugural competition sought submissions that were distinctive (obviously), durable, usable at night, accessible by patrons of all heights (read: both kids and adults) and reflective of/suitable for a specific community. The winners of the competition, a competition that attracted 300 design submissions from 40 countries, were announced earlier this month.

Here’s a glimpse at a few of the Free Little Library designs that garnered the highest accolades from the competition judges and the Free Little Library Community:


Owlie, winner of the Judge's Choice Award in the Little Free Library Design Competition Owlie, winner of the Judge's Choice Award in the Little Free Library Design Competition, 'not only attracts people, but creates safety for the tiny library,' remarks judge Renee Elaine Sazcı. (Rendering: Bartosz Bochynski, FUTUMATA)

Owlie, a 4-foot-tall wooden owl with oversized plexiglass eyes and a belly big enough to accommodate roughly 40 books, was named the overall winner. London-based designer Bartosz Bochynski explains:

As a wisest owl on the planet earth Owlie want to help Little Free Library popularize the ideas of reading among children and adults. It is made from affordable and ecological materials and it can accommodate around 40 books which are visible in her eyes. The access to the books are from the back. You can find there a shelf for children’s books, a shelf for adults books and a shelf where is placed the notebook for visitors comments. All shelves are highlighted with the LED lighting. In the night Owlie’s eyes glow. Two big light points attract people to come closer. It is also highlights the books and encourages others join the community.

The untitled runner-up in the Judge’s Choice category is an attractive, reconfigurable al fresco bookshelf specifically designed for the dynamic streets of San Francisco. Remarks the San Francisco-based team of lauded Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta (a firm that’s not a stranger to eye-catching big library designs): "We really like the iconic design this project provides to little free libraries. We think it would be easily recognizable on the street and could be installed in a wide range of locations."

Runner-Up in the Little Free Library Design Competition 'The primary goal of my library design is to allow the steward to reconfigure the arrangement of the library to form a dynamic public space,' says Seth Thompson San Francisco. (Rendering: Seth Thompson)

Separate from the main judging panel and selected by the creative team at Chronicle Books, the Chronicle Books' Choice category focused specifically on designs that are flat-pack, lightweight (under 42 pounds) and made from eco-friendly materials. Furthermore, submissions in this category were required to demonstrate potential for real-world production. Outfitted with a nifty fold-down seat, an untitled mini-library design from Rachel Murdaugh and Clark Nexsen of Asheville, North Carolina, managed to wow the creative team from Chronicle Books the most, calling the submission a “thoughtful and impressive alignment of style and substance, and the materials chosen were very smart from a production standpoint.”

Winner of the Chronicle Books' Choice Award, Free Little Library Design Competition

Write Murdaugh and Nexsen:

"The components flat pack easily, and the hinging construction of the frame streamlines assembly. Simply unfold the base frame, attach the flanges, and construct the cabinet and seat according to an instruction pamphlet using provided hardware. In effect, this design maximizes the functionality of the book kiosk as a means of emphasizing its role as an intersection of community and learning, while elegantly maintaining ease of assembly.”

Tree of Knowledge, Free Little Library Design Competition In the Stewards’ Choice category, Tree of Knowledge, an inventive arboreal design from Tokyo-based firm CIRCLE, garnered the most accolades.

A clever, community-centric design that, in addition to books, incorporates a "Little Food Pantry," submitted by 4th Street Farms in Columbus, Ohio, was named runner up.

The top picks is this category were selected by staffers at Free Little Library, including founder Todd Bol, before community members voted on their favorites.

Honorable mentions include a Free Little Library that affixes to existing utility poles, a design that resembles an oversized wheel of Swiss cheese, and a lovely pop-up library concept from Italy that incorporates bike parking and solar-powered motion sensors.

You can check out all of the competition's winners, runners-up and honorable mentions in their delightfully diminutive glory here.

Free Little Library Design Competition submission by Nicola Urban Writes designer Nicola Urban of Tolmezzo, Italy: 'Books are important because through them you can learn and help to dream. Everyone should have access to culture, whatever their social status.' (Rendering: Nicola Urban)

Free Little Library Design Competition submission by Anders Hellsten Nissen 'Most poles are there to elevate street lamps, rubbish bins, signs…why not use the bottom part for a little library?" asks a competition entrant from Berlin. (Photo: Anders Hellsten Nissen)

Book Cheese, Free Little Library Design Competition A cheese for all seasons: Designed with varied weather conditions in mind, Book Cheese is no doubt a natural place to look for a tome on fromage. (Rendering: Xi Tan, Qian Sun, Yan Li, Xiaojing Zhang)

An honorable mention-receiving submission to the Little Free Library Design Competition Receiving an honorable mention, this park-perfect pop-up library design from the U.K. incorporates a bench, hooks for dog leashes and planter boxes. (Photo: Aleksandra Ostapiuk)

Inset renderings: Rachel Murdaugh, Clark Nexsen; Tree of Knowledge: Ryo Otsuka, Lin Zihao.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.