Digital rendering tools can make it hard to tell whether a design is real or just a concept. Everything from highly accurate lighting down to the finest textures can be reproduced using computer programs for very convincing results. So it’s understandable that when you first look at projects by Chinese architecture firm X+Living, you might be skeptical that they really exist.

That’s especially true for the firm’s spectacular bookstore designs, most created for various locations of the chain Zhongshuge. Thinking way outside the box, this practice founded by Li Xiang produces jaw-dropping results, often enhanced in unexpected ways with the help of visual tricks like mirrors.

For instance, there’s the Zhongshuge Chonquing Store, which was completed in 2019. Located on the third and fourth floors of Zodi Plaza in Yangjiaping, the bookstore is full of bookshelves shaped like lamp shades designed to make visitors feel like they’re “in a bright and warm private study when they read in the warm light projected from inside the lampshades.”

The firm adds that “further down the corridor is the children’s reading room, the main study, and a ‘ladder hall’ where the stairs double as bookshelves, and the mirrored ceiling overhead doubles the size of the already astonishing room. The space allows visitors to rest on the shelved steps and be immersed in books and thoughts.”

Then there’s the Zhongshuge Minhang Store in Shanghai, which achieves similar effects using different visual tricks. The interiors take inspiration from spinning tops, and when you first walk in, the kaleidoscopic effect can be mildly dizzying.

The firm explains that “the spinning top represents a balance of finding the fulcrum in the spin. The seemingly static posture actually implies a lot. It accepts every impetus, and it is like a diligent ballet dancer finding a balance in the practice of rotation. [We tried to indicate] a way of life using groups of spinning tops. The power of knowledge contained in books is also impetus and motivation. In the wall, the black bookshelves are designed into powerful shapes.”

“The triangular bookshelves don’t just carry the books, but greet bundles of a halo from the ceiling. The halo sprinkles downward along the triangular shapes of the lower bookshelves, like street lamps, to illuminate the name of each book. The black bookshelf wall echoes statically with the dynamic spinning top in the middle: soft, strong, quiet, and equally wonderful!”

The Zhongshuge Guiyang Bookstore takes a slightly more organic approach, with rolling curves that make you feel like you’re inside a giant barrel full of books. This one takes inspiration from caves and ships, with the mirrored floors mimicking the look of reflective water.

Zhongshuge Hanzhou is a little extra playful, from the surreal children’s reading areas to the contrast of a minimalist pure white room. X+Living envisions the floor plan as spaces that feel like forests of books adjacent to the heavenly sky-like atmosphere of the white room. This is one of their older bookstore designs, and it’s interesting to see how their style has evolved over time.