Best Coffee-Table Books 2011

Looking for a last-minute gift? Here’s our roundup of the year's best coffee-table books.

While some aesthetes may prefer viewing an image in its original iteration, for most people the luxury of chasing art is simply not available—not to mention that so much in contemporary creation falls outside traditional artistic venues and applications. Thus, we are thankful that very real, physical paper and ink design tomes still exist to accommodate and reproduce what we call art (or perhaps becomes art in an environment such as a book). Here’s some books that righteously deserve places on whatever serves as your coffee table (though drinking coffee in proximity to these books and the possibility of seeing coffee-cup rings on the cover is a horrific vision).

Cecil Beaton: The New York Years

British photographer Cecil Beaton was the Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz of his era. He transformed fashion photography in 1930s, continually reinvented himself, and still remained influential in the 1960s Pop Art explosion. This magnificent opus is the companion to an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, which features over 220 images and drawings and documents (many never before published) assembled by curator Donald Albrecht including Beaton’s paragonic photos of Greta Grabo and Andy Warhol. This tome, as befitting the length and breadth of Beaton’s accomplishments, is divided into 5 parts: Beaton in Vogue, Beaton and the Stage, Beaton on New York, Beaton on Garbo, and Beaton on Warhol. Needless to say, it is worthy of its special subject.


Celebrity and celebrated photographer Anne Leibovitz has achieved the stature to be able to indulge her personal interests and the most recent result is Pilgrimage. Reportedly a trip to Niagara Falls (the book’s cover image) with her 3 children inspired her—“I needed to remind myself of what I like to do, what I can do.” And so in pursuit of that Leibowitz visited Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, Mass., the houses of Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin in the English countryside, Sigmund Freud’s final home in London, Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House, Beaux Arts sculptor Daniel Chester French (Lincoln seated at the Lincoln Memorial), as well photographing collateral material—objects, rooms and landscapes—not the kind of photography she is known for. There is also her journey to Julia Margaret Cameron's studio on the Isle of Wight, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s place in New Mexico. Add Eleanor Roosevelt, Elvis Presley, and Annie Oakley and it's obvious this is a mélange of personal meaning and interest. The totality of making this book has Leibowitz asserting, “It taught me to see again.” Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin adds some gravitas in the book’s introduction.

Bullfight: The Pas de Deux

Ricardo Sanchez’s artful images set aside, for the moment, the brutality of the ancient so-called sport of bullfighting. Romanticized in other places (Hemingway and Lorca), here the camera vividly captures the balletic interplay between matador and bull. The images are lush and in some instances nearly abstractly expressionistic (think Motherwell and Rothko) as the "pas de deux" action melts the borders of its subjects. Sanchez includes a text explicating the bullfight’s ritual and offers a kind of metaphoric apologia (sport as art) for this enduring and bloody spectacle.

Sequentially Yours

Elliott Erwitt, who has published about 40 books, has taken his share of iconic photos (think Richard Nixon poking Nikita Kruschev in the chest in a Moscow exhibit). Well known for his singular sense of humor this collection of Erwitt’s images departs from his normal operating method by showing photos in sequence rather than individual shots, thereby creating a hybrid that floats between the classic single image and a movie. Included in this captivating array are a group portrait taken on the set of The Misfits (Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, John Huston); the above mentioned Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev are shown as a diptych; a series of Che Guevara portraits taken from a single photo shoot; and three shots from a Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight sequence. Most revealing is the lack of repetition of format and seeing iconic images to appear in the middle of a sequence, indicating Erwitt’s continuing to shoot where other photographers might have stopped.

Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label

Given the impact of Russell Simmons's and Rick Rubin’s Def Jam Records on pop culture, this tribute tome is an inevitable celebration of a quarter of a century (an eternity in pop media) of the brand’s existence. No surprises here—a useful collection of history and imagery of the label that gave the world the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J, Jay-Z and Kanye West. Designed by Def Jam’s founding creative director, Cey Adams, with text by founding publicist Bill Adler and Dan Charnas, the book makes plain the two-headed nature of what has become a potent enterprise—serious business and serious fun.

Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles

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In 1947 "If it bleeds-it-leads" tabloid photographer Arthur Fellig (better known to the world as Weegee) decamped his nocturnal New York world of noir crime, car crashes and gangland slayings for the glitz of Hollywood celebrities and camp followers and degenerates. This book serves as the catalogue for a Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition including more than 200 black and white photos (some never published before) with an illuminating essay by art historian Richard Meyer.

Maps: Paula Scher

Well-regarded graphic designer and principal at the world-renowned Pentagram Design, Paula Scher began painting maps of the world (some of them 12 feet high) 20 years ago and this excellently produced monograph features 39 of her most riveting geographical visions (with an enlightening introduction by Simon Winchester).

R. Crumb The Complete Record Cover Collection

R. Crumb, famed underground cartoonist (think Keep on Truckin’), in 1968, at the behest of then little known Janis Joplin, created the cover art for her group Big Brother and the Holding Co.’s album, Cheap Thrills. Crumb who had a love for old-time blues and jug-band music (he also plays old-timey music) was also intrigued by their album covers, which led to a life-long preoccupation that resulted in drawings for hundreds of recordings by an array of musicians, old and new, all anthologized here.

The Splendor of Cuba: 450 Years of Architecture and Interiors

Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean’s Great Antilles, was for many years the hemispheric epicenter of Western civilization and this impressive volume eschews the conventional faded and crumbling glory Castro-era montage and splendidly catalogues previously inaccessible palacios, mansions, sugarcane plantations, cafetales, and private homes that represent the grandeur that was the Spanish colonial period. Caribbean antiquities expert Michael Connors and photographer Brent Winebrenner traveled the length and breadth of Cuba—from Havana, Santiago de Cuba, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, and Pinar del Rio to Trinidad, Matanzas, and Holguin—to document the grand buildings and ornate details of courtyards, balconies, galleries, balustrades, grilles, louvered doors they considered architecturally significant.


Photographer Michael Eastman, who has traveled to the world’s great cities to document his choice of building facades and interiors, joins the ongoing parade of picture books (including Robert Polidori’s superb 2001 Havana) capturing the declining majesty of Cuba's capital city. Eastman has spent the better part of two decades creating these superreal color photographs of all manner of objects—an empty chair, pre-Kennedy-era cars, crumbling doorways and staircases—all suggestive of Havana’s still-mesmerizing power.

Apple Design

Whether Apple consumers are conscious of it or not, design has been a critical piece of the company's drive to world domination. Hamburg’s Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe mounted an exhibition, Stylectrical: On Electro-Design That Makes History, featuring more than 200 examples of Apple’s innovative, elegant, and user-friendly designs for iMacs, iPhones, iPods, and iPads. In addition to paying homage to Apple’s senior vice president of industrial design, Jonathan Ive (one of the few designers in the corporate world to hold a high executive position), this catalogue references Braun (the German company) and its influential chief designer Dieter Rams, who promulgated the influential Ten Rules for Good Design, which Apple employed to great success.

Redheaded Peckerwood

Young photographer Christian Patterson uses the 1958 killing spree (10 people) of teenager Charlie Starkweather (immortalized in, among others, Terence Malik’s film Badlands) to create a photo narrative with 98 images. To quote Luc Sante, who provides the text, “Redheaded Peckerwood, which unerringly walks the fine line between fiction and nonfiction, is a disturbingly beautiful narrative about unfathomable violence and its place on the land.” In addition to the photos, 3 inserts, and a booklet exhibiting documents and objects discovered by Patterson, that belonged to the killers and victims. In toto this is a very original forensic treatise allowing the viewer to take in this harrowing episode in a transformative mode.

Magnum Contact Sheets

The singular photographic institution Magnum Photos, a cooperative founded by photographic titans Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, and others after WWII is no doubt the most heralded aggregation of photographers in the art’s history. This 508 page oversize compendium includes 139 contact sheets (a tool of the trade which digital photography is pushing toward extinction), some 3600 frames, 200 prints by Cartier-Bresson, Capa, Eve Arnold, Elliott Erwitt, René Burri, Inge Morath, as well as Magnum’s latest generation, Bruno Barbey, Jonas Bendiksen, Alessandra Sanguinetti, and Alec Soth. By focusing on the contact sheet this book provides insight into the creative and editing process of these fabled artists. A riveting anthology of iconic and world historic images and explicating text are found here in a well-designed and excellently printed package.