What makes a good coffee table book?
For starters, this is definitely a book genre where judging by the cover is very much encouraged. Color, texture, graphics, some curious bit—it must catch your eye and double as a decorative piece. From an iconic Bruce Weber shot for Calvin Klein to one winked-at vagina—this year’s books do not disappoint.
But a good coffee table book should also have the body and brains to go with that face. The images and art should be gasp-inducing and the text conversation-starting. From the unbelievable photographs of the Disco era and Art Nouveau icons to the words of James Baldwin, this year’s entries also pass the second test.
In no particular order, here are our favorites.
Studio 54 edited by Ian Schrager (Rizzoli)
The legend of Studio 54 has nearly become cliché, but after devouring this outrageously fun time machine of a book (catch stunning Jerry Hall, young Donna Karan, creepy Roy Cohn with hot male bartenders, Valentino making you want to Google how old he is), you’ll wish you still had the chance to try and get in.
Architecture Fin-de-Siècle by Keiichi Tahara and Riichi Miyake (Taschen)
Art Nouveau is totally having a moment, and for any fan of that artistic period, this hefty three-volume survey is a must-have. The books are full of magnificent photographs by the late Keiichi Tahara that manage to capture both the playful side of Art Nouveau and also how--in the right light--it can be incredibly haunting.
The Art and Science of Ernst Haeckel by Rainer Willmann and Julia Voss (Taschen)
Sticking with the Art Nouveau theme, it’s obvious while flipping through the collection of prints by the German biologist/naturalist/artist/philosopher/doctor Ernst Haeckel how his fusion of art and science was a source of inspiration for a number of Art Nouveau architects and artists. Swirling anemones, intricate microbes, elaborately patterned coral—nature remains art’s greatest inspiration.
The Art of the Erotic by Phaidon Editors (Phaidon)
The operable yonic slit on the cover is clever, but it’s also matched by a very thorough and well curated voyage through the titillating aspects of art history. The book is a veritable who’s who, from Rembrandt on through Anish Kapoor.
Design in California and Mexico, 1915-1985 edited by Wendy Kaplan (Prestel/DelMonico)
First, the cover has a giant splash of Barragan pink, which is a winner in the #judgeabookbyitscover realm. Second, In this truly inspired book (which is tied to an ongoing exhibition at LACMA) the deep but too often overlooked connections between Mexico and California in the 20th century are given their due.
Calvin Klein by Calvin Klein (Rizzoli)
Sometimes the greatest sign of a genius comes when the industry has swung so far in their direction, a modern viewer cannot discern what was so revolutionary in the first place about the artist’s work. That’s very much the case with this first survey done by Klein of his own work. His vision for fashion and American life completely won. The second big observation? The man thought a lot about sex.
Nothing Personal by James Baldwin & Richard Avedon (Taschen)
Titans in their respective fields, Avedon and Baldwin actually had a friendship dating back to their years at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Their 1964 collaboration attempted to capture America in that pivotal moment. Baldwin’s searing words couple with Avedon’s iconic portraits make for an unforgettable duet. Intermixed with portraits of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Bertrand Russell, Malcolm X, and George Wallace are words that ring true today: “If a society permits one portion of its citizenry to be menaced or destroyed, then, very soon, no one in that society is safe.” Or: “We are a loveless nation. The best that can be said is that some of us are struggling. And what we are struggling against is that death in the heart which leads not only to the shedding of blood, but which reduces human beings to corpses while they live.”
Highbrow, Lowbrow, Brilliant, Despicable: Fifty Years of New York Magazine by the Editors of New York Magazine (S&S)
2017 was a great year for magazine history obsessives. Tina Brown published The Vanity Fair Diaries, which detailed her run at the top of that magazine during the frenzied 1980s. And New York Magazine turned 50, publishing a book that is essentially a giant rabbit hole for lovers of New York City and magazines. Trends, restaurants, and nightlife fixtures that have come and gone, great photographs and artwork, and of course, words written by some of the 20th and 21st centuries’ best journalists.
Mark Dion: Misadventures of a 21st-Century Naturalist by Ruth Erickson (Yale University Press)
Few artists in the last half century have created their own little corner of the art world as well as Mark Dion. Best known for mixing taxidermy and bits of nature into his installation, the conceptual artist gets a rigorous examination in the book.
Black: Architecture in Monochrome by Phaidon Editors (Phaidon)
No color makes quite the statement that black does, or exhibits as much versatility of meaning. As the editors note in the intro it somehow manages to assert “abject humility or the pretensions of power … signals transgression or devotion, penury or luxury, introspection or extroversion.” But, if we’re being honest, the real reason you want this book is for the sleek black matte cover and the 150 pieces of black architecture porn from the likes of David Adjaye and Jean Nouvel found inside.
The Interiors and Architecture of Renzo Mongiardino: A Painterly Vision by Martina Mondadori Sartogo, the Editors of Cabana and photographed by Guido Taroni
He was the master of illusion, a man entrusted by global arbiters of taste including Marella Agnelli, Jil Sanders, Lee Radziwill, and Elsa Peretti to transform their homes. For many, the Genoa-born Renzo Mongiardino was the artist who elevated interior design into an art form worthy of longevity. The book is filled with envy-inducing photographs by Guido Taroni making it hard not to sigh and declare: “To have had those houses, those budgets, and Mongiardino.”
Sneakers by Rodrigo Corral, Alex French, and Howie Kahn (Penguin Random House)
When I first came across this book, I imagined it would be the perfect gift for a family member who has long been obsessed with sneakers. Reading through it, however, I realized that in fact this book was also perfect for people who have even a passing appreciation for sneakers. The book is an extensive and colorfully designed global look at the people who are moving and shaking this billion dollar consumer good that for many people is also a form of art. You’ll meet Dominic Chambrone, a.k.a. the world’s “most gifted bespoke-sneaker maker working today”, Rick Williams, whose city-themed sneakers are a hot item, to intense fans like DJ Clark Kent, who is better known for producing tracks for rappers like Jay-Z and 50 Cent.