Are Your Coffee Table Books Pretentious?
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Are Your Coffee Table Books Pretentious?

Is this legit interior design or an insult to knowledge? Design pros debate.

By Ruby King
Thu, Oct 7, 2021 2:58pmGrey Clock 2 min

These days, the inspiration-hungry might scroll through Instagram more often than they flip through bound volumes, but some interior designers insist coffee table books are as popular as ever. “I’ve never had a client say they don’t want them,” said Kricken Yaker, co-founder and principal designer of Vanillawood in Lake Oswego, Ore. “As a designer I think coffee table books are still super relevant because they can tell the story of who you are.”

Lee Kaplan, the owner of Arcana: Books on the Arts, in Culver City, Calif., considers collecting coffee table books akin to building a personal art collection. “We do a lot of business with architects and interior designers. Because of the significance of these books, and what they represent, people want to display them in their homes,” he said.

Mr. Kaplan notes that his customers often request the Taschen monograph on 1980s artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, or anything featuring Belgian interior designer Axel Vervoordt, who’s masterminded homes for celebrity clients such as Calvin Klein and Robert De Niro. Mr. Yacker has seen a lot of interest in Rizzoli’s monograph on fashion designer Tom Ford. Clients who want to express their rebel hearts spring for the Stephen Sprouse Book, a Rizzoli book dedicated to the punky New York fashion designer and “covered in graffiti.”

Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, has studied the relationship between personality and living spaces. He notes that people can rely on the books as a legitimate way to project their passions. “If the book is more out-there, that could suggest they have an intellectual curiosity for new and complex ideas.”


Nothing says “I have never picked up this book in my life” more than a decorative bowl collecting dust on top of a tome, declare naysayers. And guests, who are most likely loath to move objets set atop books, aren’t likely to peruse the folios either, negating any argument that coffee table tomes make good social icebreakers.

Mr. Kaplan, who has seen picture books used as everything from the perch for an hors d’oeuvres platter to the landing place for cigarette butts that miss the ashtray, doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with buying books for purely decorative purposes. (He profits from such sales, of course.) He’d prefer, however, that they be regarded as significant repositories of knowledge, meant to be held and read.

Pointing to an Instagram post from one social media influencer which pictured her in lingerie posing in her closet against a bookshelf stacked precisely with art, design and architecture books, Mr. Kaplan said that younger people, especially, seem to “see them as props….They don’t buy them because they love books.”

Portland, Ore., designer Allison Smith suggested that rather than reduce a book to décor, you should find a more personal and authentic way to tell your story. “The best décor items are from experiences or travels you’ve had. I like to intermingle objects that my clients simply liked at a store with things they have gathered throughout their life.”

On the people whose coffee table books appear unread, Prof. Gosling has a generous take. “That might suggest their interests are more aspirational.”


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China’s EV Juggernaut Is a Warning for the West

Competitive pressure and creativity have made Chinese-designed and -built electric cars formidable competitors

Thu, Jun 8, 2023 4 min

China rocked the auto world twice this year. First, its electric vehicles stunned Western rivals at the Shanghai auto show with their quality, features and price. Then came reports that in the first quarter of 2023 it dethroned Japan as the world’s largest auto exporter.

How is China in contention to lead the world’s most lucrative and prestigious consumer goods market, one long dominated by American, European, Japanese and South Korean nameplates? The answer is a unique combination of industrial policy, protectionism and homegrown competitive dynamism. Western policy makers and business leaders are better prepared for the first two than the third.

Start with industrial policy—the use of government resources to help favoured sectors. China has practiced industrial policy for decades. While it’s finding increased favour even in the U.S., the concept remains controversial. Governments have a poor record of identifying winning technologies and often end up subsidising inferior and wasteful capacity, including in China.

But in the case of EVs, Chinese industrial policy had a couple of things going for it. First, governments around the world saw climate change as an enduring threat that would require decade-long interventions to transition away from fossil fuels. China bet correctly that in transportation, the transition would favour electric vehicles.

In 2009, China started handing out generous subsidies to buyers of EVs. Public procurement of taxis and buses was targeted to electric vehicles, rechargers were subsidised, and provincial governments stumped up capital for lithium mining and refining for EV batteries. In 2020 NIO, at the time an aspiring challenger to Tesla, avoided bankruptcy thanks to a government-led bailout.

While industrial policy guaranteed a demand for EVs, protectionism ensured those EVs would be made in China, by Chinese companies. To qualify for subsidies, cars had to be domestically made, although foreign brands did qualify. They also had to have batteries made by Chinese companies, giving Chinese national champions like Contemporary Amperex Technology and BYD an advantage over then-market leaders from Japan and South Korea.

To sell in China, foreign automakers had to abide by conditions intended to upgrade the local industry’s skills. State-owned Guangzhou Automobile Group developed the manufacturing know-how necessary to become a player in EVs thanks to joint ventures with Toyota and Honda, said Gregor Sebastian, an analyst at Germany’s Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Despite all that government support, sales of EVs remained weak until 2019, when China let Tesla open a wholly owned factory in Shanghai. “It took this catalyst…to boost interest and increase the level of competitiveness of the local Chinese makers,” said Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights, a research service specialising in the Chinese auto industry.

Back in 2011 Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, explained what set Chinese capitalism apart from its American counterpart. “In America, when you bring an idea to market you usually have several months before competition pops up, allowing you to capture significant market share,” he said, according to Fast Company, a technology magazine. “In China, you can have hundreds of competitors within the first hours of going live. Ideas are not important in China—execution is.”

Thanks to that competition and focus on execution, the EV industry went from a niche industrial-policy project to a sprawling ecosystem of predominantly private companies. Much of this happened below the Western radar while China was cut off from the world because of Covid-19 restrictions.

When Western auto executives flew in for April’s Shanghai auto show, “they saw a sea of green plates, a sea of Chinese brands,” said Le, referring to the green license plates assigned to clean-energy vehicles in China. “They hear the sounds of the door closing, sit inside and look at the quality of the materials, the fabric or the plastic on the console, that’s the other holy s— moment—they’ve caught up to us.”

Manufacturers of gasoline cars are product-oriented, whereas EV manufacturers, like tech companies, are user-oriented, Le said. Chinese EVs feature at least two, often three, display screens, one suitable for watching movies from the back seat, multiple lidars (laser-based sensors) for driver assistance, and even a microphone for karaoke (quickly copied by Tesla). Meanwhile, Chinese suppliers such as CATL have gone from laggard to leader.

Chinese dominance of EVs isn’t preordained. The low barriers to entry exploited by Chinese brands also open the door to future non-Chinese competitors. Nor does China’s success in EVs necessarily translate to other sectors where industrial policy matters less and creativity, privacy and deeply woven technological capability—such as software, cloud computing and semiconductors—matter more.

Still, the threat to Western auto market share posed by Chinese EVs is one for which Western policy makers have no obvious answer. “You can shut off your own market and to a certain extent that will shield production for your domestic needs,” said Sebastian. “The question really is, what are you going to do for the global south, countries that are still very happily trading with China?”

Western companies themselves are likely to respond by deepening their presence in China—not to sell cars, but for proximity to the most sophisticated customers and suppliers. Jörg Wuttke, the past president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, calls China a “fitness centre.” Even as conditions there become steadily more difficult, Western multinationals “have to be there. It keeps you fit.”


Chris Dixon, a partner who led the charge, says he has a ‘very long-term horizon’

Americans now think they need at least $1.25 million for retirement, a 20% increase from a year ago, according to a survey by Northwestern Mutual

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