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, 2021Grey Clock 2 min
NO, COFFEE-TABLE BOOKS ARE A GOOD SUBSTITUTE FOR FINANCIALLY OUT-OF-REACH ART

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.”

YES, A BOOK REDUCED TO DÉCOR IS OBVIOUSLY SET OUT SOLELY TO IMPRESS.

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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