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What Coffee Table Books Say About Us

“Oh my god, real books!” a friend who is an interior designer observed ironically as he walked into my parent’s living room. “They’re academics,” I explained, knowing exactly what he meant. Unfortunately, a real library full of “real” books is all too rare these days. Quite apart from the pleasure that reading brings, a library adds visual interest, color, and warmth to a house. It also suggests that the owners are cultured in a way that a TV in the living room clearly does not. Or maybe it suggests that people who have libraries are old-fashioned, while the culture has moved increasingly toward the cult of the visual image and the sound bite. Of course, one can have a library that is largely decorative. My grandfather’s was full of precious leather volumes many of which he had never read. He simply liked the look and feel of old books and the idea of a handsome library.

But if my parents have “real” books, then what did my friend consider to be “unreal” books? Most likely, he was thinking of coffee table books. It may be unfair, but I know exactly what he means. Most coffee table books aren’t meant to be read any more than articles in Playboy are meant to be read. It’s the pictures that are important.

Leaf through any design magazine and you see that almost all coffee tables have large books on them (usually in piles of two or three). There is invariably a book on Avedon, Hadley, Jansen, or one of the great modernist painters. You know because the photographer turns the books so you can read the spines. Sometimes I wonder, do these books really belong to the owners of the place? Or do the photographers for the magazines take the same five books to every shoot?

What one can’t help but notice is that the art in the coffee table books is invariably better than that on people’s walls. This of course is understandable, but it’s as if people are saying, “If I could afford it I wouldn’t have what you see on my walls. This is what I would have.” So the coffee table book is a coded message about what sort of person one would be if money were no object. Perhaps also the these books have another message as well; that is, even if you don’t like the way that I’ve decorated my house, at least you can’t doubt that I have taste, because I like Picasso.

I’m not saying that people who have picture books don’t get genuine pleasure from their books, but clearly there is something more going on. And that includes not only the coded messages about taste, but also the fact that such books have become a decorative necessity, an accessory that must go on every coffee table. A coffee table simply wouldn’t look right without a coffee table book sitting on it. It isn’t just the contents of the books that suggest taste and savoir faire, but the placement of the books themselves that suggests this.

And yet, when everyone does the same thing you can be sure that it isn’t a matter of individual taste. The irony, and of course this is the great irony of consumer culture more generally, is that we show our individual good taste by following the shifting fashions of collective good taste as defined by the tastemakers. Design magazines continually reinforce the idea that a proper coffee table must have certain types of books on it arranged in certain sorts of piles. This, we tell people, is what good taste looks like. But maybe it’s just what people in the U.S. and Britain think is good taste. I say this because in browsing through some French and Italian design magazines, I notice that on the continent it is apparently possible to be a person of taste and not have coffee table books! I have no idea why.

By Decorati Guest blogger and Partner James Duncan, author of A Well Traveled Aesthetic

Photo courtesy of Decorati