Decorative books and their place in the home
IT IS publishing season for decorators, and scores of them have new books out.
The monograph, an expository form once reserved for architects, seems to have become the preferred form of publicity for interior designers as well, even those with just a few years of work under their belts.
Yet, prominently on display last week at William-Wayne & Co in Lexington Avenue, the purveyor of decorative accessories like rattan ice buckets and blue Canton ginger-jar lamps, was a vintage title.
In a glass case up front, nestled next to a Stork Club ashtray and a vintage Revlon compact, was a small book with a distinctive zebra stripe printed on its linen binding.
Published in 1940, I Married Adventure, by Osa Johnson, is a memoir of the author's life on permanent safari with Martin Johnson, an adventurer and photographer.
Like the other objets de vertu in its proximity, the book - US$150 (S$188) - is a memento of a certain kind of good life. It is also a familiar totem to those working in the decorative arts - stylists, designers and magazine editors - a visual code that brings either a smile or a wince.
That books can be beautiful is a truism of bookmaking, an ancient fine art. That they can be decorative, a graphic object to deploy on horizontal surfaces like any other bibelot, is one that designers have embraced, with the result that certain titles tend to show up with the frequency of an overplayed pop song.
The coffee-table book can say as much about a room's designer as its owner.
Environmental psychologists describe the living room as an aspirational space, the place you present your best self, or the person you would like to be.
That makes the real estate known as the coffee table the equivalent of a highway billboard or a storefront sign.
But it is also a sign of the times. There was a period when people put out books to make them look brainy. Robert Caro's The Power Broker was out there for years in the 1970s, along with Norman Mailer's Marilyn.
In the 1980s, it was celebrity bios and perhaps Hollywood Wives. The 1990s took the turn towards sex, with Madonna's Sex book and Taschen's Helmut Newton, which was so large, so heavy and so expensive (US$15,000) that it came with its own stand.
And a few years ago, Restoration Hardware and Pottery Barn began selling a curious item called a "book bundle", a clutch of books with their covers ripped off and stitched together with twine that was meant to be used as a decorative object.
Once, books were on the table to get the conversation going. There was the suggestion that you might have read what was sitting there.
Now there's no illusion that the book has ever been opened. There might be objects - accessories - on top of the books. At a certain point, the coffee-table book became a second coffee table.
Designers do try to personalise the selections for their clients, buying museum and auction catalogues and books on specific artists being collected by a young Wall Streeter, for example.
But there is peril in themes, said Mr Christopher Coleman, a New York designer.
"You see a lot of atlases," he said. "Another thing I think is a cliche is books on the city you're in. Avedon's book is everywhere. And Tom Ford, of course."
Referring to his clients, he added: "But the truth is, nobody has any books. Particularly if they're under 40."