Let’s face it: the coffee table book is not just a book; it’s an item designed to indicate the relative level of sophistication of its owner. It’s a fetish object which ideally turns the sophistication dial up to “high.” Displaying coffee table books is, thus, essentially an invitation to people to judge you.
A lot of people go wrong there, in my opinion. They acquire every coffee table book put out by every two-bit magazine on the planet. Every stupid supermodel/celebrity photography book is there, too. And it’s those people who I suspect had their coffee table books chosen by a long-suffering, underminer-y clerks at Restoration Hardware. You don’t need to be an art critic to know that no one buys books full of Madonna pictures “for the art.”
So here are 50 books that should be populating your coffee table instead of the latest collection of Vanity Fair‘s photo morgue. My list skews heavily towards photography — because I think paintings and sculpture look better in the original — but otherwise represent a broad cross-spectrum of the best in arts, nature, and politics in this format.
A classic, which everyone is the better for owning, and which can give even the biggest philistines a crash course. Suggests you are open-minded to those less aesthetically educated than yourself.
Aline and Robert Crumb, Drawn Together
Hard to define, but let’s call this book the collaborative autobiography of a pair of comic artists.
Christian Louboutin, Christian Louboutin
For a book about fashion, shockingly well written and not merely a catalog of shoes.
Andrew Zuckerman, Flower
Close-ups of a 150 different species of flowers, many of them rare.
Craig Oldham, The Handwritten Letter Project
This book documents the results of an art project in which various designers wrote back by hand to an initial query; they couldn’t help, well, designing their handwriting. I wish my penmanship looked like this.
Craig Yoe, Paul Levitz, Mykal Banta and Mike Gold, The Creativity of Ditko
A book on the life and drawings of the artist who created Spider-Man. Shows you have the common touch.
Jonathan Hollingsworth, Left Behind: Life and Death Along the U.S. Border
I’ll let the artist describe this one, a collection of photographs taken of a morgue holding the remains of attempted illegal migrants in the desert: “In the fall of 2011, I traveled to Pima County, where I photographed the day-to-day operations of the facility, documenting the receiving area, autopsy room, and archive of border crossers’ personal effects. I also travelled to Green Valley, AZ, photographing belongings left on the desert floor by migrants awaiting road-side pick up.”
Veronica Kavass, Artists in Love
Profiles of 29 artist couples, with illustrations of how their love affected their work.
Chris Ware, Building Stories
Really more of a box than a book, its 14 interior pieces tell the story of a woman with a missing leg.
Ansel Adams, 400 Photographs
This is a collection of the environmental photographer’s best works of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.
Okay: this one you should have even though it is technically a magazine book. But only because the stunning photographs are not exclusively of famous people and/or clothes.
Diane Arbus, Revelations
This is a relatively common choice, as compared to others in this collection, but Arbus earns the place with her surreal wielding of the camera.
Alan Fletcher, The Art of Looking Sideways
A design classic, this book explores theories of perception.
Peter Galassi, Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Modern Century
Arguably the first street photographer, chronicled by the former Chief Curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art.
Lynda Barry, One Hundred Demons
A collection of the amazing strips Lynda Barry created for Salon.
Helmut Newton, Sumo
This is a very expensive, but also very worth-it, collection of the great photographer’s work, edited by his wife. Lots of burlesque-y nudes.
Sebastião Salgado, Genesis
In this book, the famed documentary photographer travels to the farthest reaches of the globe to capture the stunning cliffs, icebergs, and wildlife of the natural world.
Geoffrey C. Ward, The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945
A companion book to the PBS/Ken Burns documentary series, but it stands on its own.
Robert Frank, The Americans
Frank’s most famous work, taken in the mid-1950s on a road trip, with a Jack Kerouac introduction.
Richard Avedon, In the American West
Famed as a fashion photographer, Avedon’s best work I think was really this series of miners, waitresses, and other drifters.
Richard J. Powell, Cutting a Figure: Fashioning Black Portraiture
A beautiful meditation on race and photography.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Mapplethorpe
The definitive collection of this photographer’s work, with stunning nudes and still lifes.
Steve McCurry, Portraits
You probably recognize the photograph on the cover from National Geographic. The others in the book are just as good.
Nick Brandt, On This Earth: Photographs from East Africa
These beautiful photographs of threatened animals show that you have a soft side for fauna, but enjoy looking at animals through the lens of fine art.
Jock Sturges, The Last Day of Summer
People have tried to class Sturges’ work as child pornography, but this book shows that his adolescent nudes are really pure art.
Steven Brower, Satchmo: The Wonderful Life and Art of Louis Armstrong
One of my favorite books on this whole list; looks more like a collage than a biography.
Steven Kasher, Max’s Kansas City: Art, Glamour, Rock and Roll
Everyone likes to read about nightlife, and Max’s Kansas City had the kind that’s populated by actual artists.
Patrick Gries and Jean-Baptiste de Panafieu, Evolution
Demonstrating the theory of evolution through images of animal skeletons ends up being fascinating, and not in a macabre way.
Julia Caifee, Inside: The Chelsea Hotel
Like Max’s Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel played host to some of the 20th century’s most transgressive artists.
Beautifully designed book about the problems facing the modern city.
Alison Bechdel, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For
Like the other graphic-novel type books (technically a collection of strips here, I know), not really a coffee table book. But an essential compilation of one of the greatest long-running alt comic strips.
Dana Gluckstein, Dignity
This collection of the world’s indigenous tribes lives up to its title.
Steven Heller and Kevn Reagan, The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover
The title rather says it all, here; Steinweiss literally came up with the idea of illustrating album covers, and created a whole art form in the process.
Alain Bergala, Magnum Cinema
If you’re going to have a Hollywood book, you might as well have one that is classic Hollywood, and which goes behind the scenes. This fits the bill.
Obvious? Sure. But I don’t think it would be a coffee table if it had no Warhol on it.
Mary Randolph Carter, A Perfectly Kept House Is a Sign of a Misspent Life
The only interior design book I’m recommending, and I do so because it’s the only interior design book I’ve ever read where it feels like they’re depicting the kind of house I could actually live in.
Another behind-the-scenes take on Hollywood.
Gail Buckland, Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History
The photographs in this book are not the usual suspects, and the writing is amazing.
John M. Carrera, Pictorial Webster’s: A Visual Dictionary of Curiosities
A compilation of dictionary illustrations for fans of pen-and-ink drawing.
A beautiful compilation of photographs of African Americans through the ages, from a variety of sources, including family archives.
Vincent Bernière and Mariel Primois, Punk Press: Rebel Rock in the Underground Press, 1968-1980
A compendium of amazingly well-designed proto-zines.
Claire Nouvian, The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss
Weird creatures. The sea. C’mon, wildlife books can be cheesy — but not when they’re this weird.
Colin McDowell, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress the Way We Do
If you’re going to do fashion books you might as well choose ones which take a critical distance on the subject and don’t traffic in the weird hyperbolic mumbo-jumbo of much fashion journalism. McDowell is the real deal, and even though this book isn’t out yet I’m sure it’s going to be excellent.
David Ulin, Los Angeles: Portrait of a City
Beautiful chronicle of America’s other self-obsessed city.
Peter Barber, The Map Book
Much better than an atlas is this exploration of the history and process of map-making.
Judy Chicago and Frances Borzello, Frida Kahlo: Face to Face
Much better than one of the standard Kahlo books is this personal take from the feminist artist Judy Chicago.
Leonard Koren, Concrete
There are more uses for it than you’d think.
Phaidon Atlas of Contemporary World Architecture
Architecture books can be tricky; you could end up with a lot of photographs of architecturally-interesting but not-all-that-normal-person-stimulating office towers. I suggest going comprehensive, as in this Phaidon encyclopedia, to get a more general view.
John Thomas Grant, Final Thoughts: Eternal Beauty Through Stone
Two words: cemetery photographs.
Beautiful nature illustrations that put all the cutesy Etsy bird-artists on the internet to shame.