Coffee table books are inherently aspirational. First, you have to have a coffee table—which means you have to have a living room, and not a bedroom in the kitchen of a closet you share with three friends from college. You also have to have the dough to invest in several hunks of bound paper, as coffee table books usually exceed the price of your average hardcover by at least 50 bucks. And finally, you have to have the taste to curate a good collection—a task so seemingly daunting companies that'll do it for you actually exist. Which is why we figured we'd offer a little coffee table consulting, free of charge. Below, find the books we've purchased or been gifted over the years (a good collection does take years, you know) that we love the most. The more specific to your interests the better your stack will be—if books could talk, which speaks to you?
For a free pass to judge: Generation Wealth
“Lauren Greenfield is an anthropologist of excess. She first came into my world with her 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles, which followed the attempts of a Florida couple in building the largest home in America. They didn’t fare too well—the 2009 financial crisis stopped them in their tracks—and the opulence, which they were so proud to show off, became an on-the-nose metaphor for the grotesque. Greenfield’s critique of excess continues in Generation Wealth, where she spent 25 years photographing the mega rich, largely across America. Photos of shoe closets larger than my bedroom. Pages and pages of teen parties seemingly costing more than my wedding (watch out for a young Kim Kardashian appearance). Pups in couture. So many plastic surgery photos. It’s all so rich, and ugly. You’ll want to shrivel your nose at the stink of overabundance. And yet I love that every time I open this book with someone there’s so much to talk about. What is all this stuff revealing; what is it concealing? And why are all the haircuts so damn bad?”
For fashion lovers and peace-and-lovers: Dead Style
"Before COVID I went to a lot of concerts. Specifically, Dead and Company concerts. I’d always try to convince a friend unfamiliar with the band to come with me, and even if they didn’t dig the tunes, they were always floored by the scene. It hasn’t changed much since the days of the original Grateful Dead: hippies, cult members, motorcyclists, babies, creators, and nomads, all brought together by their passion for the music. I wish I could document each and every person (and outfit) I see, but it helps to have a well-practiced street style photographer behind the lens—I might be too shy, but Mister Mort isn’t. In Dead Style, you’ll get a glimpse of deadheads in head to toe tie dye, homemade tees, and silly hats without having to step foot in one dirty parking lot. For me it serves as an anthropological record, but the color and the strangeness of it all means it’s also a sheer delight to flip through."
For homebound city dwellers: Roy DeCarava, A Retrospective
"I love how Roy DeCarava's photographs revolve around the spectrum of light: brightness and darkness, shadows and obscurities, and finding light where there appears to be none at all. This kind of photographic soul-searching was intentional. He wasn't chronicling Black life in New York to make an ethnographic statement—his ongoing purpose was simply to highlight its richness. DeCarava's black and white images documented his fellow Harlem residents' lives and the jazz legends who lived there, but I admired how often he made locals the main characters. In a sense, his images are a work of creative nonfiction of Black New York—they captured what was there, but also surfaced its complexities with tenderness."
For aspiring jewelry collectors: Heavenly Bodies
"This book is not about the 2018 Met Costume Institute Exhibit of the same name, but if you liked that you'll love this. While art historian Paul Koudounaris was traveling in Europe to research a different book, he came across a group of decked out skeletons. They had all come from Roman catacombs, where they were dragged out and believed (under extremely tenuous circumstances) to be martyred saints. Once the Vatican gave them a stamp of approval, the skeletons were dispersed among towns in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and placed into the care of nuns. Then, the nuns would work to make the skeleton fit for public adoration in church altars: first they’d carefully cover the bones in hand-woven gauze, and then use that as a base to embroider precious stones and metals all along the body. The result is both splendid and macabre, an awe-inspiring intersection of beauty and horror. But at its most essential, this is a jewelry book—the 15th century gold filigree alone is so much more intricate than anything I’ve ever seen."
For curious art historians: Noah Davis
"Noah Davis was a rising contemporary artist based out of Los Angeles when he died of a rare type of tissue cancer when he was 32. While he's known for his enigmatic figurative paintings, his legacy reverberates in The Underground Museum, an institution he co-founded that has centered the work of other contemporary artists of color, like his brother, filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, his co-founder and wife, sculptor Karon Davis, among other venerable artists (think Arthur Jafa and Deana Lawson) based in Los Angeles and beyond. Learning more about Noah Davis as I read his self-titled book—and his community of artists he has posthumously provided a platform for—reminds me to relish the group of young Black creatives I see creating impactful work today, in real-time."
For a timeless classic: Invsible Man
“Everyone should own a coffee table book of the greatest photos of the twentieth century, and I’m lucky enough to own precisely six. I’m talking about the works of Gordon Parks, of course, who shot a little bit of everything—from the quiet performance of quotidian life to his fashion work and beyond. I have his collected works anthology, which is now wildly overpriced on Amazon, but my other Gordon Parks book, Invisible Man, is an easy intro to his oeuvre. Teaming up with Ralph Ellison to promote his famed novel of the same name, Parks cataloged Harlem in its vivid splendor and focused energy. I love this book so much. Ellison’s words punctuate the photos, and I’ll leave you with some of them right now:
‘To live in Harlem is to dwell in the very bowels of the city; it is to pass a labyrinth existence among streets that explode monotonously skyward with the spires and crosses of churches and clutter underfoot with garbage and decay… Who am I? Where am I? How did I come to be? Behind endless walls of his ghetto man searches for a social identity. Refugees from southern feudalism, many Negroes wander dazed in the mazes of northern ghettos, the displaced persons of American democracy.’”
Photo via ITG