Comfort Zones

Settling Down With This Season's Coffee Table Books

The coffee table book is all about being settled. In order to buy one, you first have to imagine the space where the book will reside, the room where you might laze about, paging through images that say something to you—and to anyone who enters the room—about your aesthetic, your interests, your personal politics. As possessions go, it's not something you'd want to lug with you on a quick getaway. It requires a sense of permanence—or at least a fantasy of permanence. This fall, most New Yorkers are feeling pretty unsettled. Which is why the coffee table book suddenly feels a little like comfort food—prettier than mashed potatoes and only slightly heavier.

Manhattanites have such an alienated relationship to nature that the closest many of us get is a Georgia O'Keefe print on the bedroom wall. Bloom: Horti-Culture for the 21st Century (Flammarion, $50) is perfect for people who like their plant life by proxy. The hyphen in the subtitle is crucial: This isn't just pretty pictures of flowers but flora as cultural accessory. Based on the magazine of the same name, Bloomis edited by trend forecaster Li Edelkoort, who treats flowers as inspiration on a stalk, sensual soul food. The chapter on roots ("our interface with the earth") juxtaposes an in-depth history of the potato with color-saturated glamour shots of bulbs looking like subterranean crusted jewels. The beauty section ("Ultimately, the flower and the woman will become one, lending each other colour, tactility and scent"), which surveys perfume as well as botanical remedies, features a photo of delicate petals clinging to bare flesh. Scandalously vivid money shots of opening petals and tumescent tubers sit side by side with Edelkoort's seemingly earnest tips, such as her directive that we "dress ourselves as if we were a bouquet, with pants or shirt as a vase and stem . . . and our sexy selves as the central pistil." Possibly the most overripe book of the season.

Bloom makes flowers so luscious they look good enough to eat; Margaret Braun designs cakes as eye-dazzling as a bouquet. Cakewalk: Adventures in Sugar With Margaret Braun (Rizzoli, $50) presents Braun as a sensualist and amateur historian, influenced as much by Flemish painters and medieval architects as by Betty Crocker. The edible palace that is Akbar's Cake (inspired by the 16th-century Indian ruler whose interests synthesized Indian and European painting styles) consists of four sumptuous layers of arabesques and Persian paisleys in shades of saffron and deep blue, all topped with an ornate golden chalice, while the curvy, Gaudí-flavored Barcelona Cake includes mosaic cobbled streets and Ursuline nun motifs. You may or may not be brave enough to try your hand at the accompanying recipes, but until you run your eyes over Cakewalk, you won't understand just how provocative baked goods can be.

"The generous, round shape of the ypomoea root looks like a fertility symbol."
photo: Sarah Allen/Bloom: Horti-Culture for the 21st Century/Flammarion
"The generous, round shape of the ypomoea root looks like a fertility symbol."

Like Des Esseintes, the decadent protagonist of Huysmans's 19th-century novel Against Nature, Diana Vreeland spent her legendary life seeking fresh sensual pleasures. Why Don't You . . . ?(Universe, $25) is a miniaturist's coffee table book (petitely sized for those of us with tiny tables), collected from Vreeland's column of the same name which ran in Harper's Bazaar in the 1930s, and illustrated with photos of her home and her fashion spreads. She exalts idiosyncrasy and writes with AbFab extravagance, offering her humble readers suggestions that shift between elitist ("Why don't you . . . turn your old ermine coat into a bathrobe?"), almost practical ("Why don't you . . . rinse your blond child's hair in dead champagne to keep its gold?"), and pixieishly convention-tweaking ("Why don't you . . . wear loose velvet gloves in wonderful colors—the right hand in violet velvet, the left in burgundy?").

Like fashion magazines, home decor magazines specialize in fantasy: They show you what life might look like if you were really wealthy and really chic. Extravagance: The World of Whimsical Interiors (Flammarion, $40) strikes directly at the heart of the minimalist shelter magazine world. Extravagance here does not refer to financial riches but to riches of the imagination. "No one is born extravagant," author Claude Berthod promises us, "you have to work at it." He believes sartorial outlandishness is a thankless pursuit, that "nowadays, it is only in the privacy of one's own home that it is possible to give full vent to one's lunacy." This volume takes in some historical characters (19th-century adventurer-writer Pierre Loti's house festooned with oriental plunder, Vanessa Bell's decorative Bloomsbury-era home) but mostly dwells on the contemporary. Designer Marco de Gueltz's eerie glass rooms reveal what life in a stylized igloo might be like, and artists Pierre & Gilles's suburban Paris apartment—a concoction of plastic Buddhas, waxy flowers, and Christmas lights—perfectly reflects their wacky-tack sensibility.

Melanie Friend's No Place Like Home: Echoes From Kosovo (Cleis/Midnight Editions, $39.95 paper) is about shelter at a more basic level; her interviews lend the concept of collateral damage startling specificity. Over the course of 10 years, Friend visited Kosovo and came home with placid photographs of local homes and landscapes that betray no hint of the police raids and massacres that took place there: A photo of a bland beige living room with taupe easy chairs is accompanied by the home owner's account of a vicious police beating. Friend follows many of her subjects in and out of refugee camps: 21-year-old Edita sits in her standard-issue blue tent talking about the talismans she carries with her to remember her old life (a handmade skirt with her name embroidered in red, half of her grandmother's last cigarette), while med student Mentor Krasniqi gestures at normality by sticking stuffed animals to the tent's ceiling for his baby's amusement. Sofia, a 47-year-old homemaker, looks adrift in the refugee camp; back at home a few years later, she is serene, surrounded by her TV, washing machine, and other familiar inanimate objects.

Catalog(Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $16.95) imbues the inanimate objects culled from a 1950s mail-order catalog with Zen-like calm. Edited by graphic designer Carin Goldberg, Catalog strips utilitarian items—brassieres, kitchenware—of their domestic context and positions them instead as marvels of engineering (jockstrap) or icons of spiritual significance (empty glove with fingers outstretched).

While Catalog recontextualizes retro images to suggest timelessness, Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984(MIT, $49.95) commemorates aging technology that was supposed to look like the future. Editor Van Burnham argues that these games didinspire a new generation of technological innovators, which is especially fun to remember as you look at the book's gleefully nostalgic illustrations (the minimalist graphics of Space Invaders; the early Atari ad with groovy couple boogying in an arcade) and reading the astute, personal mini-essays by Julian Dibbell, Steven Johnson, and other tech luminati.

The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century(PPP Editions/DAP, $85), is a coffee table book about coffee table books, or at least a very important subgenre. In the process of choosing the 101 books of the title, this beautifully designed volume (with entries penned by David Levi Strauss and the Voice's own Vince Aletti) manages to put the whole medium of photography in historical context, all while displaying graceful layouts from classic books—from Edward S. Curtis's 1907 North American Indian, Helen Levitt's 1965 A Way of Seeing, and Nobuyoshi Araki's 1971 Sentimental Journey up to David LaChappelle's 1996 LaChappelle Land.

Crosstown (powerHouse, $75) is a greatest-hits package, collecting many of Helen Levitt's most famous and powerful images in one book: children making mischief in Manhattan ghettos and tenements, lovers unselfconsciously riding dilapidated subway trains. "What goes without saying is how much of the city pictured here . . . no longer exists," Francine Prose writes in her introduction, which is why the first thing one is likely to do upon picking up Matteo Pericoli's Manhattan Unfurled (Random House, $29.95)—delicate line drawings of Manhattan's entire skyline that open accordion-style into one long panoramic view—is to find the page with our two lost towers, whose fragile vertical lines seem to vibrate here. Manhattan Unfurled reminds us of what we've lost; New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers (powerHouse, $29.95) offers devastating evidence of downtown's destruction from the likes of Susan Meiselas and Gilles Peress—one book that will resonate for many of us this year.

Alternately, Cityscapes: A History of New York in Images(Columbia University Press, $60) offers the long-term perspective. An urban history that intersperses extensive (though sometimes dry) text by Howard B. Rock and Deborah Dash Moore with a huge array of drawings, maps, and photographs, Cityscapes showcases both the place and the people constantly tearing down, rebuilding, and generally transforming this lovely, lowly, hectic, dirty, contemplative, stubborn metropolis. It makes clear that Manhattan's very charm is its refusal to . . . well, settle.

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