Table for Twelve

From bar mitzvah memories to video game worlds, this year's coffee-table books offers sentimental journeys

Hardly anyone I know has a real coffee table, or at least not the kind of low, elegant slab you see in shelter magazines, which looks specifically designed to display immense coffee-table books. But that's OK, because coffee-table books come in an eclectic range of sizes and styles these days. While there are still plenty of gargantuan tomes that demand a second mortgage and serious muscle mass, these monuments to sublime taste sit on the bookstore shelves beside more petite illustrated volumes and lavish paperback originals light enough to carry to your local Starbucks.

Large or small, coffee-table books are designed to flaunt your preoccupations and conjure a kind of instant comfort zone. Maybe that's why so many of this year's crop come wrapped in nostalgia. Off the Wall: Fashion From East Germany, 1964–1980 (Bloomsbury, 96 pp., $14.95) follows in the footsteps of Martin Parr's Boring Postcards series and other Bloomsbury compendiums like Bad Hair and Crap Cars, playing on the weird allure of bygone eras, before style and makeover shows took over the universe. These books stir up in readers an odd blend of condescension and homesickness for a life they never experienced. Lord knows what Communist government officials were going for when they hired two photographers to take the not-quite-high-fashion shots reprinted in Off the Wall. Instead of conveying how swinging the '60s and '70s were behind the iron curtain, these pics—a blonde in a chemistry lab who appears to be auditioning for the villainess in a Bond movie, women in hideous floral garb posing awkwardly in front of an oil refinery—reveal something both fabulously outré and poignant.

The GDR fashion faux pas pale in comparison to the gawky specimens captured in Bar Mitzvah Disco (Crown, 255 pp., $23.95), an album of photos from the '70s, '80s, and '90s, when religious ritual mutated into "a peewee Studio 54, filled with style, music, lust, and excess," according to editors Roger Bennett, Jules Shell, and Nick Kroll. Sounds a lot more glamorous than the bar mitzvahs I attended, but the photos match up with my memories: fabulously cheesy Torah shots, moms in shoulder pads, and enough braces to restrain the entire population of East Germany. Short reminiscences from random Jews (among them semi-famous figures like Sarah Silverman and Jonathan Safran Foer) further remind us of the humiliations of adolescence: One boy recalls that his father made him wax his fuzzy upper lip because "a thirteen-year-old boy shouldn't have facial hair when he becomes a man."

Confessions of a mask
photo: Lourdes Grobet
Confessions of a mask

In Sitcom Style: Inside America's Favorite TV Homes, Diana Friedman (Clarkson Potter, 189 pp., $29.95) rummages around classic sitcom homes, decoding their decorative signifiers and searching for cultural resonance amid the faux hominess. Bill Cosby wanted his ersatz Brooklyn Heights brownstone to "reflect class," selecting paintings by up-and-coming black artists to hang on the walls. The moldering decor of All in the Family's Queens row house, on the other hand, was crammed with ceramic animals and tatty chairs, instantly sucking us into Archie Bunker's time-warp mentality. Friedman points out differences between two Upper East Side pads, the bachelor slouch of The Odd Couple and the upwardly mobile glitz of The Jeffersons, complete with leather dining chairs and a gold drinks cart. Somehow these television backdrops look more homey than most of the real residences Pilar Viladas visits in her New York Times Magazine section, gathered in Domesticities (Bulfinch, 216 pp., $40). Unlike George Jefferson's homestead, most of the dwellings here communicate wealth via muted tones and sun-dappled spaciousness. Giant picture windows and beige sofas abound, except in a few renegade homes, like that of art maven Cary Leibowitz. His Harlem townhouse teems with brazenly clashing patterns suggesting Willy Wonka's chocolate factory as his primary design influence. Favorite touch: a settee upholstered in fabric boasting the black-power salute.

Lucha Libre; from East Germany mit love: Off the Wall
photo: akg-images/Gunter Rubitzsch
Think of Maripolorama (PowerHouse, 128 pp., $29.95) as Polaroids from the edge, or whatever you want to call the decadent '80s downtown scene. Designer Maripol's portraits of friends and underground superstars (some of whom, like Madonna, Debi Mazar, and Vincent Gallo, made it big aboveground) represent an intimate and glamorously blurry love letter to a lost era of creativity and recklessness amid the squalor of abandoned lots and after-hours clubs. Two other books from PowerHouse affectionately lead us down the rabbit hole of subcultures past and present: Janette Beckman's Made in the UK: The Music of Attitude, 1977–1983 (PowerHouse, 132 pp., $35) and Martha Cooper's WE BGIRLZ (PowerHouse, 156 pp., $24.95). Beckman's black-and-white portraits of punks and post-punks crackle with the raw spirit of the moment, whether it's the Sex Pistols larking about in a dumpster, rockabilly couples making out, or glowering rude boys dressed to impress. Cooper's book about female breakdancers hurtles through the past right up to the present, making it a current guide to the style, the battles, and the bios of worldwide B-girls. If you want to bone up on a more exotic cultural obsession, join Lourdes Grobet on her sentimental (if kitschy) journey in Lucha Libre: Masked Superstars of Mexican Wrestling (DAP, 296 pp., $25 paper). An aficionada of Mexican wrestling for 20 years, Grobet conjures the spectacularly colorful costumes and personas and ritualized, theatrical violence of the milieu, but resists patronizing subjects such as Panterita Sureña, a Guadalajara secretary turned Mexican heroine, or Fray Tormenta, the Veracruz priest who became a gladiator to raise funds for his youth shelter. They live out their own fantasies, while most of us content ourselves with playing inside someone else's.
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