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When Did We All Become Obsessed with Coffee Table Books?

The case for picking up the books on your coffee table and — hold your breath — reading them.

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Henry Phillips

In her history of coffee table books, Australian journalist Phyllis Stylianou identifies the first documented mention of a book whose function had nothing to do with reading. The honor goes to the French humanist philosopher Michel de Montaigne, who, in his 1580 essay Upon Some Verses of Virgil, writes: "I am vexed that my essays only serve the ladies for a common movable, a book to lay in the parlor window."

Three-hundred-and-eighty-one years later, the term "coffee table book" made its first appearance in a 1961 issue of Arts Magazine. According to Merriam-Webster, the term refers to "a large expensive book with many pictures that is typically placed on a table for people to look at in a casual way."

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Burrow’s Serif Coffee Table ($395) in Oak.
Chandler Bondurant

A take for you: if you're only looking at a book in a casual way (especially an expensive one), you're doing it wrong.

In a 2017 op-ed in Publisher's Weekly, Bridget Watson Payne, senior editor of art publishing at Chronicle Book, makes the case against the "coffee table book," a term which she decries as diminishing what should be called art books to a furniture role.

"Why did we (or, just as often, someone who loves us) spend a chunk of change—often a considerable one—on this heavy thing? Was it so it could sit there in the middle of the living room, silently proclaiming to whoever walks by that we are people of taste and class? Let’s be honest: quite possibly."

But Payne, who has edited more than 100 of these books, believes they're perfectly capable of serving shallow and deeper purposes alike.

Tiffany Thompson, an interior designer and founder of Duett Interiors, finds herself firmly in Payne's camp.

Tiffany Thompson's Current Display

"It’s important that these aren’t just for display. Make sure you are reading them and you're knowledgeable on what’s beyond the cover so that they can lead to conversation," Thompson says. "If [my client and I] are trying to make a strong statement and create a deep conversation for guests, then I make sure we open the book to display a page that is going to create some positive tension."

German publisher Gestalten is one of the leading producers of art books, or as its founder Robert Klanten, likes to refer to them as "illustrative books." (Another nickname!)

Robert Klanten's Current Display


"You can compare print to the music industry. On the one hand, you have services like Spotify and then, on the other hand, you buy the vinyl and you go to the concerts," Klanten says. "The more and more people go digital, the more there is an urge to build a tangible foundation that reconfirms who they really are. Some books can help the reader find an answer."

To Klanten, coffee table, art or illustrative books are "something permanent in an oblivious, ephemeral digital environment." They are physical signals chosen to represent passions that drive you. Doesn't that sound like something worth reading?

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