Decorating with Coffee Table Books

Coffee Table Books Decor

My husband is a big fan of the 1990’s television show “Seinfeld,” and not long ago we watched all of the seasons over the course of a couple of weeks. The show was marketed as being about “nothing,” but had a lot of memorable jokes, gags, and familiar situations. One of my favorites was during Season 5 when Cosmo Kramer attempts to publish a coffee table book. He eventually gets the book published and appears on the daytime Regis and Kathy Lee show to promote it: 

We all laughed at the recursive brilliance of having a coffee table book on the subject of coffee tables that itself can turn into a coffee table! But the multi-layered joke is predicated on the perceived shallowness of the coffee table book format. 

Coffee table books are often derided as being pretentious, overpriced, and useless objects. The emphasis on images versus text leads some intellectual readers to deem these books as unserious.

While the aspirational qualities of many of these books certainly deserve to be maligned, I personally don’t think it is altogether fair to dismiss the genre as a whole. Coffee table books do have a social purpose beyond serving as expensive coasters!

Coffee table books being used as coasters for afternoon tea.
Coffee table books sometimes serve as fancy coasters.

What is a Coffee Table Book?

The concept of the coffee table book is relatively recent, dating back to the 1960s. It can be described as a book—often printed in a larger format—which is primarily or entirely pictorial and intended to be displayed on coffee or side tables in public areas to inspire conversation. 

That being said, large format books are nothing new, and neither are those where images predominate. As I highlighted in my King Tut post, the “Description de L’Egypte” set of books published under the direction of Emperor Napoleon in the early 1800s was the largest printed work of its time with a few volumes being issued in an elephant folio format. These works largely consisted of finely detailed copperplate images, and even had a special cabinet made just to hold and display the books! 

The full collection of "Description de L'Egypte" housed in a decorative book case.
This Egyptian revival bookcase was specially built to house the complete volumes of “Description de L’Egypte.” Here you see all of the first-edition volumes published in the early 19th century, including the three large folios. Image from Sotheby’s.

Another famous large-format picture book is John James Audubon’s “Birds of America,” which was originally published as a series of double elephant folio copper engravings between 1827 and 1838 and later issued in a smaller bound format. “Birds of America” continues to be a popular work owing to Audubon’s artistry in depicting avian North American fauna in such striking poses.

Audubon 2023 Birds of America re-issue
Audubon’s “Birds of America” is so enduringly popular, it is being re-issued in September 2023.

The environmental organization the Sierra Club is often credited with introducing the modern coffee table book when it began publishing its Exhibit Format book series under executive director David Brower in 1960. These books were printed in large format and featured beautiful nature images from famous photographers like Ansel Adams in an attempt to promote environmental conservation. Since then, many coffee table books have been published featuring practically any subject imaginable!

The first modern coffee table book" "This is the American Earth," released by the Sierra Club in 1961.
“This is the American Earth” was the first book issued by the Sierra Club as part of their Exhibit series, and also has the distinction of being the first “coffee table book.”
Sierra Club's first coffee table book features large images by Ansel Adams.
The book features striking images of the American landscape as captured by Ansel Adams in the hopes of inspiring an ethos of conservation for wild places.

The Art of Decorating with Coffee Table Books

Coffee table books used as decor.
Coffee table books as decor.

Using coffee table books as decor is a common practice, but there is an art to choosing the right books to display. Too often, especially on social media, we see the same books being used in space after space. Often times they’re books on famous fashion designers that everyone knows. I’m sure you’ve seen them.

If you’re very much into fashion and know quite a bit about the specific designers and their work, then it’s fine to display these books. But most people actually just put these books out because they are copying what they have seen others do. This is the wrong approach. 

As I said before, coffee table books do serve a social function: to inspire conversation when you are entertaining. It is therefore important that the books you display be a reflection of your own personal interests and that you have enough knowledge about the particular subject covered in each book to be able to carry an interesting conversation. It’s also considerate that the books you select appeal to the interests of your guests. Otherwise, what does it say about you if you’re displaying the same Tom Ford or Kinfolk coffee table book as everyone else? 

Coffee table books stacked high in a decorative fashion.
Interesting coffee table books stacked high look especially pleasing in a space.

When entertaining, it is your job as a host to guide the conversation. Setting out appropriate coffee table books can help inspire acceptable topics and also provide an activity for your guests when there is a lull in the conversation. They’re especially great at keeping those early arrivers occupied while you finish up last-minute tasks. Cracking open a coffee table book to a particular page can call a guest’s attention to specific images or text that you find meaningful or can speak about assuredly. 

The best coffee table books not only look good in your space, but they also speak directly to your interests and personality. They signal to your guests that you are passionate about a particular subject and can carry on a conversation about this subject with confidence. Their use as decorative objects is of secondary importance, but many of them have very pleasing cover artwork to begin with.

Stacked coffee table books on a bookshelf styled with turtle shells.
This short stack of picture books sits on a shelf in my office. The books are part of my design reference library, but the images are beautiful enough to display for clients or guests if needed.

That being said, the best way to decorate with coffee table books is to have several books on different topics strewn about the room, and stacking them wherever possible. Dozens of books stacked in neat piles covering practically the entire coffee table is an especially engaging look. This provides visual interest, as different colors, graphics, and text on the book spines juxtaposed against each other will catch the eye. You may often see people on social media select books based on the colors of the cover and try to be too matchy-matchy. This should be avoided, as it comes off as being excessively twee.

Oh, and if you plan to display coffee table books in an office where you bring clients, make sure the books pertain (or are adjacent) to your line of work. This helps to reinforce your expertise. Books on general interest subjects are also safe in these offices but only in waiting areas. Try to avoid displaying any book that sends the wrong message to a client.

Coffee Table Books Examples

I have selected the following coffee table books from my own collection to illustrate how best to use such books as conversation starters. Of course, being my own books, they reflect my personal interests in natural history and art. Your interests may be completely different, but you would use your own books on your favored subjects in much the same way.

Zuber: Two Centuries of Panoramic Wallpaper by Brian Coleman

The cover of the coffee table book on Zuber wallpaper.

I’m always on the lookout to add new books to my interiors reference library for inspiration. Especially if the books feature information or images about historical decorative treatments. This book by Brian Coleman is a monograph on the famed Zuber panoramic wallpaper. Zuber & Cie has been continuously operating in some form since the late 18th century, and Zuber wallpapers can still be purchased today! The company claims to be the only remaining wallpaper house to still employ woodblock printing techniques, and most of its woodblocks are themselves antiques.

Below, I have opened up the book to a two-page spread featuring one of Zuber’s panoramas. If I were to set this on a coffee table or side table for my guests to see, I might explain to them that Zuber wallpapers come in a variety of prints, all featuring beautiful scenes, and these wallpapers only developed as a result of advanced paper-making technology in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These wallpapers provide a stately atmosphere to a room, and a Zuber scene even hangs in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House!

Zuber coffee table book open to images showing panoramic wallpaper.

I might also show them photos of Zuber paper that I have seen, like the beautiful “Hindustan” scene that hangs in the Bayou Bend mansion in Houston:

Hindustan panoramic wallpaper by Zuber hanging in the music room at the Bayou Bend mansion museum in Houston, Texas.
The Hindustan wallpaper scene provides an exotic “view” in the music room at Bayou Bend in Houston.

Paleoart by Zoë Lescaze

Cover of the "Paleoart" coffee table book from Taschen.

Any book depicting ancient animals is a win for me. “Paleoart” is a rather large book that features a striking cover image of a Gorgonopsid—a Permian-era animal distantly related to mammals—tearing off a bloody piece of flesh. The inside features a vast collection of images from various artists depicting ancient life and shows the progression of such depictions as artists gain access to new scientific discoveries.

I have opened the book here to a spread that features the artwork of Charles Robert Knight, considered one of the greatest paleo artists of all time. The image is rather interesting because it depicts an animal that people my age have long been told did not exist but that older generations were well-acquainted with: the Brontosaurus. For a long time, it was believed that these animals actually belonged to the genus Apatosaurus. In 2015, a new group of researchers proposed that the genus Brontosaurus was in fact valid after all. The artwork is of course beautiful and evocative of a time before humans existed, but it also presents an interesting way to have a conversation with house guests about how science operates and how our understanding of a subject can change over time even it has been well-studied for over a century!

Charles Knight's painting of Brontosaurus from the Natural History Museum of New York as featured in the Taschen coffee table book "Paleoart."

Frank in the 3rd Dimension by Jim Woodring

Frank in the 3rd Dimension is a 3D gimmick art book by Jim Woodring.

The final book I will highlight is “Frank in the 3rd Dimension,” which features artwork from cartoonist Jim Woodring. This is an especially amusing book because it not only features wacky comic book art, but it is meant to be viewed in 3-D!

What could be more entertaining for your house guests than invoking the child-like fun of stereoscopic vision? The book has several illustrations featuring the titular character Frank (an anthropomorphic creature meant to look like cartoons of the early 20th century) exploring and interacting with a surreal universe.

Pull out the 3D glasses to see Jim Woodring's "Frank" pop off the pages.

Where to Buy Coffee Table Books

These days, you can find a coffee table book on just about any subject you like. Interested in watches and jewelry? There are coffee table books on those topics. Cars, clothes, comic books, computers, castles? Books for all of them!

But where does one buy good coffee table books? Well, you can usually check your local bookstore, although their selections may be limited. Luckily, all of the major coffee table book publishers have websites and even e-shops. Here is a list of the biggest publishers:





Thames & Hudson

Of course, there are many small and institutional publishers, too! Museums shops are great places to find large format picture books on art or natural history, for example.

A selection of 3 coffee table books about royal life: Buckingham Palace, The Queen's Diamonds, and Windsor Castle.
I really love that Buckingham Palace book. I wrote about it here.


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