I've asked many designers to share their favorite books with us, but what about an actual book dealer? I thought it would be interesting to get some book recommendations by one of the top dealers in the country, Nick Harvill. Located in West Hollywood, Nick established himself as an authority on book collecting while serving as Gallery Director at Stubbs Books & Prints in New York. With his focus on design, society, fashion, and art (amongst many other genres), Nick has an incredible knowledge of classic tomes and obscure titles. He also specializes in building libraries for clients based on interest- none of this books by the yard business.
Many of Nick's picks were unfamiliar to me, but after reading his witty and insightful commentary, I'm anxious to read them for myself. I encourage you to browse through his website as he has an amazing inventory.
1) Twentieth-Century Decoration by Stephen Calloway. Sometimes I start at the end or the middle of a book and work my way to the beginning. That perhaps explains why I prefer this magnum opus on the styles of the last century to its more historic counterparts such as the Mario Praz book and Connaissance des Arts' La Decoration.
2) Art by Clive Bell. This book was a key inspiration for Ad Reinhardt and perhaps Agnes Martin. Reading it is akin to the experience of the childhood discovery that there is no Santa Claus. The Bloomsbury art critic challenges traditional notions about art and design. It is a mind-expanding experience in which the reader is asked to separate the extraneous from the eternal. Even if one ultimately rejects some of Bell's assertions, it is good to understand them.
3) The Glass of Fashion by Cecil Beaton. Beaton profiles the Belle Époque and Twentieth Century personalities who best exemplified the art of living. The elusive Madame Errazuriz has long intrigued me, and Beaton's chapter on her in this book is by far the best English language resource.
4) A Princess Remembers, The Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur by Gayatri Devi. There are no pictorial design books able to compete with the image conjured in my mind by the Maharani's description of her glamorous mother at Le Touquet with her "little live turtle, whose back was laden with three strips of emeralds, diamonds, and rubies" moving slowly across the gaming table.
5) Recipes for Successful Dining by Elsie de Wolfe. In this book, de Wolfe famously indicted soup with the absurd analogy, "You can't build a meal on a lake." However, she makes up for it in spades when laying out her fundamental principles for entertaining- there should be a basic dish to counterbalance a richer one, and there should be one item served that is something new that will surprise the guests. I find this advice relevant to all aspects of life and design.
6)The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris by Alicia Drake. Though comfortably entrenched in the Parish fashion scene, Alicia Drake bravely rises above the temptation to turn this biography of Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé, and Karl Lagerfeld into a hagiography. The three subjects deserve nothing less. Their story is a variation on Aesop's "Tortoise and the Hare" but one in which the winner can only be determined by peeling away layer upon layer and is perhaps never revealed at all. Pierre Bergé plays Lee Krasner to Yves Saint Laurent's Jackson Pollock.
7)Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray. Thackeray seduces his readers with a whirling dervish of materialism and hubris. Yet, he periodically cuts into the auction with a reminder that the world of Vanity Fair is but a game and should not be taken too seriously. That is excellent advice for all of us with an enthusiasm for fashion or design.
8) Good-bye, Mr. Chippendale by T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings. One must admire the gall of Robsjohn-Gibbings. In 1944, an era of unrepentant Fascism and brutal Communism, he had the temerity to allege that the greatest threats to civilization were Elsie de Wolfe, Syrie Maugham, and their passion for pickling antique furniture.
9) The Dream Come True, Great Houses of Los Angeles by Brendan Gill. Many design books skillfully present the larger-than-life personalities of decorators and architects and their clients. What makes this book great is how Gill perfectly captures the energy and hyperbole of Los Angeles itself.
10) Life in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford, Portrait of a Contradictory Woman by Laura Thompson. I distrust the how-to genre, preferring to learn by indirect example. There is no better starting point than Nancy Mitford. She regarded being a bore as the height of bad manners and sought not the sympathy of her friends but their amusement. This recent biography perfectly deconstructs her wit and sophistication.