When creating coffee table books, one of the most important factors to take into consideration is their visual appeal. That is, one could argue, their most important purpose: after all, these books are named for the fact that they are meant to be displayed on coffee tables, or other places you would entertain guests, to spark up conversation.
But while visual appeal may be the greatest strength of these books, it can also work against them. Because they tend to be heavy on pictures and illustrations and lighter on text, the term “coffee table book” is not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a term that is also used disparagingly, to suggest a superficial approach to a subject.
This is why people who create these books often avoid the term, preferring other descriptions instead.
“We try to run away from the term ‘coffee-table books’ as it has some negative perceptions. For example, photo books for tourists or expensive books lying around the living room just to impress people,” says urban identity designer William Harald-Wong, who heads the design firm William Harald-Wong and Associates.
“We use the term ‘books’, ‘hardcover books’ or ‘documentation’ because we believe in content that is substantial, well-researched, well-written, informative and inspiring. And beautiful!”
Whatever one chooses to call them, however, it cannot be denied that these books have a certain appeal: their unique blend of eye-catching images and information usually results in a captivating, more immersive reading experience.
“A coffee table book should look good on your coffee table! It is the opposite of a text-heavy book with no illustrations,” says Khoo Salma Nasution, commissioning editor and cofounder of local publisher Areca Books.
“Coffee table books are usually printed on art paper or fancy paper. The layout and design of coffee table books are extremely important,” she says in an e-mail.
The George Town-based Areca Books produces “illustrated nonfiction books” that have the look and feel of coffee table books. These include A Nyonya Inheritance (2012), Black And White: The Singapore House (2006), and Festivals Of Malaysia (2015).
One of their bestselling titles is Penang: Through Gilded Doors (2006), a richly illustrated introduction to the heritage of Penang aimed at the Western visitor to the storied island.
“We have well-researched, richly illustrated books on cultural heritage, social history, visual arts, architecture and environment. From the cover, they might look like coffee table books, but they actually have more in-depth information than the average ‘coffee table book’. They are well-researched and intelligently designed with graphics and pictures,” Khoo says.
Tyrrell Mahoney, president of San Francisco-based Chronicle Books – one of the leading independent publishers in art and design books – in the United States, also feels that these types of books shouldn’t be disparaged wholesale.
“We create a range of gift titles across all of our publishing categories, and while they are certainly considered beautiful and high-quality ‘coffee table’ books, our publishing is also meant to be accessible, inspirational, and useful.
“For example, we are publishing a book this autumn entitled This Book Is A Planetarium, a pop-up book featuring six different fully functional paper-based items, including a planetarium, speaker, decoder ring, and musical instrument.
“Yes, this book would likely be featured on someone’s table or desk, but in addition it acts as a focal point which people are invited to engage and use in a variety of ways,” he says in an e-mail interview.
Quality is all-important
The term “coffee table book” in its current sense has been in use in Britain since at least the 19th century. Conventionally, it describes thick, oversized books, which are often (but not always!) nonfiction, usually with hard covers. Their most notable feature is a high volume of photographs or illustrations in their content.
American wilderness champion David Brower is sometimes credited with inventing the modern coffee table book in the 1960s. He was executive director of the Sierra Club, one of America’s oldest environmental organisations, when he had the idea to produce books that combined nature photography and writings with “a page size big enough to carry a given image’s dynamic. The eye must be required to move about within the boundaries of the image, not encompass it all in one glance.” The first such book, This Is The American Earth, with photographs by the renowned Ansel Adams, among others, and text by Nancy Newhall, was published in 1960 (“Natural Visions”, press.uchicago.edu).
According to Harald-Wong, the making of a coffee table book (or hardcover book, as he prefers to refer to them) involves the close collaboration of many people; these include the author, editor, photographer or illustrator, designer, digital retoucher, and equally important, the printer.
“It is not a simple process having to involve so many people who have to give their best. And it usually takes longer than one expects to produce a top quality book meeting international standards,” Harald-Wong says.
“As in all creative projects, successful books start with a single, strong idea – the subject matter – that will engage an audience with a good storyline and powerful visuals, and how this subject matter is approached differently from other similar published work.
“There must be content clarity. Does it present new information or thinking, a unique perspective or new way of seeing things?”
Harald-Wong’s firm has produced many publications over the years: these include Malacca: Voices From The Street (2006), A Tribute To Dr Lim Cheok Peng (2015), and Ramli! The Heart Of Sutra (2004), a pictorial biography of dance icon Ramli Ibrahim.
For the designer, there are seven principles that govern good coffee table book design: balance, contrast, emphasis, harmony, movement, rhythm and unity. The exact layout and design, however, depends on the subject matter – one has to determine what “character” would be appropriate for a book.
This is similar to how Chronicle Books works. Mahoney says that the company has never believed in one-design-fits-all solutions: “We let the books be determined by the aesthetic demands of the subject and the materials so that they’re always fresh.
“We always try to look at an author’s words, a photographer or illustrator’s art and think about how we might publish it in a way that no other publisher would think of.
Just about anything that’s visually interesting can become an illustrated book, he says.
“We’ve done a series of books with Disney and Pixar showing the concept art behind their classic animated films, and we’ve also done photography books that showcase images of the universe from the Nasa archives. This year we’re publishing a collection of photographs of 200 inspiring women from around the world.
“A Chronicle Books title really can be on any topic that delights a reader or sparks their passion – and the process begins for us by constantly seeking out artists and ideas that spark our own passion.”
Salt Media Group Sdn Bhd is a local firm that is often commissioned to produce commemorative coffee table books, mostly to mark corporate anniversaries or milestones, or to document an event.
Previous works include Majestic Stripes (2010), a book on the conservation of Malayan tigers with Maybank, as well as Malaysia At 50: The Country That Could (2007), a book on Malaysian history commissioned by Sime Darby Sdn Bhd.
According to Salt Media’s managing director Caroline Ng, when starting a coffee table book, one has to pin down the “intention” of the book, what its audience will be, and the angle of the story.
“We will sit with the client to understand their objectives and to suss out the story that they have. We then come up with an outline of the book based on the discussions. Once this is agreed on and the scope is set, we can start work,” Ng explains.
“For layout and design, we would usually come up with a few concepts and ideas and, with the client, decide on the best fit for the intended look and feel. Ideally, this decision is made after the first draft is done and after we have had a chance to curate some of the images or at least have an idea of what is available.”
One of the most interesting parts of their work, Ng says, is in the materials that are unearthed as they carry out research. When researching for the Malaysia At 50 book, for example, Ng’s firm went digging into the National Archives and Sime Darby’s storerooms, and ended up finding old photos, advertisements and articles that painted a great picture of the early years of the country.
“When we were doing the book on the Malayan tiger, we found documents such as those from state governments in the late 1800s that listed incentives for ‘the destruction of wild animals’ – which included tigers. These little peeks into the history of our country are priceless.
“And aside from travelling back into history, our books have also given us opportunities to do things we otherwise might not have done – like trudging the jungles of Sabah and seeing firsthand how electric trains are maintained,” Ng says.
The market for coffee table books in Malaysia, however, has not always been an easy one, with the main threat to it being technology.