California Design book coverI’ve been on a strange book-buying binge over the past few weeks. The paper kind. Almost 100 books and counting. And I’ve finally figured out why. Books are a great way to learn about new things.

I initially thought the spree was for these reasons: 1) a mental break from work; 2) nostalgia for the physical artifacts; 3) excuse to explore Bay Area bookstores; 4) always wanted to build a large book collection; 5) lured by an unknown force (like Close Encounters).

All the above are true. But by my 25th hour or so at a bookstore, buying three or four books an hour, I realized… the fun part is what’s actually in the books. As in reading them.

Books are amazing, if you find really good ones. The whole sum of people’s lives and souls and sweat and talent is poured into them, they have amazing visuals, they tell stories in an engrossing way you can consume however you want (my dad always starts from the back). There’s millions of them – genetic diversity that captures the world’s knowledge completely (actually 129 million, according to Google).

Shore coverYou can get lost in a book. Sit on the floor and read it for hours, that one book. By contrast, the Internet – which also has all the world’s knowledge – is hard to focus on. Someone said a few years ago that “books are where words go to die.” I believed this for a while, now I’m not so sure.

I’ve been buying books on art, photography, design, architecture and history – about half via Amazon and half in bookstores. I’m getting all my ideas in bookstores… buying some on the spot, tapping the Amazon app for others. I’m 50/50 split between new books – with their high quality printing and affordable reproduction of pricey rare titles – and used books, which often have higher production values, more unique topics, are just way cooler, if in good condition.

The best area bookstores I’ve found so far are 871 Fine Arts, Alley Cat Books, Adobe (now on 24th Street), Press Works (also 24th), Green Apple, Moe’s (esp the top floor), Builder’s Bookstore, William Stout Architectural Books, The Argonaut, and of course the best one of all (I’d tell you but I’ve have to kill you). OK – Reader’s Books in Fort Mason, operated by the SF Public Library.

Some recent finds

Cut-Outs coverHenri Matisse, The Cut-Outs

This is the book from the MOMA exhibit in NYC which just ended. These collages are beautiful… raw, interesting color and shapes. I’d seen some when I was little, but not the broad selection shown here (in Matisse’s last years he worked in the South of France cutting paper that his assistants would paint in goache). This is the perfect book to cut up yourself, and pin on the wall – that’s what Matisse himself did when he was making these collages.

Penn coverIrving Penn, A Career in Photography
Although relatively recently published (1997), this turns out to be a rare, hard-to-find Penn book. I got lucky at a bookstore and got a mint copy much cheaper than you can online. It’s from a retrospective the Art Institute of Chicago did and includes material from his archives which he donated there. The photos span his whole career and all his subjects, from fashion photography to travel to portraits of famous people and blue-collar workers to still lifes of food, flowers, and even garbage.

Proud cover

In this Proud Land: America 1935-1943 As Seen in the FSA Photographs
The actual edition I bought has a different cover. This is an incredible collection of 300 of the most representative photos (out of thousands taken) of ordinary Americans by photographers sent across the U.S. by the Farm Service Administration during the Depression. Stunning images showing people deprived of all but the basics but also having fun, living life, doing their thing…. by now-famous photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. A lot of people with character in this book… every page is a gem.

53 stages coverThe Fifty-three Stages of the Tokaido
I knew nothing about Japanese color woodblock prints but picked this book up and immediately realized it was awesome. Printmaker Utagawa Hiroshige, who lived in the early 1800s, is known as the master of this genre. And this is his masterpiece… 53 prints showing the 53 stops on the old road from Edo (Tokyo) to Kyoto. Turns out he faked most of them and they have no basis in reality… but because they’re so beautiful, and capture the (imagined) charm of life in Japan during that era, it became a classic.

Port-City-cover-smallerPort City: The History and Transformation of the Port of San Francisco
Wonky, I know… but I go by these piers and wonder about them all the time. Now I know that S.F. was one of the biggest ports in the world and why it collapsed, who built the seawall, what got shipped in and out, how the trains and trucks and real estate all fit together, who designed the buildings, where the big labor battles were fought. Lots of great photos, a pier-by-pier rundown, detail on the military in SF during WWII, its all there. An expensive book, but you can’t find it online, so buy it if you see it.

rex_collage_bookRex Ray The Paper Collages
I pulled this book off a shelf at Adobe and was blown away by the art – it reminded me of a game I had as a little kid in the early 70’s. Turns out Rex Ray was a local S.F. artist, and this was a 2006 limited signed edition of 1,000 copies (his stuff is more accessible in another book he published the following year). This book has almost no words, just page after page of collages. The really weird thing is I’d never heard of this guy, but googled him and Wikipedia said he was in his 50’s, living in S.F., so I thought maybe I’d get to meet him some day. But he died a couple days after I bought the book – I heard it on the radio. Strange.


Wow, what a photo book. Transport yourself back in time to 1970s Finland – we’ve all been there (not). But you’ll feel like you have after flipping through these stunning photos of forests, cities, glaciers, old people and young hipsters (who are now old people). There’s a moment-in-time-and-place feel to this book which is breathtaking. I had no interest in Finland – and still don’t really – but its a very cool book.

ack2coverHand in Hand: Ceramics, Mosaics, Tapestries, and Wood Carvings by the California Mid-Century Designers Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman
A great book about a couple that met in their 20s after WWII in Detroit, moved to California and became central to the mid-century art scene in multiple media. They also pioneered small-scale mass merchandising of their work through retailers in different color combinations, not satisfied just to sell one copy of each. Great images, very California!


Design Research: The Store That Brought Modern Living to American Homes
This store, which started in Harvard Square in the 1950’s, was the genesis of modern lifestyle retailing in the U.S., the first of many to take on big department stores with hipper, hand-curated selections, and the precursor of brands like Crate and Barrel, Conrans, and Design Within Reach. Founder Ben Thompson brought European designs like Marimekko to the U.S., and evangelized living more colorfully. There’s a little bit of cult/commune in this story… just look at the employee pictures.

cp-postersPosters of the Canadian Pacific
They say the railroads died because they didn’t figure out they were in the transportation business. These guys should have gone into the poster business. Wow. Breathtaking designs that span a hundred years, by great artists… some corporate archivist deserves an award for having kept one copy of each in mint condition. Especially interesting are the many posters trying to lure immigrants to Canada… from England, Europe, China, touting the wide open spaces, fresh air, chance to start over. For a minute, I considered homesteading myself.


Posters for the People: Art of the WPA
The original WPA poster book was published in the 1980’s, when only a few hundred were known to exist, mostly in the Library of Congress’s collection.  This author, inspired by the earlier book, created a web project to catalogue as many WPA posters as possible. Now thousands have come out of the woodwork, and this book highlights the most notable. The posters are a mix of Deco and Bauhaus, some beautifully designed and some mediocre. What comes across strongly is the sense of “we’re all in this together” that people had in the 1930s. A great collection.

demuthChimneys and Towers: Charles Demuth’s Late Paintings of Lancaster
Charles Demuth ran with the fast NYC art crowd of photographer and gallerist Alfred Steiglitz and his wife painter Georgia O’Keeffe. But it seems like Demuth couldn’t quite keep up. Known as one of the ‘precisionists,’ he did a lot of industrial stuff, including these paintings of watertowers and smokestacks in Lancaster, Pennsylvania later in life while he was fighting diabetes.

johns-coverJasper Johns: Seeing With The Mind’s Eye
I saw this exhibit at SFMoma before they closed for their 30-year-long renovation (okay, three). I’ve never liked pop art much, but Johns’ stuff is simple (like his colored number series) and powerful, not all over the map or going for shock value. Johns lived with Robert Rauschenberg, also a little more intellectual and less pop-y than most of the genre. I don’t get the whole NY modern art scene at all, but am starting to get more interested in it.

street-art-sf-coverStreet Art San Francisco
The cover isn’t the best, but this book is pretty compelling inside. Its thirty years of photos of San Francisco street murals – mostly now gone, mostly in the Mission. There’s a forward by Carlos Santana, who got started playing music as a teenager in the Mission, often performing with his band at the unveiling of murals. Some of these murals are just noise, but a lot are really masterful. And they’re all temporary… which means this book is the only way to look at them, unless they were done in the past few years and have survived.


Art Deco Mailboxes: An Illustrated Design History
I did a double-take when I saw this. This was a book I wanted to do myself, and they did it really well… now I don’t have to. If you’ve ever lingered in front of one of these brass boxes in an old building, you will be overwhelmed by this smorgasbord of eye candy. Don’t read it all at once, you’ll get one of those ice-cream headaches. The interesting part is that one company – Cutler – had a virtual monopoly on these mail slot systems, so could have just made nondescript boxes. Instead they partnered with the architects so that many of the boxes were unique, designed to reflect the look and themes of the building.


The Quilts of Gees Bend
This was an exhibit on the East Coast that I never got to, so buying the book was a no-brainer. Especially because I found a mint copy in a bookstore for $29 when the prices online start at $70. Its a large book with high quality printing and incredible colors. I do remember reading that there was some controversy over who owned the copyright to these images, and that the multiple generations of women who made them got some recognition but no money when the quilts briefly became a sensation. The quilts themselves will be what endures.


The Hand of Man on America
I found this at a bookstore, brought it home, realized I now have eight David Plowden books, which means I’m officially collecting David Plowden photography books, even though I’m supposedly not collecting books in general. Plowden has spent his 60-year career documenting America the way it was, which is clearly the way he thinks it should stay. This 1973 book is a warning about how progress is messing things up.


Georgia O’Keefe: A Studio Book
An oversized book with beautiful reproductions of some of O’Keefe’s most recognizable and compelling work. In good condition this book is expensive, but I picked this one up cheap ($20) with some external damage only. How to display books like this is something I’m pondering. Sitting on a shelf nobody ever sees the awesome images inside. I need a reading room with lots of display space, or maybe a whole library…

california-calls-coverCalifornia Calls You: The Art of Promoting the Golden State 1870-1940
I found this book at the recent Oakland book fair, which was a somewhat snobby and serious event (dealers selling rare first editions at high prices) with a smattering of the really interesting, hip, groovy and bizarre. This book exudes a “California-land-of-milk-honey-and-surfing” vibe from back to front, featuring posters and brochures material that lured generations here for work, play, and the good life.


End of An Era
Another Plowden photo book, this one on the very specific topic of endangered steamboats on the Great Lakes. This technology apparently ruled the (lake) waves for almost 100 years, and Plowden caught the twilight of it, riding with the crews and getting action shots of the last working steam (vs diesel) powered craft. Plowden gets into the tech details (e.g. triple-reciprocating-engines), shoots the guys shoveling coal in the hold, and gets the breathtaking panoramas and sunset shots. What’s great about Plowden is he can do broad topics (main street, bridges, barns) as well as narrow, and strike the same chord of beauty meets history.

machine-age-coverThe Machine: As Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age
This 1968 book has a metal cover… published for an exhibit at The Museum of Modern Art in New York that year. I’d never seen a book with a metal cover, and apparently neither had a lot of people before the Internet came along and collectors discovered how many of these were made (the street price has dropped from $150 to $40 in a decade, according to the guy I bought it from). Inside is a lot of stuff about how machines are taking over the world… which they have been ever since!


Rescued buildings: The art of living in former schoolhouses, skating rinks, fire stations, churches, barns, summer camps, and cabooses
This is one of three books I’ve bought recently on restoring old buildings that weren’t meant to be living spaces. This book is the hippier, more scavenger-ish version from the 70s, featuring folks who took on these projects with almost no money and bartered with friends and neighbors to scrape everything together. I actually liked some of the higher-end restorations in the other books better, like an old public library and a restored barn and power station. I could definitely use a caboose as an office, though (a nice one with the cupola on top).

wildflower-coverSan Francisco’s Wildflower: The Palace of Fine Arts
Another stunningly laid out photo book on a subject I have almost no interest in (but it was awesome, so I bought it).The cover of this book is just so-so… the genius is the beautiful inside greyscale photo layouts with minimal copy – often poetry – set in beautiful type. It goes into detail about Bernard Maybeck, who designed the Palace of Fine Arts as well as several famous buildings in Berkeley. Oddly, Reagan’s henchman Caspar Weinberger is mentioned at the end – he was the State Assemblyman who pushed through the funds to rebuild the Palace in the 1950s. Who knew?

1 Comment

  1. The value of books (art, photography and history) as visual history is powerful to me, too.Thanks for sharing these 25 books with your editorial comments. I’m off to the 14th Street bookstore – motivated by your post.

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