Nothing quite sums up a person’s guiding ethos like the outsize, artsy book commanding prime real estate on his or her coffee table. Its central spot and considerable outlay convey far more about the owner than those slender volumes quietly lining a bookshelf.
You might even consider it a statement of intent. Guests casually flip its pages while you retrieve the mixed nuts, inferring that you sufficiently embrace the publication’s style and subject to champion it as such.
“You put it out, and it becomes part of your decor and really speaks to your identity,” said Polly Buxton, co-founder of Buxton Books, the King Street bookstore that regularly spotlights works by local authors and features a section for art books.
Charleston, after all, has long been a breeding ground of tricked-out tomes. In my childhood, my mother prominently, and perhaps presciently, displayed on her square glass table a copy of "Charleston Come Hell or High Water." I spent many an afternoon poring over black-and-white images of the city ravaged by earthquakes and hurricanes, only to be rebuilt once more.
This past year has been no exception, ushering in a sleek new spate of them covering art, photography and design and ranging bents from probing to posh.
“There truly is a coffee-table book for everyone,” said Buxton. When her son graduated from high school, he gave his friends copies of the latest from environmental photographer J. Henry Fair. Her 20-something daughter opted for a style-focused book as a gift for a wedding shower.
While noting that these books are on the higher end of the price scale, Buxton views the investment as a way to cultivate community. Her bookstore gathers folks from near and far, and from that vantage she has observed that many in Charleston are craving that sense of community.
She also points out that ponying up for one offers locals a chance to support artists who reside in or celebrate our city, both through the purchase of the books and the promotion of their work.
“It’s a celebration of someone who has chosen a very courageous thing: being an artist,” she said.
So, what color is your Charleston coffee-table book? Here are a few releases from the last year with ties to the city that may well offer a window to your soul.
“The Batik Art of Mary Edna Fraser"
(University of South Carolina Press, June 2019)
Most anyone who has flown into Charleston’s airport over the past decade would recognize the striking swaths of loping silk that welcome travelers to the Lowcountry. Fraser’s batik-born vistas of our waterways, coastlines, glaciers and icebergs from the region and beyond are equally inviting in book form, and all the more so with commentary on the artist's journey by writer Cecelia Dailey.
The new Southerner
“Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South”
(Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, 2018)
Last year, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art launched its ultra-ambitious touring exhibition, “Southbound: Photographs of and about the New South,” rounding up 56 photographers’ visions of the South over the first part of the 21st century. A hardcover catalog, which was edited by curators Mark Sloan and Mark Long, documents the show while also conferring a collective new view on South that upends many a preconception of moonlight and magnolias.
“On the Edge: Combahee to Winyah”
(Papadakis, May 2019)
In cooperation with the Coastal Conservation League, photographer J. Henry Fair casts an unflinching eye on climate change, while also examining the relationship of rice and slavery. Aerial images of the South Carolina coast reveal the terrain from on high, and the book also provides historical context to the land and its dwellers. Those committed to keeping this conversation front and center should place Fair's illuminating offering front and center, too.
The host with the coast
“The Color Teil”
(Vertel Publishing, June 2019)
The saturated pastel beaches, figures and furry friends that populate the paintings of artist Teil Duncan are as winsome and transporting as they sound, as are the artist's musings on her creative journey. With its generosity of 300 images, "The Color Teil" shares its own blithe wanderings right from your living room sofa.
The artful lodger
“The Art of Southern Hospitality at Home”
(Rizzoli, September 2019)
Tastemaker and on-and-off Charleston resident Susan Sully has long chronicled the latest looks of Holy City homes. In her latest, she casts a wider net to cover style, design and entertaining throughout the South, folding in three distinctive Charleston residences. This is the volume for those who enjoy a peek into well-appointed living spaces — and who relish a few recipes, too.
The luxury proposition
“Carolyne Roehm: Style & Design: A Constant Thread”
(Rizzoli, October 2018)
Charleston can now lay claim to resident Carolyne Roehm, one of America’s most prolific style-setters, who struck out from Missouri to become the toast of the New York design world. In this hefty, extravagant edition, she tips us off to the textures and colors of the natural world that have informed her designs, as well ongoing aesthetic threads. It is sure to go over with anyone who likes their style in full measure, and who owns a big coffee table.