Certain books aren’t made to be read, so much as looked at. You know the type. They stack on stools and sprawl across living rooms in artful disarray, their glossy covers like so many different worlds. They show up in interiors shoots and on the shelves of cafés or boutiques as tasteful decor. Their pages are stocked less with text than full-bleed photos of people and places you might never encounter in the real world: foreign lands, maybe, or something historical. The exoticism is most of the appeal. Perusing the volumes is meant to be a vicarious adventure.
This genre derives its name from where they are most often found: on top of a coffee table. The phrase “coffee-table book” evokes the experience of flipping pages over an espresso, glass of wine, or some other enjoyable substance. But after the genre went mainstream in the 1960s, it suffered from over-exposure, turning into a wan cliché. Seinfeld even satirized it in one 1994 episode with a coffee-table book about coffee tables (which itself turned into a coffee table).
In recent years, however, the “coffee-table book” has evolved into something more suitable for the 21st century. These days, the weighty titles are referred to as “lifestyle books.” They have the same thick pages and expansive photo spreads, but the text has dwindled and the subject matter can be, well, just about anything.
There are lifestyle books on international surf spots, bucolic cabins, adorable animals, yoga poses, and butts.
There are lifestyle books on international surf spots, bucolic cabins, adorable animals, yoga poses, and butts. A single book might focus on outer space, tattoos, bread, Supreme, coffee shops, or tiny houses. It might instruct readers on how to host guests at dinner parties (Wabi-Sabi Welcome) or become a start-up CEO who looks good on social media (The Kinfolk Entrepreneur). Or, the book could contain a curated collection of visual art or a collage of images and text reflecting individual sensibilities that have shaped culture as a whole, like Madonna’s Sex or Frank Ocean’s Boys Don’t Cry. These books promise a certain blend of inspiration and instruction driven by their imagery; this is what an ideal life looks like, they seem to say.
The company that most defined this new category of lifestyle books and spurred on its omnipresence is Gestalten, a German publisher based in Berlin. You might not know the name, but you’ve definitely seen their work. Gestalten has created monographs on travel, animals, and boathouses. They publish books for Monocle, the magazine favored by the creative jet set, with volumes on good drinking, decorating, and government. Of course, Gestalten has also documented that international hipster demographic (the press’s core audience) in its own book, The New Nomads.
This print explosion is something of a surprise, since in the era of social media, we’re more likely to document and demonstrate our lifestyles through Instagram or Facebook than with anachronistic paper tomes. Cultural memes like #VanLife use the same stylized text and imagery as lifestyle books but in a more democratic way: anyone can participate simply by using the hashtag and doing yoga on top of a VW bus on a beach in the sunset. How can a book compete with the constant updates and interactivity of a feed? You can’t even like its photos. Yet books do guarantee a certain level of tactile quality, feeding our image addiction with their physicality.
For Gestalten, the lifestyle book is like a semi-portable aspirational mood board, its physical heft a testament to our more abstract dreams. They enclose the private visions we have for ourselves, something Instagram isn’t as good at. “The more and more people go digital, the more there is an urge to build a tangible foundation that reconfirms who they really are,” says Robert Klanten, Gestalten’s co-founder and publisher. “People want an approach that cannot be replaced by a website.”
Most often, a boring cover disguises the worth of the material, but ideally, the form and the substance support each other, creating one cohesive unit.
The maxim “don’t judge a book by its cover” presents an inherent tension: the material form of a book—its cover design, hardcover or softcover, the thickness of the pages—is set off against its content, the immaterial language and ideas that we find when we open them. Most often, a boring cover disguises the worth of the material, but ideally, the form and the substance support each other, creating one cohesive unit.
In the early history of books, this was always the case, as each one was a luxury object. By the 13th century, the book of hours, a devotional prayer book and calendar, was a personal collectible of the wealthy. Medieval gentry commissioned copies from monks in scriptoria who would tailor the content to their patrons as well as painstakingly illuminate the pages with scenes from the Bible and contemporary life—a lavish court feast or peasants farming the land. Volumes like Très Riches Heures du Ducde Berry, a famed French book of hours created around 1412, could be a precedent to today’s lifestyle books as semi-public displays of both money and taste.
By 1500, Gutenberg’s printing press had turned books into a popular commodity, manufacturing over 20 million of them across Europe. Mass production made books slightly less elite, somewhat democratic but also more accessible as status symbols. In 1588, the French essayist Montaigne complained in his essay “Upon Some Verses of Virgil” that the content of his books was too often being ignored over their aesthetic symbolism as objects. Rather than digesting his moral musings and life lessons, the owners of the books were simply looking at them. “I am vexed that my Essays only serve the ladies for a common movable, a book to lay in the parlor window,” he wrote.
In 1859, the American abolitionist and activist Henry Ward Beecher observed the same temptation: books just look good, so they’re nice to have around. “Books are not made for furniture but there is nothing else that so beautifully furnishes a house,” Beecher wrote in The Duty of Owning Books. “Books are the windows through which the soul looks out. A house without books is like a room without windows.”
In the 1920s, European publishers like Rizzoli and Phaidon built their businesses on publishing upscale art books and monographs collecting the work of innovative artists. Taschen (publisher of The Big Butt Book) launched in 1980 as a comic book store but later began publishing contemporary art books, observing a gap in the international market. Visual art expanded into architecture, design, fashion, and more as other publishers like Weldon Owen and Assouline launched in the United States in 1985 and 1994 respectively.
But the classic coffee-table book came of age in the middle of the last century. In 1960, the Sierra Club began publishing large-scale books of landscape photography in their Exhibit Format series, starting with Ansel Adams’s This Is the American Earth. It kickstarted a trend. The Coffee Table Book of Astrology was published in 1962, and 1968 saw the release of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a mammoth picture-heavy magazine-book that seemed to contain everything needed for existence—from product recommendations and farming lessons to a future-leaning philosophical toolkit—reiterating a lesson that reaches back to the Medieval era: books can be as expansive as life itself.
Gestalten’s books . . . emerge out of subcultures but always remain one step ahead of the zeitgeist.
Gestalten came out of Berlin’s underground culture in the 1990s. Three friends—Klanten, Markus Hollmann-Loges, and Andreas Peyerl—used their design skills to start a book project called Localizer 1.0, documenting the city’s techno scene. It was a surprising success, especially with brands wanting to copy its cool factor, and prompted the idea of starting a publishing house.
At the time, digital technology was already democratizing design, making it easier than ever to produce creative books. “A graphic designer would simply buy a scanner, place something on the scanner, and have a finished design,” Klanten says. “Not only did this save a lot of time, but it also preserved the intimacy of the process between creator and craft.” The transformation presaged a similar change that would happen with the rise of the internet: these days, we can all create our own aesthetic collages with platforms like Instagram and Pinterest.
Gestalten’s books are still driven by individual creators. They emerge out of subcultures but always remain one step ahead of the zeitgeist. Among so many other trends of the 2010s, the company has tackled everything from Eames furniture and utopian architecture to artisanal butchery and Finnish design. In 2014, Gestalten even launched a children’s books imprint. Today, the company has over 35 employees and a backlist of over 600 titles.
Klanten sees publishing evolving with the way we live and work. “A while ago, people would have one profession—whether that was a typographer or an illustrator—forever,” he says. “Now that has changed. Interesting narratives are unfolding between disciplines.”
Likewise, the lifestyle book rebels against strict definitions. The genre can capture any cultural moment, giving recognizable labels to phenomena that haven’t been put into words. They curate movements for public awareness.
The lifestyle book . . . can capture any cultural moment, giving recognizable labels to phenomena that haven’t been put into words.
In a way, lifestyle books fulfill a purpose similar to Montaigne’s essays: they give readers the ability to imagine themselves inhabiting the lives the books depict, an ideal, or simply cooler, existence. Just as lifestyle magazines like Monocle and Kinfolk create communities of readers around their flow of issues, lifestyle books act as markers of identity that might catch a fellow fan’s eye when displayed, prompting conversations that could convert new followers to a trend.
Lifestyle books from many publishers—Phaidon, Rizzoli, Ten Speed Press, and the bevy of others who have gotten in on the business—create communal points of reference. It’s a form of motivation, pushing readers to recreate whatever they find compelling about the editorial for themselves. Klanten sees Gestalten’s readers as “people who are still curious but not yet completely defined.”
“We are trying to encourage people to pursue a creative career on their own grounds, an interesting and functional way of living,” Klanten explains. “The Gestalten community seeks to get them in touch with other people and concepts. ”
This publishing philosophy goes back to the original definition of lifestyle. The phrase “style of life” was actually coined by the early 20th-century psychologist Alfred Adler. It wasn’t about social class, demonstrations of taste, or a refined aesthetic that gets tagged on Instagram as it does today. Rather, it meant a mode of approaching the problems of life, including friends, love, and work. For Adler, lifestyle was no less than “the sum total of the values, passions, knowledge, meaningful deeds, and eccentricities that constitute the uniqueness of each individual,” as a 1990 journal article from In Context called “The Question of Lifestyle” put it. In short, there could be a book for every style of life.
Books exist to slow [the] process down, to freeze a moment and memorialize it so we can look back at what actually happened.
Yet social media has become the principal way many of us seem to approach life, documenting our surroundings on Instagram or honing a sharp voice on Twitter (to re-contextualize Warhol: in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 followers). These platforms are where the cultural conversation takes place. We don’t rely so much on the hierarchical systems of books and editors, but rather get it straight from the source.
Lately, it seems like every day there’s a new hashtag for communities to rally behind, whether it’s the frivolity of #VanLife and #TodaysOffice, or the vital politics of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. These labels, like great book titles, communicate something of the movement’s meaning and give its participants something to connect with. Trends bubble up and emerge in force before they’re canonized or catalogued by books simply because they are adopted by so many people.
So, why are lifestyle books still so popular, given the immediate broadcast power of social media and its inexhaustible supply of content? Well, for one, there’s a lot of noise out there. No one can follow or digest everything. The feeds also move so fast that you’ll miss anything that you don’t catch the moment it happens—the Kinfolk aesthetic might have been cool on Instagram six months ago, but now we’re on to L.A.-succulent-bohemian-chic. The books exist to slow this process down, to freeze a moment and memorialize it so we can look back at what actually happened.
While their lifestyle competitors embrace video or social media, Gestalten remains proudly print. Instagram doesn’t represent competition, just more material to document through the curatorial and editorial process. As Klanten says, “There is no substitution for our in-hand adventures.”
And the books, in turn, become a kind of aggregate non-digital monument to our lives and times. Even if it’s familiar to you now, just think about future historians. Instagram won’t exist some day, but print will.