A grand collection of gift books documents the most enduring styles and designs


December 12, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers Solis-Cohen Enterprises Peter R. Solis-Cohen contributed to this story.

President and Mrs. Clinton might not be popular in every American home, but their newly redecorated White House quarters clearly are in fashion, if one can judge by several works about Victorian taste likely to be among the bounty of new gift books collectors will be unwrapping this holiday season. (Home libraries are fashionable again, thanks in part to the first family.)

Victorian America

"Victorian America: Classical Romanticism to Gilded Opulence," by Wendell Garrett, edited by David Larkin (Rizzoli, $65), is the second in a trilogy of picture books on American styles ("Classic America" by the same team appeared last year).

The Clintons will feel right at home leafing through this book's gorgeous architectural and interior photographs, which provide a veritable national tour of Victorian taste (organized in three regional sections: "The Age of Romanticism in the Agrarian South," "The Age of Energy in the Industrial North," and "The Age of Expansion in the Frontier West"), beginning at the Hermitage, President Andrew Jackson's Tennessee residence.

"Victorian Style," by Judith and Martin Miller (Mitchell Beazley Publishers, distributed by Antique Collector's Club, $45), is an illustrated survey of Victorian design covering architecture, fabrics, wallpapers, furniture and lighting.

Included are collections of everything from hats to toys, and shellwork to papier-mache. The luscious photos are designed to inspire readers to go out and shop for Victorian furnishings. It concludes with a directory of resources for antiques and reproductions and a list of historic places to visit for inspiration in Britain and the United States.

Filling up the room

Once a room is decorated and furnished in Victorian style, every nook and cranny will need to be filled with appropriate knick-knacks. To help you choose, consult "Victorian Treasures: An Album and Historical Guide for Collectors," by Carol McD. Wallace (Abrams, $34.95). Reading this book is like walking through an antiques show specializing in English and American Victoriana; in fact, many of the 200-plus objects illustrated are credited to dealers whose addresses are listed at the end. The book reads like a dealer's "sell" speech, covers a broad range of collectibles, and is organized by room: front hall, parlor, library, kitchen, dining room, bedroom and nursery.

Modern design

If you start feeling a bit overwhelmed by Victoriana, immerse yourself in two outstanding new books about modern design.

"Landmarks of Twentieth-Century Design: An Illustrated Handbook," by Kathryn B. Hiesinger and George H. Marcus (Abbeville Press, $55), identifies over 400 objects as landmarks of 20th-century international design. They're selected for their innovative form, material or manufacturing technique, and their place in the history of style, culture or technology.

Reflecting the diversity and complexity of styles in this century .. and the speed with which taste and materials changed, this is an important handbook of furniture and useful objects, arranged by decade and accompanied by a useful bibliography and biographies of designers.

"The Ideal Home: The History of Twentieth-Century American Craft, 1900-1920," edited by Janet Kardon (Abrams, $49.50), is the first book in a multi-volume history of American crafts, a decade-long project conceived by Ms. Kardon, director of the American Craft Museum in New York. It's aimed at gaining public acceptance of crafts as an art form equal to, although different from, painting and sculpture. This book illustrates significant furniture, textiles, jewelry, glass, ceramics, metal and architecture, and has a valuable resource section including artists' biographies and histories of "production centers."

Shaker influences

Among the influences on 20th-century American design is Shaker simplicity, and a new book adds to our knowledge and appreciation of Shaker handiwork.

"The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture," by Timothy D. Rieman and Jean M. Burks (Abrams, $75), sets forth criteria to help identify Shaker furniture and determine community of origin, date, and, when possible, maker. A scholarly work in "coffee table" format, organized by Shaker community rather than furniture type, with good documentary photographs, instructive drawings and clear text, this survey lives up to its pretentious title.

Two new books will appeal to traditionalists and are destined to be classics. "The New Fine Points of Furniture: Early American; Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece," by Albert Sack (Crown, $50), is the book every serious collector and student of American furniture needs. When first published in 1950 it established the standard for evaluating American Colonial and Federal furniture.

After 23 printings and over 100,000 copies sold, the book was updated recently by Mr. Sack, an important Americana dealer, using 650 new photographs and two new levels of evaluation, "superior" and "masterpiece."

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