Design Books: That stand the test of time

design books may

by P. Gaye Tapp

As someone who has loved books since I was a child checking out biographies from the school library, I’ve come to realize there is no cure for such an addiction. I was born this way.

In my library-cum-living room, books line the shelves. These are serious bookcases, with books ordered by genre, or by author’s last name. From there, things go a bit haywire. Beyond the library, there are books on tables, books on the floor, and farther on, more bookcases – and the scenario repeats itself. To single out six design books from my library is like asking which child to save from a fire.

I’ve placed certain parameters to ease the pain, considering only interior design and decoration books, with a mix of old and new. Though many of these books feature classical design, as a designer myself, I cannot profess to be a true classicist. It doesn’t suit my nature. I love mixing it up, but my mix is grounded in a strong sense of English and French design. From there, the true essence of my design taste is a stylish mix of both found in the work of design greats Elsie de Wolfe and Billy Baldwin, Americans both.

Although the decorating books of the moment are packed with pictures – and while I adore pictures – I don’t always agree with the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. I would say that rooms require explanation, and rarely does a photograph reveal a room’s secrets. These are six recommended design books that tell all.

In case of fire, grab Billy Baldwin Decorates by Billy Baldwin! Published in 1972, it reveals his work as quintessential American chic. Baldwin’s rooms still bear up under the bright lights of today’s lacquered walls and slipper chairs, all of which might have been taken from these pages. His advice is so today, you’ll be thinking Billy B. every time you look at a room – and that’s a good thing. Baldwin writes: “Stick to the things you really love. An honest room is always up to date.”  This is a gentleman that would never do you wrong. Chartwell books, 1972, used copies available on for $26

Written in 1897, The Decoration of Houses, by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr. is filled with the expected wit, poetry and prose of writer Edith Wharton and the authority of architect Ogden Codman. This pair changed the world of interior design as we know it. Though its style is perhaps a little corseted, the bones of the book are exquisite. Wharton and Codman liberated overblown Victorian rooms by offering decoration that borrowed heavily from French interior design and architecture. Get past the fact that your house doesn’t have a ballroom, and you will find sound principles for your own decorating. The Decoration of Houses is a classic, and it reads like one of the lush novels Wharton would write years later. Re-issued by Cosimo Classics, 2008, $15.99.

The book Horst Interiors is filled with the evocative photographs of 52 homes Horst P. Horst shot during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Barbara Plumb fleshes out the photographs with details and descriptions, but Horst’s images make it memorable. Studying his work in Vogue and House & Garden as a child had an indelible influence on my perceptions of beauty and design. The combination of Horst’s lens, Plumb’s words, and the interior design of each room will have you rethinking some of your own. Bulfinch Press, 1993, used copies available on for $71.

Three more current books round out the list. The Private House, by designer and antiquaire Rose Tarlow, written in 2001, is her very personal story about decorating her home and the principles that guide her work. Early in the book Tarlow says: “There are those who spend lifetimes in houses that have nothing to do with who they really are…Houses that look too decorated lack the very ingredients that make a home come alive.”  A designer‘s job is at once a balancing act of skill and understanding the client’s needs. Rose Tarlow gets it. Clarkson Potter, 2001, $37.50.

Charlotte Moss Decorates, The Art of Creating Elegant and Inspired Rooms is a favorite of the many current design books in print. With the onslaught of hundreds (yes hundreds) of self-titled decorating books yearly, this is the standout. Written by interior designer and tastemaker Charlotte Moss, the book is a journey through her work with a narrative fixed on encouraging readers to delve into their own personal style. It is filled with beautiful photography and collages. Moss writes: “An empty room is a story waiting to happen and you are the author.”  This book will make you a believer. Rizzoli, 2011, $31.50.

Long overdue in design world, Thomas Jayne’s The Finest Rooms in America takes the reader to 50 of the most beautiful and important rooms in America. From Monticello and Mount Vernon to the New York apartment of the late great designer Albert Hadley, historian and interior designer Jayne identifies the elements that make a successful room, and hones in on what makes it classic and timeless.  North Carolina native Richard Jenrette’s Edgewater library in Barrytown, N.Y., is included. Among “grand examples,” Jayne says, there are others that are “relatively simple because… rooms that are small and not expensive can also be among the finest.” Monacelli Press, 2010, $32.53.

These six books will round out your design library or set you off on the path to creating one. After all, it was Billy Baldwin who said, “The best decoration in the world is a roomful of books.” I can’t argue with that.