The holidays are coming, and with them a certain level of anxiety about finding the perfect gift for someone who may not need anything. What could be better than a gorgeous art book? But with thousands out there, which ones are best? Which ones would an expert recommend? The big difference between an Amazon experience and the experience in a knowledgeable bookstore are the experts who work there — people who have a deep passion for their work and can authoritatively tell you what books truly stand out.
Wes Chun has been with Los Angeles’ premier art and architecture bookstore, Hennessey + Ingalls for almost 11 years. His journey to becoming a book authority began with a childhood in Hawaii, growing up in Honolulu.
In a culture known for outdoor adventure sports, Wes was the rare kid who loved going to the library and immersed himself in the adventures found in books. “When I would go to bed at night, I would set up a stool next to my bed and set up my library books. I would read them just before sleep, so when I woke up in the morning, there they were, my books. It felt great.”
Wes went to school in Hawaii and majored in art. He left the islands, came to California, and worked in animation at Disney for 20 years, back in the days when everything was hand drawn. When the digital revolution transformed the animation world, he went back to school – a slow process that meant going to college at night while raising a family with small children. He eventually got his masters degree in biological sciences, and was recruited to work in herpetology ( at the Museum of Natural History on PhD track, and taught undergrad at UCLA).
From Frogs to Fine Art
When he released from the PhD program – which left him disoriented – and searching for a new direction, he landed at Hennessey + Ingalls. There, he discovered that the bookstore perfectly leveraged his love of teaching and his passion for books. “I love being around books, and the environment of all this art. But the best part has been meeting people and helping them.”
“I am one of those people who really love books,” says Chun. “When I get a new one, I’ll open it to smell the ink. Not all ink smells the same, not all paper feels the same. I actually see the customers in the store doing the same thing. They will open books to smell them. It helps you remember the book. It sounds funny, but it’s part of the experience of having a book.”
He has a nice collection of his own books at home that he regularly peruses the way some people dip into Instagram. “It’s nice to go back to them and find inspiration. A certain image may help me to start my day. Maybe it will give me a color scheme for what I will wear that day.”
There is no substitute for holding a book and turning the pages, he says. “What I like about looking at picture books is the physicality of it. So much more goes into the producing of a book than something digital, and I find I get so much more out of them.”
15 Art Books for the Holidays, as chosen by Wes Chun
Jean-Michel Basquiat by Dieter Buchhart (Editions Gallimard ) — Exhibition catalogue for show at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, including drawings, gouaches, and paintings from museums and private collections. One of my favorite artists, this book has excellent reproduction and essays.
The World of Mucha, A Journey to Two Fairylands: Paris and Czech by Hiroshi Unno (Pie Books) — Covers Mucha’s entire career, including works in fine art, illustration, and graphic design. He works with shapes and form in a uniquely compelling way; lots of thought going into these drawings.
Insiders & Company: The New Artisans of Interior Design (Gestalten) — Designers combine traditional processes with modern materials to create furniture and accessories. This is a great book for anyone working in interior design.
Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia by Andrew Blauvelt (Walker Art Center) — Art, architecture, and design of the 1960s and early 1970s counterculture. This is a fun book to look through. It’s interesting to see how they envisioned the future back then and how it didn’t really turn out the way they thought.
The Grand Central Market Cookbook: Cuisine and Culture from Downtown Los Angeles by Adele Yellin and Kevin West (Clarkson Potter Publishers) — Unique recipes from diverse vendors. This book stood out as particularly interesting in the category. I also go there a lot after work — a classic urban food center.
Gardenista: The Definitive Guide to Stylish Outdoor Spaces by Michelle Slatalla (Artisan Publishers) — Shows how to transform the basic garden into an extension of indoor living space and personal retreat. Very well-made book that features a number of what I would call portable gardens, the indoor cactus gardens for an apartment, in addition to normal outdoor gardens.
Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future (Guggenheim Museum) — Abstract painting synthesizing natural and geometric forms, textual elements, and esoteric symbolism. Her work has a powerful, spiritual aspect to it. The visuals are not abstract, but are not really representational either.
Nothing is Lost: Selected Essays of Ingrid Sischy (Knopf) — Essays from a noted fashion, art, and culture critic. This is more of a word book by the former editor of Interview and contributor to Art Forum. It’s an interesting view on the movers and shakers of pop culture of that time.
Delacroix by Sébastien Allard & Côme Fabre (Metropolitan Museum of Art) —Comprehensive monograph and exhibition catalogue for 2018 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This particular volume is very well done with great image quality — the colors seem spot on. It’s one of the very finest Delacroix books out there.
Others favorites include:
Rem Koolhaas: Elements of Architecture (Taschen) — Essential toolkit to building anatomies, e.g. window, facade, balcony, corridor, etc. This is a republication in a single book of what had been a series of pamphlets.
These books below are vintage, and their availability and pricing will vary.
Gypsies by Josef Koudelka (Aperture) — Photos of Roma society taken between 1962 and 1971. The first edition is very rare and considered collectible.
The Illuminated Books by William Blake (Princeton University Press) — All six volumes, by Blake the artist and prophet. This complete set is very rare, and considered by Blake aficionados to be high desirable.
Gustave Moreau by Pierre-Louis Mathieu (Flammarion) — Features the biblical and mythological work of this Symbolist painter, who was influenced by the Italian Renaissance and exoticism. Intricate and detailed paintings in a book that is neither too big nor too small.
Saul Leiter: Colors by Sam Stourdze (Musée de l’Elysée) — Color photos of American life during the 1950s. An outstanding gem of a book with incredible color work. Small by today’s standards at about 6×9 inches. These tend to go as soon as we get them in.
The Canticle of the Birds: Illustrated through Persian and Eastern Islamic Art by Farîd-ud-Dîn Attâr — Classic Persian literature, illustrated by Persian, Turkish, Afghan, and Indo-Pakistani miniatures from the 14th through 17th centuries. A remarkable story of birds in search of God. Words, poems and pictures in a hardback book in a slipcase. A very special book.