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Book gift ideas: Design, architecture, cities

This year’s best design and urbanism books feature impeccable modern interiors and fantastical cityscapes, educational toys and landscape utopias, plus playgrounds, textiles, subway tiles, and road trips.

Beyond their stimulating content—several of which include the words and photos of Curbed contributors—these volumes all look stunning on a table. If they don’t end up tucked under a Christmas tree for a loved one, they each make a perfect excuse to find a cozy nook on a winter afternoon as well.

Need more gift or holiday reading ideas? Don’t miss our list of 101 books about where and how we live and the 17 best new kids books for young urbanists.


California Captured: Mid-Century Modern Architecture, Marvin Rand by Pierluigi Serraino, Emily Bills, and Sam Lubell

Julius Shulman might be better known, but LA-based architectural photographer Rand bore witness to essential works by modern masters during the same period, shaping the world’s perceptions of the state.


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Bodys Isek Kingelez edited by Sarah Suzuki

Starting in the 1970s, Congolese artist Kingelez envisioned vibrant buildings and cities of the future with paper, cardboard, plastic, and packaging, sculpting an alternative vision to the post-colonial development of Kinshasa. This MoMA show—which is up through January 1—was one of the most winning exhibitions of 2018.


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One-Track Mind: Drawing the New York Subway by Philip Ashforth Coppola

Coppola spent decades visiting, drawing, and researching the tile, terracotta, and faience artworks that give NYC commuters a daily dose of art. This book is a tribute to his quest and a guide to looking at the often-frustrating subway with fresh eyes.


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Inside North Korea by Oliver Wainwright

The Guardian’s architecture critic gained remarkable access to the world’s most secretive city, examined here alongside over 300 of Wainwright’s own photos, dominated by symmetrical buildings and sickly pastel hues.


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Culture Is Not Always Popular: Fifteen Years of Design Observer edited by Michael Bierut and Jessica Helfand

This retrospective of the website Design Observer, which radically reinvented contemporary criticism when it debuted in 2003, is perfectly timed as the design industry re-examines the state of its discourse. The volume includes essays by Curbed contributors Alissa Walker, Alexandra Lange, and Karrie Jacobs.


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Beaches by Gray Malin

Hop on a world tour of photographer Gray Malin’s aerial images of sunbathers, with umbrellas dotting the sand like technicolor punctuation.


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The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids by Alexandra Lange

From wooden blocks to city blocks, the Curbed architecture critic’s book explains why child-focused design is actually for everyone.


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The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism by Joseph Becker and Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher

This book (and the accompanying exhibition at SFMOMA) takes a fresh look at the utopian dreams and commercial realities of one of the 1960s’ most influential mergers of architecture, landscape and supergraphics, all on a 10-mile rocky reach of northern California coastline.


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Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: East Coast by Sam Lubell and Darren Bradley

An indispensable companion for travels up or down I-95, and an ideal pendant to the authors’ 2016 West Coast guide, this beautifully photographed book gets away from the usual subjects and introduces you to the modernism of New Hampshire, the commercial architecture of Harlem, and sublime beauties in Sarasota.


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Imagining Frankenstein’s decor in Decorating a Room of One’s Own.
Becca Stadtlander and Decorating a Room of One’s Own

Decorating a Room of One’s Own: Conversations on Interior Design by Susan Harlan

An impeccably executed humor book turns the shelter craze on its head by featuring home tours with literary characters.


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Archigram: The Book edited by Dennis Crompton

Every holiday season needs an architecture book as big as a house: This compendium of the published work of the 1960s techno-utopian collective is a wonderful trip.


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Design for Children: Play, Ride, Learn, Eat, Create, Sit, Sleep by Kimberlie Birks

Everything wonderful designed for kids over the past 100 years, in a book one can’t help but wish were a catalog.


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The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster

“He was a gay man with a fascist history living in a glass house, and he liked nothing better than to throw stones,” writes Mark Lamster, in his unflinching biography of one of the most famous (and infamously complicated) architects in history.

Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018 edited by David Kipen

Missionaries, dignitaries, celebrities—they all had something to say about Los Angeles. This fascinating compilation by one of LA’s most insightful literary voices seeks to explain one of the world’s most misunderstood cities.


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Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America by Monica Obniski and Darrin Alfred

Curbed’s Alexandra Lange is among the contributors to this catalogue, which explores why postwar design by the Eameses, Henry P. Glass, Isamu Noguchi, Anne Tyng, and many more was so infused with whimsy and wit. The book accompanies the popular Milwaukee Art Museum exhibition; the show heads to the Denver Art Museum in spring 2019.


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Ruth Asawa by Tiffany Bell

Asawa described her woven-wire works as “drawings in the air,” lightweight sculpture that is able to hold a room without needing a pedestal. This book is as close as most will get to her current retrospective at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis, Missouri, and serves as a reminder that art needn’t be big to be bold.


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Anni Albers by Ann Coxon

Albers was one of Asawa’s teachers at Black Mountain College, after she and husband Josef fled Nazi Germany. Here she finally gets the solo spotlight on her mesmerizing, modernist experiments in weaving, featuring new materials, intricate pattern, and masterful color.


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Texas Made/Texas Modern: The House and the Land by Helen Thompson and Casey Dunn

This is an exquisite survey of the state’s larger-than-life approach to modernism, with photos by Curbed contributor Casey Dunn.


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