10 Best Decorative Arts History Books

by Amy Azzarito

An embarrassingly long time ago, someone left a comment on one of my Past & Present posts asking for my favorite Decorative Arts history books. I meant to come up with a list, but one thing led to another, and it got buried in the to-dos. And honestly, I was a little worried that I couldn’t do the subject justice — the word “best” in the title is a little tongue-in-check. This morning I felt more energized and inspired than usual, so I sat down, sorted through my bookshelves (which are bursting at the seams) and pulled out my favorites to share with you. (I’ve noted which books are more coffee table/reference books and which are more portable.) And please tell me your favorites — I’m desperate for some good recommendations. — Amy Azzarito

My Favorite Decorative Arts Books (in no particular order)

Chairs: A History by Florence de Dampierre
There are many chair books out there, but this is my favorite. It’s not just an identifier but also gives fantastic historic information on lots of different chair types, from Chiavari to Windsor and more. (Coffee Table/Reference)

The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual — and the Modern Home Began by Joan DeJean
This is one of my all-time favorite books — you’ll learn about the history of the sofa, the flush toilet and the evolution of the bedroom, everything that made life a little more comfortable. It’s a great read. (Read Through)

The Abrams Guide to Period Styles for Interiors by Judith Gura (look for used copies)
This is less of a “read straight through” and more of a reference book, a good guide to helping you distinguish your Rococo from your Regency! (Coffee Table/Reference)

Home: A Short History of an Idea by Witold Rybczynski
The book that (for me) started it all. Witold Rybczynski is an amazing writer (you can read his essays here), and this book is a thorough recounting of what makes a home, beginning with the manor halls of the Middle Ages and progressing to contemporary Ralph Lauren-designed environments. (Read Through)

There’s a Bed in the Piano: The Inside Story of the American Home by Myrna Kaye
A fun collection of stories that together give an inside look into the American home and pays particular attention to the development of furniture for the American interior. (Reference/Coffee Table)

Life in the English Country House: A Social History by Mark Girouard
This is a little dense, but it’s definitely a great book on the ins and outs of English country house living from medieval times through the 1940s. (Reference/Coffee Table)

Furniture: World Styles from Classical to Contemporary by Judith Miller
The definitive guide to furniture design by Antiques Roadshow regular Judith Miller. This is one hefty book, but it’s definitely a favorite. (Reference/Coffee Table)

Styles: Compendium of Interior by Francois Baudot
This book is a nice companion to Furniture: World Styles. It’s definitely more France-centric, but since that’s where a lot of historical styles took shape, it’s a good book to have. (Reference/Coffee Table)

French Furniture: From Louis XIII to Art Deco by Sylvie Chadenet
A handy little guide that will help you distinguish your Art Deco from your Art Nouveau. (Reference Book)

The Art of the Table: A Complete Guide to Table Settings, Table Manners and Tableware by Suzanne Von Drachenfels
This book might seem like the odd man out, but eating is certainly a large part of daily life, and The Art of the Table explores how all those strange implements — from the salt cellar to the gravy boat — found their way to our tables. (Reference/Coffee Table)

Suggested For You


  • Judith Miller has an additional book that I used in my History of Interior Design class, called “Decorative Arts: Style and Design from Classical to Contemporary.” It was paired with Gura’s book, and together give a really good overview. (The Miller book is quite large but also pretty, so would be more of a coffee table book.)

    • How fascinating! Where do you teach? I’m interested in taking just such a class!

  • THANK YOU FOR THIS!!!! I have always wanted someone to compile a list about these kinds of books. They’re hard to find so I was wondering if they even existed. EXCELLENT! Thank you again! All of these are to go on my wish list!

  • Thank you for this list! I work in a library, and besides myself I can think of quite a few patrons who would be very interested in many of these books. I’ll be taking this list in with me today.

  • I highly recommend The Art of the Table! I had to have it for one of my Family and Consumer Sciences – Table and Meal Planning class in college. It’s fabulous! History, sketches, and table layout for every type of glass, utensil, plate, etc. you could imagine.

  • Thanks for sharing! This is a great list. I have a couple to add: One of the first scholars to take the history of interior design seriously was Peter Thornton. His coffee-table-sized tome Authentic Decor: The Domestic Interior, 1600-1900 is a true classic. It includes lots of rare images and prints, and the text is fascinating. Another good one is the edited volume Furnishing the Eighteenth Century: What Furniture Can Tell Us about the European and American Past is another great one. If you want to know what seasonal color schemes the French upper crust favored in the 1700s, this is your book!