Coffee-Table Aesthetics

Anyone raised in '60s suburbia was well-acquainted with that emblem of faux cultural striving, the coffee-table book. Those were the days when the TV set was the real centerpiece of the home, but few of us in upwardly mobile northern New Jersey could admit it. The "console set" was created to hide embarrassment over our real cultural status by enclosing the screen within crappy walnut veneer off in the "family room." The ironically named "living room" was the place where you absent-mindedly left those unread copies of The New Yorker to impress others, and coffee tables were designed specifically to contain 50-pound slabs of ersatz literature.

With a father in advertising and a mother training to be a therapist, the Smith household's appearance of cultivation ran thick, pretty much fed by suburbia's pseudo-intellectual eco-system. Because my father was a commercial artist, family and friends assumed he had a deep appreciation of "real art," and so we had more gifted Michelangelo and Renaissance Art books in our house than Wedgwood dishes on display. And that's saying something. It was only after the divorce, when all truths in suburbia really get told, that my father revealed to me that he didn't "give a crap about Michelangelo," but that everyone in the family thought a commercial artist should.

To this day, my mother continues the tradition started with my father. Since I am a "writer" I get every oversized tome having to do with "Stratford-on-Avon." In the odd world of middle-class ambition, the cultural categories are painted with wide rollers. Anyone who writes about media apparently has a deep and quiet respect for the Bard. Actually, I can't even remember the first line of any sonnet... and I was an English major.

Don't get me wrong. I am less cynical than I sound about all this, because I did learn a lot glancing through those weird coffee-table books. I always felt sorry for the writers who actually composed full-length texts that no one read. The real art of coffee-table book design was the image caption and prose blurb. That was all any living room browser really could capture. And the books were so unwieldy it was physically impossible to read one in bed without risking asphyxiation. The one behemoth I did read cover to cover, The Art of Walt Disney (the best coffee-table book ever!), I think left me with asthma.

There is a point to this long, coffee-table-sized lead-in. When perusing the oddly satisfying Esquire Mobile application from Hearst ( on your WAP browser, it struck me that the company had succeeded in translating the aesthetic of the coffee-table book to a phone and that it worked in ways that instruct both publishers and marketers. Arguably the handbook on urban social and cultural striving, Esquire's mobile site doesn't even try much to be mobile-ready in the usual way. There is no daily or real-time content. There is nothing here that on-the-go mobilistas need to know. There is a compendium of offbeat drink recipes and a limited directory of the best bars in the country, but these are more excuses to be witty than to be useful on the road. Instead, legendary editor in chief David Granger and Hearst mobile director Sophia Stuart actually drilled into the 75-year Esquire's archive to deliver a series of munchabale images and clever lines.

We get funny jokes from beautiful women, wallpapers from the great Alberto Vargas' early 1940s pin-ups in the magazine, and even drink recipes from a 1949 Esquire handbook. And who would have guessed that the "70 Greatest Sentences" from the magazine's 75-year archive (Capote, Styron, Trillin, etc.) would be great mobile fare? Like the coffee-table book, what makes this exercise great is the art of the light browse. Everything is presented in one-sentence fragments, but in wells deep enough to drill and drill and drill.

What am I learning here, other than the fact that Capote writes a better sentence than I do, and that I should have paid more attention to all those "writers'" coffee-table books Mom tossed at me? I am learning that just about any intriguing content can be made appropriate to the mobile platform if it is carefully edited, framed with the right sensibility, and built in a way that lets the user control when to start and stop the browsing process. Hearst's Sophia Stuart tells me that the company's research found that most users spent eight to 10 minutes three times a day exploring their phones. This is the rough equivalent of sitting in a suburban living room waiting for the host to figure out the espresso machine and cracking that Jasper Johns: Master Artist tome. If you can fill that mind void with content that is mildly intriguing but not too taxing, vaguely edifying without being downright cultivating, you are onto something.

The same browsing principle holds true for advertisers. If we know that people actually like to drill and browse on a phone, why are we giving them "landing pages"? Perhaps we need to give them "launch pages"? Maybe the best-Ssponsored experience on a phone involves dwelling in content. To some degree we have seen this in the advertorial WAP campaigns for Toyota's F.J. Cruiser, but this could also be a part of the banner experience. The browsing sessions gives marketers the opportunity for surround session advertising on phones. Banners could either reiterate the same message or create serial messaging that evolves as the user drills into the content. Imagine if the ad creative around a well of browsable content were so good that it could pull the user into that next screen just as readily as the promise of another Esquire magazine quote or Vargas pin-up?

The mobile platform is exciting because it continues to surprise us (well, me) with what does and doesn't work here. The last thing in the world that should make sense here is the coffee-table book. And yet, done well, the same aesthetic can apply here.

But please don't tell my mother about this. If someone somewhere creates a mobile tour of the Globe Theater, I am getting it next Christmas.

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