The Best Books About L.A. of 2018

It was a good year for L.A.-centric non-fiction. Here are some of our faves.

This year saw a bumper crop of terrific books about Los Angeles, and some great material from L.A. authors (I hear Walt Disney’s Disneyland is fantastic!) Los Angeles magazine contributor David Kipen recently distilled five centuries of observations about the city into his excellent Dear Los Angeles: The City in Diaries and Letters, 1542 to 2018, but we already ran a nice chunk of that in our last issue. So, I’m going to focus on lesser-known looks at the artier side of our hometown, as I put away some great L.A. books of 2018.

California Crazy: American Pop Architecture

By Jim Heimann

A larger-than-life Taschen art book is the perfect venue for the giant hot dogs, drive-through doughnuts, and derby-shaped restaurants that captivated L.A.’s attention in the 1920s and ’30s. Author Jim Heimann has spent decades prowling libraries, pestering old-timers, and hitting up swap meets before dawn looking for photos, matchbooks, and historical evidence that this California Crazy world ever existed, since most of it (with a few exceptions) disappeared before you were born.


Los Angeles City Hall: An American Icon

By Stephen Gee

Los Angeles City Hall spent decades as the tallest building in Los Angeles. It became known around the world as the Daily Planet in The Adventures of Superman and was destroyed by aliens in War of the Worlds. Even today, more than 50 movies and TV shows are filmed there every year, and its because City Hall is a spectacular building that provides a dramatic backdrop to the humdrum routines that make a city function. This handsome, elegant volume explores every nook and cranny of the iconic tower, bringing us up close to see all the tiny details. The rare period photos and gorgeous original illustrations from architects John and Donald Parkinson are spectacular. Every coffee table in Los Angeles should be required to display this book.

California Captured: Mid-Century Modern Architecture: Marvin Rand

By Emily Bills, Pierluigi Serraino, and Sam Lubell

Photographer Marvin Rand was born in Boyle Heights and learned advertising photography at Los Angeles City College. He captured the otherworldly architecture of mid-century Los Angeles for clients like Welton Becket and Craig Ellwood in a way that convinced other clients to hire them. His work appeared on the cover of Arts & Architecture magazine, and he worked to save landmarks like the Watts Towers in the 1960s. His work never received the exposure of his contemporary Julius Shulman and most of his magnificent photos have been hidden away in files since his death in 2009. This beautiful oversized book shines a spotlight on a talented artist who spent so much time shining his light on others.

Cowboys, Creatures, and Classics: The Story of Republic Pictures

By Chris Enss and Howard Kazanjian

Before it was home to Big Brother and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, before Gilligan’s Island, and Leave it to Beaver were filmed there, what is now the CBS lot in Studio City was Republic Pictures. This cozy scrapbook records the days when John Wayne and Roy Rogers rode horses and shot pistols at the studio that’s now tucked behind a Color Me Mine on Ventura Boulevard. Republic was known for its Westerns of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, but perhaps even more for the cliffhanger shorts that played in theaters before the feature. Those flicks, like Captain Marvel and King of the Rocket Men, were a big influence on George Lucas when he came up with Star Wars.

An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles: Fully Revised 6th Edition

By Robert Winter, David Gebhard, and Robert Inman

More than half of Dr. Robert Winter’s 94 years have been connected to his seminal guide to L.A.’s best buildings. He and his late colleague David Gebhard first penned this tour for LACMA in 1965 and Winter has been adding rooms ever since. The indispensable brick-sized architectural “bible” is packed with maps, photos, and bouncy descriptions that bring L.A. landmarks to life. The guide directs you to all the famous houses you wish you lived in, but is also filled with lesser-known marvels like hidden PWA murals, the ruins of a socialist utopia in the desert, and the “Biblical fortress” that is the Hustler casino.

Hooked on Hollywood

By Leonard Maltin

Leonard Maltin’s work is a treasure for anyone who loves the movies. The New York native started collecting old photos and writing about film stars in the fifth grade, graduating to his own movie magazine at the age of 13. Not only is he a superfan who’s spent decades mining the brains of actors and historians to contextualize what we see on the screen, but no one can argue that he does not genuinely love the subject matter. After relocating to Los Angeles, he spent 30 years reviewing film for Entertainment Tonight and two decades teaching at USC. His latest book combines deep digs into a few obscure titles with interviews dating back to his early years showcasing stars of the silent era and beyond, shining a light on our hometown industry like no one else can.

Tony Duquette’s Dawnridge

By Hutton Wilkinson 

Tony Duquette was an interior decorator and stage designer. He created iconic jewelry and lavish displays inside the old Bullocks Wilshire department store. In 1949 he bought an unbuildable canyon lot above a ravine in Beverly Hills for $1,500 and started work on a fanciful home in a garden that would soon sing with the colorful exploits of his splashy society friends—it still does. Duquette passed away two decades ago, but his partner, Hutton Wilkinson, keeps up the traditions at the overgrown, silk and satin, antler-filled, jewel-encrusted, rococo phantasmagoria. If you’re lucky, you might hear about the occasional charity auction where you can win a visit to the gardens. In the meantime, soak up some of Duquette’s over-the-top exuberance through this colorful tome.

Paperback L.A.: A Casual Anthology

Edited by Susan LaTempa

Three slim rat-a-tat volumes reflecting city life are a little manic, spanning the centuries, cultures, and distant geography of the city. But they feel so alive. The machine-gun assemblage brings together Ray Bradbury, downtown protestors, a recent SNL skit, and a Dodger game that Vin Scully called more than a half-century ago, but it all works together to give a sniff and a taste of the mosaic landscape here. Genius.

The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka

By Robert Brown, Tushara Bindu Gude, Donald Stadtner, and Lakshika Senarath Gamage.

The Renaissance Nude show at the Getty Museum seems to have soaked up most of the oxygen this year, but this beautifully designed exhibit and book from LACMA highlights a part of the world that might not be as familiar to most visitors, but whose beauty and historical diversity are stunning. This exhibit is the first comprehensive survey of Sri Lankan art organized by any American museum and draws on the massive Southeast Asian collection at LACMA. The museum brought on Silver Lake architects Frank Escher and Ravi Gunewardena (who happens to be of Sri Lankan descent) to create a sleek and precise jewel box for the relics, gemstones, and ceramics laid out in dark spaces under precise lighting. The catalog is just as elegant.

Banking on Beauty: Millard Sheets and Midcentury Commercial Architecture in California

By Adam Arenson

Once upon a time, a visit to a department store or a branch bank was a chance to be inspired by fine art. Architects incorporated custom paintings, sculpture, and stained glass into these common buildings in an era of popular luxury. Howard Ahmanson (he paid for that nice theater at the Music Center and owned the chain of Home Savings banks) was especially fond of the artwork of Millard Sheets and hired him to oversee his massive art program from the 1950s to the 1980s. Local history was a favorite subject for enormous mosaic installations on prominent corners throughout the state. Ensuing waves of corporate takeovers doomed most of the art, but some remain, like the 1968 masterpiece at Sunset and Vine that’s now a Chase bank. This richly illustrated book finally tells their story.

Kem Weber: Mid-Century Furniture Designs for the Disney Studios

By David A. Bossert

When author David A. Bossert left a long career in animation at the Walt Disney Studios, the company gave him the gift of his vintage animator’s desk to take home. The history of the dinged up, nicotine stained workhorse used by generations of artists intrigued him, and now we have the definitive guide to the work of a designer who not only created the studio buildings but the gorgeous and highly specialized furniture for the directors, writers, and animators who filled them. Weber’s original drawings are magnificent, and historic photos of the designer inspecting the work side by side with Uncle Walt highlights the level of detail that the Burbank studio has always been famous for.

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