"Sadia Bruce never studied natural history in school, but here's what she wants for Christmas: 'Cabinet of Natural Curiosities,' a $200 oversize book of plant, animal and insect illustrations from the collection of an 18th-century Dutch pharmacist. 'It might give the idea that I was cerebral,' says the 26-year-old standardized-tests tutor, who lives in Montclair, N.J.
Buying smart is taking on new meaning. From shadow boxes of beetles (pinned and labeled) to replicas of gibbon skulls, home-decor items and other gifts with an intellectual aesthetic are big sellers this season.
Aspiring eggheads sometimes want things they may not even understand. Nancy Bass Wyden -- co-owner of The Strand, a new, used and rare books emporium in New York, and director of its 'books by the foot' division -- says sales of insta-libraries, including editions in French and German, are up 140% this year. 'I'm not sure if those folks knew how to read those languages,' says Ms. Wyden of some recent customers.
Prices range from contemporary fiction for $50 a foot to leather-bound classics for $400 a foot. (On the whole, people don't seem all that interested in reading books: Bookstore sales nationwide fell 1.6% in the first nine months of 2006, according to the Census Bureau.) Other Strand clients include private-equity king (and board member of the New York Public Library) Stephen Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, who Ms. Wyden says spent $200,000 on books for their Park Avenue triplex, including pastel-colored books for a bedroom antechamber and movie-reference works and academic books for the family room. Through his spokesman, Mr. Schwarzman declined to comment.
Retailers and marketers say the interest in things that make people look smart is partly a reaction to the Internet, which has made hardcover encyclopedias, maps and models obsolete -- and hence more desirable. Baby boomers, in particular, are keen on items that make them seem well-educated, well-traveled or well-read.
'They aren't hesitant to try to communicate that,' says Stephen Gordon, chief executive of the Sundance Catalog, which this season is selling refurbished manual typewriters from the 1940s, including the Royal Arrow ($695), 'a steadfast companion during Hemingway's frequent stays in Havana.'
At Assouline.com, 'Le Questionnaire de Proust,' a $295 leather-bound facsimile of the French writer's famous list of interview questions and his handwritten replies -- plus blank pages so contemporary questioners can live out their own Proustian impulses -- is temporarily sold out. Modern Library's six-book boxed set of 'Remembrance of Things Past,' meanwhile, is ranked 27,318 on the Amazon sales list.
The smart look is partly rooted in the sciences, both natural (astronomy, geology, zoology) and applied (architecture, forensics, medicine). Sales of minerals such as amethyst geodes and fool's gold at the American Museum of Natural History in New York have soared more than 130% this year. The museum store recently added provenance certificates to some of its gold and meteorite samples, attesting to where and when the rocks were mined or found. Several pages of Restoration Hardware's holiday catalog this season are devoted to astronomy-themed gifts. And 'Cabinet of Natural Curiosities' is one of the most popular items from art-book publisher Taschen, which released a smaller, more affordable $60 edition last year. Its distinctive red coral cover made it an instant hit in design magazines and stylists frequently use it as a coffee table prop.
'People like science stuff that subconsciously has a lot of weight because it doesn't seem frivolous,' says David Thompson, president of Vagabond Vintage Furnishings, an Atlanta-based wholesaler that sells to Williams-Sonoma Home and other companies. 'They want things that seem sophisticated.'
Some retailers are increasingly veering into the unusual or the macabre. A series of decoupage plates by John Derian ($880) depicts a 19th-century image of a skeleton. The Evolution Store in New York City, which sells replicas of skulls (a replica of the Australopithecus 'Lucy' is a top seller) and other bones, has opened a new department devoted entirely to insects. Companies are also exploring funkier parts of the natural world, such as fungi, sea creatures and crustaceans. A stylized faux sea-urchin condiment bowl with a gilded interior and a silver spoon is the best-selling new item from Vagabond Vintage Furnishings.
Not everyone approves of decorating to look brainy. 'Queer Eye' interior designer Thom Filicia compares it to wearing eyeglasses without a prescription. 'It's creating a facade,' he says. Literary and culture critic Harold Bloom is similarly unimpressed. 'I find it too absurd to stimulate me to any comment,' Mr. Bloom wrote in an email. Others object solely on visual grounds. 'Personally, little bird skeletons frighten me,' Mr. Gordon says."