How the Luxury Book Publisher Assouline has Managed To Thrive in an Anemic Book Publishing Market

Stories from Departures.
Jan. 1 2012 7:00 AM

The World of Assouline

How a luxury book publisher has thrived in an anemic market.

(Continued from Page 1)

Since then, Assouline has become a unique force in the world of luxury book publishing. “Martine and Prosper Assouline have carved an exclusive niche in publishing, whereby the book itself becomes an objet d’art,” says Tom Kalenderian, general merchandise manager of Barneys New York, which has retailed Assouline titles for years. “They create high-quality books that embody style and beauty, and which ignite an emotional reaction to what is really exciting and of the moment.”

Hundreds of iconic artists, designers, photographers, and culinary masters clearly agree with Kalenderian. Among the luminaries who have had their diverse stories shaped and told by the publishing duo: designers Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg, chefs Daniel Boulud and Alain Ducasse, and photographer Peter Lindberg. The subject matter embraced by the couple seems limitless. The topics of this fall’s releases alone vary widely, from a visual history of the Ballets Russes to a tome detailing the history of Coca-Cola. There’s also Bals: Legendary Costume Balls of the 20th Century, which sports a bright red linen cover and gilt lettering down the spine. (Not coincidentally, Lee Radziwill, with whom the Assoulines have remained close, graces the slipcover.) The common denominator among the titles? Each teems with the savoir vivre first expressed in La Colombe d’Or, says Prosper.

“This phrase means ‘knowing how to live,’ ” he says. “We favor things that are rare and precious, not for their price tag, but because they enrich our lives. Chicness and glamour have nothing to do with money. I would love to do a book on Prince Charles and his dressing room—he is a super-elegant guy—or my next book could be with somebody in Capri who is just a driver of boats or who sells tomatoes.”

In other words, Assouline Publishing celebrates people who know how to enjoy the good life. From its proprietors’ point of view, la dolce vita gleams in a maharaja’s diamond collection and resides in shimmering Venetian palazzi, but it can just as easily be found in a simple, sunny, lavender-filled hotel room in Provence.

This vision has served Prosper and Martine well: In less than two decades, Assouline has become France’s largest independent publisher. With an output of more than 50 titles a year, the company boasts more than 50 employees and is enjoying a period of considerable growth. Last year, Prosper was knighted by the French Ministry of Culture and invited to join the prestigious Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Acclaimed architect and artist Thierry Despont, a longtime friend of Prosper’s, presided over the ceremony at Sotheby’s New York. “You did not ask for this honor; you deserve it, you do not refuse it,” Despont said as he pinned the medal to Prosper’s jacket lapel. He added: “And Martine will wear it for you, for she also deserves it.”

Advertisement

It was a nod to the famously yin-yang nature of Martine and Prosper’s working partnership. Prosper, 53, is the company’s creative director, while Martine, 59, is editorial director, but each project is a joint effort from start to finish. (Of course they have their respective pet projects: Martine’s baby this season is Ballets Russes; Prosper is particularly enamored by The Impossible Collection of Carswhich showcases the 20th century’s 100 most luxurious automobiles.) Prosper has the tireless energy of a jack-in-the-box, while Martine exudes a deep calm. Asked about the benefits of being in a business partnership with one’s spouse, Martine smiles wryly. “Well,” she says after a moment’s consideration, “you don’t need to schedule meetings.”

While most publishers rely on a steady stream of proposals from agents, the Assoulines lovingly curate around 97 percent of their book ideas from their own experiences and sophisticated circle of friends, who include designer Azzedine Alaïa, Richard and Cécilia Attias, photographer Gilles Bensimon, model and actress Marisa Berenson, and art dealer Philippe Ségalot. Any given night in their lives could be fodder for a new book at best, or at the very least, a scene out of a Fellini film. Take an evening not too long ago when the couple sat down to a quiet supper at a Parisian restaurant. Midway through, a famous opera singer stood up and sang an extraordinary aria. At the end of the performance, another equally renowned opera singer rose from the shadows across the restaurant and responded with another aria. Dramatic, magical elements in life seem to seek out the Assoulines, who in turn sift through them and filter them onto glossy sheets of paper.