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

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

The World of Assouline

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

Book publishers Martine Assouline and Prosper Assouline.
Book publishers Martine Assouline and Prosper Assouline.

This piece is reprinted from Departures.

Bright autumn light fills the red-walled Manhattan office of book publisher Martine Assouline. A wall of windows soaring 15 feet high overlooks the Hudson River; sunlight glints off the water. Martine puts on a pair of chic yellow-rimmed Balenciaga sunglasses while her husband and co-publisher, Prosper Assouline, makes espressos from a machine handily situated next to the conference table. The machine is almost futuristic in its complexity but also looks somewhat resigned: Clearly it is pressed into service many times throughout the day. Martine is midstory:

“We were in Paris, and I received a call,” she says, her English laced with a luxurious French accent. “When my assistant told me who it was, I said ‘Are you sure?’ I thought it was une farce, a joke. To have such a person calling herself! But I spoke with her, and she said to me, ‘I would like to have lunch with you and talk about a book.’ ”

The “she” in question was Lee Radziwill, the American-born jet-setter of international renown and exquisite style. Not long after this momentous outreach, Radziwill turned up at Assouline’s Paris headquarters, several stylish suitcases in tow. Inside them were letters, notes, mementos, and photographs, some still in their frames, representing various chapters in her glamorous life. Martine, Prosper, and Radziwill sifted through the material for days, revisiting the 1960s and ’70s jet-set scene. From those memories came Happy Times, a glossy 2001 memoir that would become one of Assouline Publishing’s most successful titles, with more than 40,000 copies sold around the world.

Plenty of publishers would have jumped at the opportunity to bid for the Radziwill project, but the book was a natural fit for Assouline Publishing, which has published more than 1,000 exquisite photography books celebrating the beau monde since 1994. Its first book, La Colombe d’Orcelebrated a quiet hotel in the south of France where the Assoulines had spent many blissful weekends. “It was exactly our vision of luxury,” Prosper recalls. “Small, with fantastic spirit—no marble and flowers, but full of art and soul.” He took the photographs; Martine wrote the text.

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Looking back, the couple says they didn’t know La Colombe d’Or’s publication would lead to the founding of a Paris-based publishing house; they’d considered it a one-time project. “La Colombe was a love between Martine and me,” says Prosper. After all, Prosper, Moroccan born and raised, had a background in fashion and magazine publishing; Martine, whose childhood took her from Africa to South America, was an attorney and a publicist at Rochas, a prestigious fashion house.

But it was clear from the beginning that Martine and Prosper had a compelling, distinctive approach to their subject matter. La Colombe d’Or immediately resonated with its readers, and the couple had no shortage of ideas for more books. The subsequent creation of Assouline Publishing “was not really a decision,” Martine says. “It comes as life comes—you take roads big and small.”

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.”

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.

Being purveyors of savoir vivre can be distinctly exhausting. The couple admits that the concept of downtime is foreign to them. “If we do nothing, it’s like we’re going to die,” Prosper says. They often spend weekends at the office, though to be fair, the space is more beautifully adorned than most private living rooms. Its decor emulates that of their art- and book-filled homes in New York City and in Paris, “where we have the most beautiful apartment in the world,” Prosper says. “I miss it every morning when I wake up elsewhere.”

Much of their travel involves putting down business roots in the world’s capitals; Assouline has boutiques and outposts from Las Vegas to Istanbul to Dubai. Additional store openings are planned for 2012, including a boutique in São Paulo, Brazil, and an impressive 3,000-square-foot flagship in Seoul. “After Seoul, we’ll open in Taiwan and the Philippines,” Prosper says. His espresso cup is empty; he leans across the table to press a fresh cup. “And after that, China and Japan. The next few years are going to be very, very Asian.”

Assouline’s readers have been living vicariously through its globe-trotting owners for years, and Prosper and Martine eventually realized the Assouline world had significant currency beyond the pages of its books. Over the last few years, the publishing house has been quietly building itself into a luxury brand, with offerings ranging from gift items and stationery to ambitious design services.

The marketing of Assouline-as-lifestyle largely began in the publishing house’s first boutique on Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, conceived in 2005 as a contemporary library. Prosper created a series of products to surround the books for a certain mise-en-scène: Assouline aromatic candles, handcrafted bookcases, special-edition Goyard travel trunks jointly designed with Prosper to “capture the nostalgia of traveling with books.”

Encouraged by the success of the venture, Prosper expanded the initiative in 2008, filling Assouline’s then-new Plaza Hotel–based Manhattan boutique with those products; he also layered in an array of vintage books and personally scouted objets d’art and antiques. (The shop at The Plaza now offers custom bookbinding services.) The brand’s devotees began to perceive Prosper as an interiors visionary as well as a gifted publisher. Requests started pouring in for his design services for projects both modest and grand. “Someone in Texas wants me to design them lamps,” Prosper says.

“Someone else calls to ask me to scout a vintage object for them. Now we have someone in Dubai who wants us to find a complete collection of rare books.” He recently created the Library and Culture Lounge at the new St. Regis Hotel in Florence. “We wanted something quite different from a traditional library, and Prosper came to mind immediately,” says Paul James, global brand leader at St. Regis Hotels & Resorts. “He has an innate understanding about creating intimate spaces where people want to interact, introspect or be inspired.” Prosper also created spaces for the Caledonia luxury condominium tower and the downtown Gehry Building, both in Manhattan; the Clarendon luxury residential building in Boston; and the Century luxury residences in Los Angeles. Late 2012 will witness the launch of Assouline Home, which will retail Assouline products and design services through select Assouline boutiques and flagships. Prosper will continue to design the items, and customers will be able to commission elaborate custom library design projects, which he will personally oversee.

Neiman Marcus is currently previewing the endeavor in its holiday “Fantasy Gifts” catalogue, in which the luxury retailer offers a Prosper-designed custom library. The space “could be on a yacht or a second home or a city apartment,” Prosper explains; he will mastermind everything from “the prints to the carpets to the canapés.” A selection of Assouline titles and vintage books tailored to the client’s interests will make up the bulk of the library collection. The price tag: a cool $125,000. The aesthetic will, of course, mirror the Assoulines’ personal taste and will likely incorporate a palate of black, white, red, gray and brown, along with a mix of modern and traditional elements. And who could possibly object to that? A luxurious, Assouline-designed space would be the perfect backdrop for high living and impress even the most discriminating of guests, from Lee Radziwill to the tomato seller from Capri.

It may seem astonishing to see a book company expanding so rapidly in the digital age, or a thriving market for three-dimensional libraries: Countless oracles have proclaimed print products dead. Yet that prophecy only seems to steel the Assoulines’ resolve to make their enterprise’s core products more elaborate and sumptuous than ever. One of their fall releases, Gaia—which features spectacular color photographs of the earth’s surface taken by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté while in orbit in a Russian Soyuz for 11 days in 2009—retails for $7,000; it has been lovingly hand-sewn and dwells in a dignified linen box. The book is Assouline artistry at its finest.

The Assoulines say they are simply doing their part to make things feel more civilized in the often-uncivil Internet era. “The more we live in this digital world, the more we need to have references to feel that you are still part of this world,” Martine says. “With the book as an object, you have the past, the present, the memory and the creativity. People are still buying books; maybe they will just be more selective about what they buy.” And Assouline will be on hand to tempt these selective buyers with a tactile, sensory experience. Thanks to their efforts, the glamour-hungry readers will have access to this rarefied variety of savoir vivre for years to come.

Six New Assouline Books

This year, Assouline has created bigger, lusher books than ever. Among Prosper Assouline’s favorites: Gaia ($65–$7,000), which presents photographs of Earth taken by Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté 220 miles above its surface; and The Impossible Collection of Cars ($650), showcasing 100 of the 20th century’s most exceptional automobiles. “The book is completely made by hand,” says Prosper. “Each image is hand-glued on the page.” Martine Assouline’s fall pick is Ballets Russes, a work celebrating the collaboration between ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, composer Igor Stravinsky, designer Leon Bakst, and artist Pablo Picasso, among others. Also of note: Fernand Léger ($650), The Impossible Collection of Fashion ($650), and Beken of Cowes: The Art of Sailing ($650, in stores spring 2012).

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