Transforming Tables

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Luxury publisher Assouline is intent on reshaping the way we live, one book at a time.

By Jennifer Pappas
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It’s an undeniable reality that in an increasingly digital age, the worth of a physical book—from its cover, to its binding, to the inimitable scent of its pages—has been devalued. The pervasive allure of convenience has prompted legions to empty their bookshelves in favor of e-readers and tablets. Fortunately, however, bibliophiles can take comfort in the work of Assouline Publishing, a luxury purveyor of fine art and travel books that has revolutionized the industry with its unabashedly opulent—and to some, counterintuitive—aesthetic, proving that tangible books will always be coveted items for a certain demographic of discerning taste.

Founded by Prosper and Martine Assouline shortly after their marriage in 1994, and now celebrating its 20th anniversary, the publishing house has steadily reimagined the luxury book market since its early days as a family-owned operation in the south of France. Guided by sheer passion, drive and an unbridled appreciation of beauty, Assouline releases books that are meticulously researched and visually gorgeous—immaculate feats of imagination. These are the type of books that owners proudly display, yet remain almost afraid to touch for fear of marring the pages with their fingerprints. In fact, the volumes are much more than books; they are pieces of art that provoke both powerful thought and dialogue.
Over the years, the Assoulines have welcomed an impressive range of innovators—artists, photographers, writers, architects, fashion designers and international gourmets, among others—into their singular world. And recently, the company has even moved beyond the realm of books, forging upscale retail partnerships to produce branded furniture, leather goods, stationery and candles reflective of Assouline’s distinctive philosophy.

This is a story about books, without a doubt. But this is also a story about how one couple, through a prescient vision of what a book could be, has come to educate, enthrall and inspire a generation of readers through a medium once considered obsolete.

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Though now considered a worldwide sensation, Assouline began as a homegrown endeavor in its founders’ native France. For nearly two years after they were married, the Assoulines worked from their home in Paris, transforming a large shared apartment into a 1,000-square-foot studio. Yet despite the Assoulines’ clarity of vision, their very first book—a retrospective titled “La Colombe d’Or,” featuring photographs of the eponymous French landmark and artists’ hangout—proved a particularly tough sell.

“La Colombe d’Or is a mythical, small hotel in the south of France that is linked with the story of modern art, from [Henri] Matisse to [Alexander] Calder,” Martine Assouline explains. “It shares our concept of luxury because everything is simple but of high quality, and there is soul in that place. It was our second home for years; we would go there for the summer and also on weekends all during the year. The owners were our friends, but being very private, they refused to make a book. So, one day, we came with a layout. Prosper had taken the photos, and I wrote the text. They loved the book … and understood that it was much more interesting than the ‘voyeuristic’ book they had feared.”

While not necessarily a commercial triumph, the release of “La Colombe d’Or” inspired the couple to continue producing detailed books for public consumption. Since then, Assouline has published thousands of titles related to fashion, beauty, travel, art, design, architecture, photography, jewelry, spirituality and the epicurean arts. In addition, the company has released a variety of collections, which continue to push the boundaries of luxury and beauty while remaining true to the brand’s ideology of books as a vehicle for transformation.

The company’s first international success was the Mémoire collection: small, visual books that highlight the legacies of influential designers, brands and artists, from Cristóbal Balenciaga to Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer—an untapped niche the Assoulines thought held some promise.

“Those types of books did not exist at that time; books were more classical in size and content,” Martine Assouline says. “We thought there was a market for them, especially for fashion books. We ended up translating those books into eight languages. Everybody wanted them because it was an easy and fast way to become more intelligent on a subject … with pleasure.”

This decidedly positive reaction to the Mémoire collection inspired the Assoulines to develop more series, including the Game Book collection, which focuses on visual art, film, music and fashion. A lifestyle travel series, the In the Spirit Of collection, transports readers to storied destinations around the globe, such as Capri, Italy; Beverly Hills, Calif.; New Orleans; and Miami. Perhaps the brand’s crown jewels, however, are the volumes that comprise the Ultimate collection, an assortment of large, luxurious, hand-bound books that Martine Assouline calls “amazing pieces” and “works of art in themselves.”

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“Beyond Extravagance” explores the centuries-long tradition of fine jewelry and art objects throughout India’s history.

In just two brief decades, Assouline has attracted a powerful fan base; accordingly, the company now releases several new and reissued volumes each month. In one week alone, toward the end of fall 2013, the brand not only launched three new titles but also accompanied each one with an extravagant congratulatory fete—now a signature component of an Assouline release.

“Monday, we were at the Frick Museum [in New York City] to launch ‘Beyond Extravagance,’ a book on an extensive private collection of royal Indian jewelry owned by Sheikh Hamad Al Thani,” Martine Assouline recalls of the whirlwind week. “Tuesday was the launch of ‘Private’ by Giancarlo Giammetti, about his 50 years of photos and diaries as the partner of [fashion designer] Valentino. Wednesday was the launch of ‘Brancusi New York: 1913-2013’ at Paul Kasmin Gallery, where [Kasmin] is exhibiting five extraordinary pieces by Brancusi. On Saturday, we closed the week with a dinner at Sotheby’s for another launch of ‘Private’—one table of 120 persons in the middle of the most extraordinary paintings.”
The brand’s most recent major launch, “South Pole: The British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913,” was published in January and contains more than 100 rare black-and-white photographs and 12 stunning gatefolds of the historic failed journey commonly known as the Terra Nova Expedition. The special edition reissue is hand-bound, printed on enlarged waterproof paper and limited to 150 numbered copies. True to Assouline’s penchant for over-the-top presentation, the tome’s release party featured an oversized copy of the book displayed on a block of ice that had been carved into the shape of a bookstand.

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Though these overt celebrations may be misconstrued as gimmicks, Martine Assouline is quick to note that producing quality books remains the company’s chief priority—the star-studded parties are mere accessories.
“We love and believe in books more than everything else,” she explains. “We like to extend our taste and vision to the concept of a luxury brand based around culture to create all that can be expected in a chic and contemporary library.”

Behind the Scenes

In addition to the wealth of passion, ideas and expertise the Assoulines possess, the publishing operation is bolstered by the talents of the brand’s creative director, Camille Dubois, who astutely manages many of the tasks that are integral to bringing the company’s vision to fruition. Dubois currently oversees a team of designers in the company’s New York City office, but also spent time in Paris prior to relocating to the U.S. Because of her experience navigating the markets of two of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, Dubois seems almost remarkably in tune with Assouline’s signature tagline, “The Most Sophisticated Books in the World.”

“Assouline wants to create dreams by creating the most cultural … objects and accessories that anyone with style wants to have,” Dubois explains. “Assouline creates the desire of culture and style.”

Along with her managerial duties, Dubois directly influences the design process, working in conjunction with Prosper Assouline on each project—a tremendous amount of responsibility considering the fact that she and her team are in the process of producing an average of 15 books at any one time.

“Once we agree on a format that is the most adapted to the subject, photography and style, Prosper Assouline and myself usually like to envision the cover quickly, which is always very exciting and brings enthusiasm and reality to the project,” Dubois says. “The layout of a book is adapted to the subject but always has to be very chic—classical in a sense and, of course, modern at the same time.”

To date, Dubois’ favorite project to complete has been the special edition of “Gaia,” a photographic account of Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté’s experience aboard the International Space Station in 2009. She even created a calligram—an arrangement of text in which the design creates a visual image related to the meaning of the words themselves—specifically for the book.

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Guy Laliberté, founder of Cirque du Soleil, authored “Gaia.”
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“Gaia” (2011) showcases stunning photography from private space explorer Guy Laliberté’s experience above Earth.

Aside from the obvious expectations that accompany the Assouline name, Dubois abides by her own lofty standards. “I always want to create an object that I am proud of and that I would like to have for myself, or offer to others,” she continues. “I want to create an object that people will be glad to have, to admire, to keep, to show—a book that creates a unique experience or moment for the reader. … That means attention to detail is key in each step of the creation process, from the design and size of the margins, to the fonts, colors and fabric for the cover.”

This keen perception of the importance of the most miniscule details pervades the entire company, allowing Assouline to create visceral experiences for readers who dare to notice and crave beauty in their own lives. Likewise, as many diehard readers and writers lament the coup that digital media has staged against the printed word, Martine Assouline remains a stalwart supporter of traditional books and all that they encompass.

“We are not affected by digital, which is more adapted to essays and fiction books,” she adds. “Our field is about creation and luxury, about pleasure and tangible works. Our digital world goes faster than ever and nothing remains of it. Books are the solid part of our past and present. They also are beauty, and we need that. Don’t you?” B