The House That Prosper Built: A Q&A With Assouline’s Founder

Simon Watson

The new Maison Assouline, in London's swank Piccadilly, is the library you wish you had—and that's just how Prosper Assouline wants it. With his first flagship store, the luxury publisher of glossy-style monographs is branching out into lifestyle curation. A year in, he talks about inviting you into his home, why selling books should be more like selling macaroons, and his beef with Rizzoli. 

What was the inspiration for the store? Maison Assouline is a dream my wife, Martine, and I have had for a very, very long time, but weren’t mature enough to actualize: to create a home of and for culture. We initially conceived of it as a department store and started building something very clean, quite cold. Everyone loved it of course, but it gave me a bit of a panic. Six months into construction I realized we were actually building a home. We scrapped everything, snapped up every beautiful oriental rug and curio in sight, and tried to create an unostentatious little jewel-box of a world, comprised of numerous different lifestyle components: all our books, of course, but also library furniture, sculptures, gifts, antique tomes, a café. We tried to build a space worthy of the name: It’s called Maison Assouline because we’re receiving you in our home. You sit down, you make yourself comfortable, just like you would if you came to my house. The only difference is that everything is for sale. At my place, nothing is for sale. 

So this better—it’s like going to your house, but I can bring some of it home to my house. Exactly. It’s not a product showroom; it’s a refuge made of memories, filled with objects I’ve collected from around the world, with great emotion: Sepik River masks from New Guinea, Majolica ceramic king’s heads from Sicily, one of the first embroidered English “Chinoiserie” chairs from the 1830s, a set of plaster-and-bronze casts of Jean Cocteau’s hands crafted by his lover, the actor Jean Marais… Things I bought as if for myself.

Maison Assouline is the contemporary library par excellence. And, like a library, it’s comprised of so many facets, different spaces in different styles: the red-walled Cabinet of Curiosities, the Turkish-carpeted reading nook, Swans Bar with its oxygen cocktails and Serrano ham flown in from Seville. It’s sophisticated without being intimidating; it doesn’t have this hushed museum aspect to it. I’ll admit it’s not for everyone: It’s for the cool sophisticate. There’s nice music, a wonderful smell of leather and wood because of these great scented candles we created ($50; assouline.com). There’s Paolo, our Florentine bookbinder, to customize your books at Assouline Bespoke Bindery. Because we’re artisans, I really wanted to show that artisanal side in a digital age. I want customers to feel at home, to relax, to open themselves up and be willing to look at the world differently. Inside every book, after all, are stories, which open your mind and make you dream. This is a space for dreams. 

And what a space. Actually, I was about to close on a space in New York when I got a call from my London store manager saying, essentially, stop everything, you need to see something. So I flew out to London the next day. I’m of the Jewish persuasion, but the first time I walked into the building I felt like I was walking into a cathedral. The ceilings are 30 feet high, the woodwork is 100 years old, the windows are immense, the luminosity intense, the moldings so ornate. I fell in love. The building has impeccable pedigree: designed in 1920, as the Midland Bank, by the great English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens who, in addition to creating houses and gardens in the UK, was also the mastermind behind Old Delhi. For the past ten years, the building housed Hauser & Wirth. Honestly, though, I didn’t give a damn about that: I didn't know Hauser & Wirth, I didn't know the Midland Bank, and I didn't know Lutyens. What I knew was the building had soul. Admittedly, it has some faults—there are no display windows onto the street—but I just fell in love and made due. Like you do with everything you love.

What are your five favorite things? Brunettes, redheads, blonds…

... at Maison Assouline. Oh, certainly: redheads... I’m kidding. This is how you do Maison Assouline right: Have Stefano, the head barman at the shop’s Swans Bar, serve you a nice little glass of Château d’Yquem, with the foie gras on grilled toast we bring in from L’Ami Louis. Get one of our custom Book Bags, embossed with our trademark 19th-century typography, Didot (from $750, assouline.com). They’re really sexy but also “intelligent,” in quotations: practical objects born of intellect. And they’re made by Vuitton’s supplier with leather that’s like butter; I use one every day. Take a red lacquer, bronze, and ebony bookcase with back-lit shelves from our High Society collection, which I designed, and fill it with books from the Ultimate Collection (from $695, assouline.com): they’re only sold at Maison Assouline and they’re entirely made by hand. Every image is hand-glued, the color plates are hand-tipped, it’s insane. Then, go up to the room devoted to rare books, and nab a tiny 15th-century Ethiopian tome filled with religious miniatures, or maybe something from the Cabinet of Curiosities, like a one-of-a-kind papier mache bull’s head Jean Cocteau made for a theater production in the 1940s. Actually you can’t, because I sold that one to John Galliano. I was furious. I’m forever buying thing I love in the hopes of never having to sell them.

And of course don’t forget to take The World of DEPARTURES ($85, assouline.com)! Otherwise I’m going to catch hell.

You’re running late to a dinner party; what do you bring? Our hand-made Italian stationary (from $25 assouline.com) or the leather-bound Proust questionnaire ($50, assouline.com). (We have the original.) In the digital age, giving paper is so much more original and potent than bringing wine or flowers. It means you believe in the written word, in beautiful objects, in the importance and sensuality of touch. It means, most importantly, that you believe the person has a story to tell. 

Those stories are important to you, but so is the way they’re presented. You know, I was born in Morocco and the religious works I grew up with there had a lasting effect on me. As a small boy, I was attracted to their elaborate typography, especially that of an early 20th-century Haggadah that had belonged to my father’s father. It was a beautiful monotint, painstakingly decorated; great care was taken with the layout, the quality, the images. You could see how much its maker cherished it. I understood that the cover could be as important as the content; that beautiful presentation is a mark of respect for the subject. I’ve kept that Haggadah my whole life. 

You’ve had a successful publishing company for 20 years. Why branch out into lifestyle now? We’ve published more than 1,400 style and lifestyle books. I love books, but in limiting myself to them I started to feel a little locked in. I have so much more to say! And, as digital takes over an increasing market share, branching out into lifestyle is a way both to distinguish ourselves and fully ally ourselves with the tactile: our editions, like objects, are physical and artisanal; they can’t be reduced to pixels on a screen.

How do you differentiate yourself from other luxury lifestyle brands? We’re very niche; we won’t do just anything. We’re not putting out a book of Kim Kardashian’s selfies.

What are the risks involved in diversifying like this? Financially, Maison Assouline is a very, very heavy investment: It’s in the middle of Picadilly, it’s 2,000 square feet, it’s in front of Bond Street, in front of Cartier, in front of Tiffany. So it’s expensive. But it’s a gamble on the long term and a statement on our end: it says we’re positioning ourselves as a luxury culture brand instead of simply a place where you buy books.

You’ve got the store, the furniture line, the library consulting service. Do you remain, primarily, a publisher? If you take the meat out of a hamburger, you’ve got a problem. It’s because we’re publishers that we’ve designed bookcases to display books, a seat to read them in, lighting with which to see them, candles to smell like them—the book is the locus.

How does Assouline compete in the age of Amazon? There are bookstores that only sell new books: they’re all closing because of Amazon. And there are bookstores that just sell ancient books: you open the door and the cashier is about to keel over with a heart attack because she’s 90, and everything they have is dusty and weird and outdated. But you take antique books and you present them in a contemporary space, and they become sexy and saleable. Here, nothing is sad, everything is gay. It’s like walking into Ladurée for the mind.

LVMH, the world leader in luxury goods, quietly became an investor in Assouline. Are you going to start designing dresses? No. They came to us about two years ago. They sell luxury wine, luxury boats, luxury shoes—but they didn’t have a luxury culture brand. As publishers, we thought it was a nice bit of recognition, to have the most important luxury group in the world want to be a part of our family. But they’re very minority shareholders, more like friends: If I’m looking to expand, they can suggest a neighborhood; when I was looking to make bags, they gave me Vuitton’s suppliers. But we don’t help them make dresses, and they don’t help us publish books.

Assouline is a brick-and-mortar print publisher. How do you thrive in an anemic market in a digital age? By doing what we know best instead of trying to dilute wine with water. And by selling quality books. After all, a home without books is a home without soul.

What’s next? Confidentially, we’re going to open a Maison Assouline in New York next. Don’t tell my banker.

See the article on Maison Assouline from our October 2015 issue »

Photo Credits: Simon Watson