The idea was quite simple, says 50-ish-year-old publisher Prosper Assouline, in his effervescent, never-a-problem, French-accented way, “I wanted to realize a dream that my wife, Martine, and I had for a very long time, which was to create a kind of home for and about culture. And fill it with everything that we’ve always loved, that we’ve always wanted to read and to do.” And so they did—along with an in-store Florentine bookbinder, and a bar serving small plates of foie gras on grilled toast, Spanish ham flown in from Seville, and should you wish, a flute of Château d’Yquem. “Luxury as we like it, which is to say nonostentatious, no heavy place settings, nothing pompous. Just small and perfect.”
A few years back, Prosper stumbled across a place that he found “remarkable.” In fact, it was more than remarkable: It was a build-ing from 1922, right in the middle of Piccadilly, by the legendary English architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who, in addition to creating houses and gardens, was also the mastermind behind New Delhi. The appropriately named Maison Assouline, which opened last fall, is the couple’s first and, so far, only bookstore-cum-lifestyle boutique. Located at 196A Piccadilly, next to Bond Street, Tiffany, and Cartier, and just a scone’s throw from Fortnum & Mason, the Maison as Prosper sees it, positions Assouline “as a luxury culture brand instead of simply a place where we sell books, filled with all the things we love.”
That their greatest love is books—beautiful, ravishing art and photography books— should come as no surprise. After all, Prosper and Martine created the publishing company Assouline, which has produced more than 1,400 titles since 1994 and now has 18 stores worldwide, from New York and Costa Mesa to Istanbul and Seoul. But the Maison is so much more.
Behind Lutyens’s red-and-white brick façade are soaring ceilings, immense windows, ornate classical moldings, hundred-year-old wood paneling, and library tables arranged ever so artistically with various objets d’art and books, books, and more books. “Even though I’m of the Jewish persuasion,” Prosper says with a touch of mischievousness, “I feel like I am walking into a cathedral.” One room is devoted to rare books, like a tiny 15th-century Ethiopian tome filled with religious miniatures; another room, called the Cabinet of Curiosities, features curios collected from around the world, including such ephemera as candles scented to suggest a library, humidors, magnifying glasses, and bronze and plaster casts of Jean Cocteau’s hands, made by his lover, the actor Jean Marais. Prosper also had a unique papier-mâché bull’s head Cocteau made for a theater production in the 1940s, but he sold it to John Galliano. “I was furious about selling it,” he says. “I often buy things I love in the hopes of never having to sell them.”
A few years before opening Maison Assouline, Prosper and Martine designed their ideal reading room for Neiman Marcus’s annual, very over-the-top Christmas catalog. The contents of the room were sold for $125,000 the first day the catalog appeared, to a woman living in Montana who said she wanted everything—the books, the furniture, the carpets, the tables. At Maison Assouline, there are in fact two collections of “library” furnishings designed by the Assoulines: There’s High Society for more traditional tastes, and a contemporary all-black-and-white line that goes by the name Allure.
Though LVMH is now an investor in Assouline, Prosper is adamant that it plays no role in what or how he does what he does. “We thought it was a nice bit of recognition as publishers, to have the most important luxury group in the world be part of our household. And, yes, when I was looking to make bags, they gave me Vuitton’s supplier, so our bags are of impeccable quality.”
The Assoulines have always done it their way, which is why their books look like no one else’s. After all, who would ever open a “bookstore” on the most expensive stretch of London real estate in this day and age? “There are, of course, stores that just sell new books, and they’re all closing because of Amazon. And there are those that just sell ancient books, where when you open the door you’re pretty sure the cashier is going to keel over with a heart attack because she’s 100 years old, and everything they have is fusty and outdated. But if you take the old and the new, the interesting and the antique, and present them in a contemporary way, they become sexy and you want to have them,” Prosper says. And “remember,” he adds, “inside every book there are stories, and stories make you dream.”
Photo Credits: Simon Watson