Josefina, the Assoulines’ housekeeper for the past 20 years, opens the door into the stately entrance hall. Giant busts representing four continents (Europe, America, Africa, Asia) line the wall. The unusual bronze-painted terracotta heads from the late-19th century once graced David Hicks’s office. Each is mounted on a six-foot-tall mahogany and ebony base created by the design legend himself. From the ceiling hangs a striking Deco light fixture, a gift from designer Azzedine Alaïa. In the gallery off the hall, an abstract Andrée Putman carpet shares space with red-and-gold coromandel screens. Everything that meets the eye in the world of the Assoulines comes with a fascinating story and from a place of passion. The design of this four-bedroom duplex in the historic Palais-Royal is no exception. Passion is what launched Martine and Prosper’s publishing empire in 1994, after the release of La Colombe d’Or. Intended to be nothing more than a celebration of their most adored hotel in the South of France, the book captured the art and soul of a place enriched by its unpretentious luxury. The book personifies not only the professional work that has followed (more than a thousand exquisitely crafted photography books bringing to life fashion, art, design) but also the couple’s aesthetic in their private life, where a sense of family and friendship, style and beauty define the atmosphere.
Today Martine and Prosper, along with their 20-year-old son, Alexandre, are in Paris for a brief spell (when not traveling the globe for work they split their time between here and New York), and not a moment is wasted. A dinner party is a few hours away, and the apartment needs to feel as if they’ve never left.
Huge bouquets of white lilies have been delivered; the ten-and-a-half-foot-long red lacquered table has been covered with a crisp white linen cloth; fresh cream-colored tapers stand in silver candelabras placed at either end; smaller votive candles are layered precisely in between. Josefina is arranging the last of the ten settings when the quiet of the room is broken by Martine and Prosper. Moving swiftly around the table to their own choreography, they whisk off the settings and remove the candelabras and tablecloth. “It’s a dinner of family friends,” Martine says, almost to herself. “This is too formal. I want easy, like a picnic.” Minutes later and with barely a word spoken between them, the two have created a table that suits their mood for the party. Josefina instinctively knows the finishing touches: adding back the votives, plus bottles of red wine and salt and pepper shakers.
Much of the home’s singular decorative style is owed to Prosper’s genius. He has an intense and brilliant sense of space. The red table, for instance, is intentionally narrow to create a more intimate effect. He’s equally as creative. He points to a giant piece of black coral spreading itself like a lace mantilla from its baroque base on the coffee table in the living room. It’s the focal point, and when seated on the Christian Liaigre couch directly opposite, the photograph (taken by Prosper) above the fireplace of a Roy Lichtenstein sculpture in Leo Castelli’s apartment seems all the more surreal viewed through its web of wandering branches.“We spotted the coral in a flea market in Naples—love at first sight,” he says. “We knew immediately that it would live here, by my photo.” The coral was shipped to Paris without so much as a branch disturbed. And this is how they do it: They travel somewhere, find the local flea market and bring home eclectic treasures that speak to them. Although plenty of finds, like two Louis XIV chairs and a 1920s Oceanic mask, also come from Paris’s famous flea market, which Prosper visits whenever in town.
Like all good collectors, the pair knows the art of patience. Fifteen years ago, when they found new offices for the company near the Place Vendôme, they left their apartment in the 16th Arrondissement, determining it was too far. Not loving anything they were seeing, the family moved into the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. Then one morning their agent called Prosper and insisted they meet at Palais-Royal in half an hour. Prosper knew within moments of walking in (he’s anything but indecisive): The 4,000-square-foot home was a rare gem in a 400-year-old complex where so much history has been lived out.
He called Martine, described it to her and said, “There’s just one problem,” recalls Martine, laughing. “There is a constant tweet, tweet, tweet.” He was referring to the thousands of birds that inhabit the chestnut trees forming a deep trough of shaded paths through the Palais’s magnificent garden. Today when asked if the birds are a bother, they say, “Constantly and divinely.” On the rare days when they share lunch together alone, they sit at a small antique card table simply set by Josefina next to a window with a view, like every window in the apartment, over those immaculately groomed trees.
There is a soft amber glow from the hidden lights in the bookshelves in the living room as dusk falls, and Josefina lights the candles. Brazilian music is turned on as guests start arriving, filling the air with conversation and laughter. Azzedine Alaïa greets Dior CEO Sidney Toledano, and they head to a corner to talk. Catherine Pégard, the president of Versailles, walks in wearing a dress the color of fresh roses. Artist Christoph von Weyhe chats with Alexandre, who is filling Champagne glasses. Martine’s mother, Marquise Sanguin de Livry, who is visiting from the South, greets businessman Keith Yoo, the son of Korean photographer Ahae, who is collaborating with the Assoulines on two upcoming books. Martine and Prosper usher in the last guest, artist Ruben Alterio, and announce, “Dinner is served.” The fun is just beginning in the most perfect setting for an evening at the Palais-Royal.