Sitting in the airy New York office he designed in Chelsea's Starrett-Lehigh Building, contemplating the sun's reflections on the Hudson River, Prosper Assouline is talking about the first book he ever published, Entrée des Fournisseurs (Tradesmen's Entrance). This was in the days when he was a magazine editor and had yet to create his eponymous publishing house. Devoted to the dying haute couture crafts of embroiderers, feather-piece builders, and pleatmakers, the book stirred an idea, Assouline says, that would later help him build a mini publishing empire.
"I discovered a universe behind the scenes, a fading universe that I fell in love with," he explains. "It was evocative of everything that I wanted to do; it was about symbols and memories. Now all our books are about symbols and memories. Outside of that, I'm just not interested."
At 46, Assouline and his wife, Martine, have made a name for themselves in Paris and New York as savvy purveyors of chic, slim volumes filled with elegant text and abundant photographs. These are books, moreover, that can be found in the library—or on the coffee table—of any self-respecting book lover who's interested in art history, fashion, or photography. But they are also for those who care about a book's looks as well as its content. What the Assoulines sell is more elusive than taste itself: It's the flair of connoisseurship packaged with an almost nonchalant elegance, and that effortless quality has made their titles a success. Now publishing more than 40 books a year, the Assoulines are expanding fast—a boutique on the Boulevard St. Germain will open early next year, as will a space in Milan's 10 Corso Como and one in Berlin's Quartier 206. In the fall, a boutique will open at the chic Holt Renfrew department store in Toronto. Other projects include a line of stationery, leather goods, and couture-designed book bags.
"Martine and Prosper are incredibly artistic, efficient, and direct," says photographer Roxanne Lowit, who has published two books with them, including the best-selling People, a collection of vivid celebrity photographs culled from her work of 25 years. "They have their finger on the pulse so they know what's 'in' and what's going to work."
It took more than three years after the publication of Entrée des Fournisseurs for the Assoulines to start up a publishing house of their own. The year was 1994 and they devoted their first book, La Colombe d'Or, to the famed hotel-cum-restaurant on the Côte d'Azur. Prosper shot the photographs and Martine wrote the text. The hotel, Assouline says, gave him his first, and most personal, definition of luxury—a simple plate of chopped summer tomatoes drizzled with olive oil, a bouquet of flowers from the hotel, and a Léger painting on the wall. The book was a success and helped define that unusual mix of jet-set and understatement that would characterize his later projects. His audience, Assouline says, has always been the intelligent, affluent, style-conscious reader and collector. "If he likes one or two of our books, chances are he'll like the other ten as well."
What really propelled the Assoulines to fame was their "Mémoire" series, started a year later. These concise photo-biographies covered Western culture's most brilliant visual minds. The series has grown to hundreds of titles and includes everyone from Schiaparelli to Giacometti, captured through their most essential images and ideas. Assouline compares the books to "cookies" and "little things to nibble on," and it's true that, as with cookies, it's impossible to satisfy yourself with just one. "If you see them together, you'll want them all," he adds.
It would be difficult to overstate just how important the series has become in establishing Assouline as the publishing house for people of taste. These books were in line with the company's original ideas—symbols and memories—but they were not the kind of tired exercises that retrospective works so often are. They always had a little something extra—a recent volume on Cacharel, the French fashion house, for instance, didn't follow the history of Cacharel's life, but focused instead on the firm's golden age, during the 1970s, when it soared to fame using English Liberty prints.
It's an idea they've used in other works. A recent book, The French Riviera, focuses on the area's flamboyant rise in the 1920s and was illustrated almost exclusively with black-and-white photographs and personal archives from that period. It leaves the reader with the nostalgic feeling that he has just leafed through an old family photo album of an eccentric and glamorous great-aunt who had palled around with Coco Chanel and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"What the Assoulines do is take the best of the past and incorporate it with the best of the present and then turn a book out," says Lowit. "It's great images you're familiar with along with things you've never seen before."
In Paris, the publishing house is on the chic Place Vendôme. With only a handful of full-time employees, it's very much a family operation: Martine is in charge of book publishing; Prosper is the creative director (he also takes care of the consulting side of their business); his sister is in charge of creative production, handling such matters as marketing and branding for companies like Christie's and Chanel; his brother runs the production end; and the couple's 11-year-old son, Alexandre, came out with his first book, Le Livre de la Jungle (The Jungle Book), in an edition of 50 for family and friends. "He's already asking me for royalties," jokes Assouline.
The company has ambitions to grow on an international level—they also have a London office and are now setting up an offshoot in Shanghai—and, as Assouline explains, New York was simply too important in the worldwide market not to have a permanent office.
"I used to come here maybe every four months and look at the books that were coming out," he adds. "And I thought we might have a chance to make it here. Our savoir-faire is not redundant with what already exists."
These days Assouline is in town roughly two weeks each month and works out of the West 26th Street office, a vast open space of 10,000 square feet that is filled with personal touches: He designed the large brushed-steel table where the production team works and the two glass-topped tables cut in the shape of Paris. The black-and-white photographs on the walls were taken by Assouline in the apartment of the late art dealer Leo Castelli. Not surprisingly, Assouline is a serious book collector himself. He has a special fondness for the books of art dealer-publishers like Teriade and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler who, from the '20s to the '60s, paired poets and painters to create true works of art.
"These galleries and art dealers produced fresh-looking books with layouts that gave the images and the text their strength," he says. "They inspired me to leave fancy formatting out of my books and to leave as much room as possible for images and text."
Assouline's latest project is a new luxury line of objects and home accessories. The idea, he explains, is to create an entire universe around the books that will complement their soigné aesthetics. Assouline himself designed the first luxury collection, which includes a large limited-edition leather trunk that's filled with a hundred titles from the "Mémoire" series ($9,500) and brings to mind the age of transatlantic ocean travel and steamer trunks.
Goyard, the 150-year-old Parisian trunkmakers who produced the Assouline trunk, brought the project a definite, if understated, cachet—these trunks, after all, are less obvious than, say, Louis Vuitton. Bergdorf Goodman, which houses Assouline's only American boutique (and retail outlet), sold three within their first two weeks in store.
"Prosper looks at books beyond the realm of the printed material," says Robert Burke, vice-president/senior fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman. "He looks at a book as a work of art, as a decorative object, and as something you live with."
Other items include Assouline Fine Vintage, handcrafted wooden crates built for Grand Cru wines that instead hold ten of their bestselling books ($395), and Millefeuille, a stylish aluminum shelving unit made with small planks and oversized bolts ($400) whose rough, industrial look make it timelessly chic.
"For many people, books are an integral part of interior design these days," Assouline says. "And we try to provide a complete package."
This fall, several new titles come in artful boxes made to match their themes. The most voluptuous of all is Queens' Jewels ($300), set in a deep-sea-blue velvet box that opens onto a limited-edition print of a royal's crown. Another, devoted to all forms of color photography, comes in a box wrapped in geometric-patterned paper with a clothlike texture ($300). Assouline also plans to introduce a colorful set of custom-made plastic bookshelves ($6,000), making them available through a mail-order service that will deliver them to your doorstep, wrapped artfully, in typical Assouline style.
"I think of them as jewelry boxes," Assouline says of his boutiques. "In bookstores our books are spread out this way and that; now they'll all be together and look beautiful."
Available in New York at Bergdorf Goodman, 754 Fifth Avenue; 212-872-8719. Or contact Assouline at 888-879-1936, 212-989-6810; www.assouline.com.