Since its beginnings in 1994, Assouline has grown into a global lifestyle brand, from Paris to Seoul to New York. As a brand they are well known for their graphically dynamic books on fashion, art, architecture, photography, design, and travel. Their blend of classic and contemporary style is apparent in all of their products and stores however, where did it all start and who are the Assoulines? I posed a series of questions to Prosper and Martine Assouline in celebration of their support of contemporary artists, the recent acquisition from the artist Jean Oddes and to explore how they have achieved their success to date.
I understand the Assouline publishing arm became a reality following inspiration from the Medieval Streets of St Paul de Vence, why those streets particularly?
Because we loved it, and one generally knows well what one loves. It wasn’t about the fact it is a medieval village but more about the charm and lifestyle of the La Colombe d'or. This hotel, owned by the same family since its existence is linked with the history of modern art; Matisse, and then Picasso (he was a good friend of the owner and taught him how to paint), Braque, Miró, Calder, etc… they were all spending days there because of the light of the inland region and their friendships. The place is unique, naturally filled with artistic spirit and joyful soul. Nothing is fake. And one of the greatest private collections of modern art that one can share while having lunch or a swim in the beautiful pool. This place is our 2nd home. The owners are very low profile, and didn’t want a book published about their secret place. That is until they saw a lay-out draft and they changed their mind instantly: here was all the spirit of La Colombe d’or laid down in one book that was avoiding any kind of unnecessary voyeurism. 21 years later, the book hasn’t aged and still sells well.
And why do you think you were receptive to this new step in your life?
Prosper was very much involved in his Creative Agency on Place Vendome, Paris working for Chanel, Dior & Christie’s. Our son Alexandre had been recently born and the Parisian apartment was extremely spacious and had a huge cellar. We decided to create a chic publishing house in the basement at home so I (Martine) could spend my time on creating the books while having my little one with me. Prosper and I were working no matter what days or hours as we were just happy to do it.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing – if there is one thing you could tell your younger self what would it be?
Everything would have been much easier if we had found a good financial professional from the beginning. Creative and business minds are not sufficient to make a good business if you do not find the right person to take care on the financial and administrative part: that’s the key to avoid losing time.
Where was the first Assouline office and what was on the walls?
14, rue de la Faisanderie, Paris 16ème. A huge chic basement in our apartment. And on the walls: photographs “grandeur nature” from Peter Muller of splendid bullfighters wearing the best embroidered pieces from Fermin and the Madrilene Tailor of the Corridas was the centre piece of the décor.
What was the first ever piece you bought? Do you still have it?
An Oceanian dried moss sculpture that follows me in all my offices since day one.
What are your personal favourite pieces in your collection?
No specific collections; just love at first sight for books, objects and pieces of furniture that take their place naturally in our lives, with special attention to the library!
Do you have a Museum or Gallery that you just can’t resist visiting if you know you are going to the city or country it’s in?
Can’t resist? Marché Serpette (flea market) in Paris, and the MET (Metropolitan Museum) in New York. Always surprising, inspiring and easy to explore.
Prosper – when studying Decorative Arts who was your inspiration? Who inspired your creative development and would still be in your top 5 of influencers?
Since the age of 15, I was spending almost all my free time in the library of the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. I "made" my "eye" that way, and most of my cultural background comes from there. Among my closest influencers, are Jean Michel Frank, Jacques Helleu (the iconic art director at Chanel for 40 years), Roger Thérond (director at Paris Match magazine until the 90’s), Azzedine Alaïa and Franca Sozzani. I’d like to also add the Flea Market in Paris!
Assouline celebrates the alignment of interior design, beautiful furniture and books with great art works – do you think interior designers could do more to introduce contemporary artists to their clients and audiences?
Some do. They also introduce Assouline to their good clients… I think that it is more for second residences or very busy people because to choose art as well as books and music takes a lot of time. For me, it should remain the best reflection of one’s taste and personality. When you are invited somewhere you can quickly understand your host through such “first” signs. In terms of “art”, I think that it is becoming more and more difficult to recommend a piece since art mostly corresponds now to an investment first, and that means prices go ridiculously too far and out of reach. Finding good contemporary art by up and coming artists is time consuming but some interior designers like to do it. Others rely on more boring or "déjà vu" ideas.
Tell me about Jean Oddes
I spoke to him about your collaboration and patronage and he spoke with great fondness of your friendship over the years. He is a very interesting artist. His background in Art History means that he delights in mixing the historical with contrasting stories. For example the emotive 17th Century classics with contemporary street art.
So how did you discover his work and why does it resonate with you?
Jean Oddes was very close friend of Andrée Putman who introduced him to me. One day he told me that he was organizing an exhibition of 8 drawings and invited me to visit his place in Paris. When I arrived, on a late Spring afternoon, all the drawings were already sold! I fell in love with something I could not have! Drama! So I begged him to do one more for me, which he did, but …months after! … (Artists are like that, aren't they?). The series was about imaginary garden vases of the 17th Century. All line drawings sewn on extra thick paper. A real beauty with pure elegance in the lines. I still have “my” vase in my Palais Royal apartment in Paris. At the same exact place since day one. Odds, as I like to name him, doesn’t produce much. I just love what he does and share it when it is possible, like now … with his new series on Ex Libris.
Why is your new acquisition of his work so special and where will it be displayed?
The new series is shown now at Maison Assouline, Piccadilly London, on the mezzanine and first floor. It goes well with our idea to curate what we like for a sophisticated contemporary library, or office. What Oddes does is like nothing else; so I like it. It is as elegant as new.
How do you select what books to publish? And what part of the process do you enjoy the most?
Prosper and I decide mostly on the titles we are interested on working on and brainstorm with our close team when we are ready to share the project. I love to come up with the best way to create the book. That is the very special moment when we find its “music”. I like to select the key images, the musical notes that will compose the books melody.
I understand you have a bespoke library service – can you explain how this works?
Yes, we created a Bespoke library service for Residential Homes and Hotels. We provide a good selection of vintage books as well as Assouline collections. We like to create ambiance with our own furniture mixed with the vintage pieces we personally curate.
Do you support any charitable or educational causes?
It depends on the titles. Our upcoming book Synagogues of Venice (to be launched in Venice on March 28th) will support Venetian Heritage – a portion of the proceeds will be donated to the foundation. It took us 3 years to make this book which is a masterpiece and is part of our luxury collection: The Ultimates Series.
Where is home for you?
"Home office" is New York. "Home family" is Paris. We are non-stop travellers, cultural nomads!
And what’s next? What would you like to be doing in 10 years’ time?
For more information:
196A Piccadilly, London W1J 9EY