The Book People: Husband and Wife Entrepreneurs Turn Beautiful Books Into the Ultimate Luxury Item

BY // 09.09.16


In the world of Prosper Assouline, books are elevated beyond words and pictures to exquisite objets d’art. His eponymous publishing company, which he runs with wife, Martine, creates some of the most coveted books on style found anywhere in the world, on topics ranging from architecture, art, design and fashion, gastronomy, lifestyle, photography, and travel. Known for lavishly photographed, hand-bound volumes, Assouline has partnered with Cartier, Dior, Valentino, and Louis Vuitton to produce limited-edition books and collaborated with fascinating tastemakers such as Lee Radziwill to tell their fascinating stories.

Prosper and Martine Assouline in their NYC apartment
Book People: Prosper and Martine Assouline in their NYC apartment.

At Assouline, a book is often judged by its cover; as such, the dapper, elegant, and slightly impish Prosper is a thriller and a page-turner. As he walked into a private dinner in his honor at La Table restaurant in Houston this spring, heads swiveled. There was no fanfare, no back-slap greetings from Prosper. It was more akin to a bookish pope gliding into a room of apostles.

He was in town to view the new Assouline bookstore installed along the walls of the mighty staircase that ascends to the second-floor La Table dining room, a room that offers views of glistening Post Oak Boulevard. The clever French publishing company, along with Alex Gaudelet of Invest Hospitality, came up with the idea, and the shop within a restaurant was soon installed, with Prosper’s guidance and blessing.

Within the walls of the Assouline offices, the book is tantamount to art — for instance, the Chanel Luxury Set, a sold-out 2011 book about the legendary fashion house, included a three-volume case made from signature black quilted leather and stamped with a silver metal Chanel logo (the slipcase is still in stock). South Pole: The British Antarctic expedition 1910-1913 (2016, $4,500) is a hand-bound, oversized limited edition signed by Monaco’s Prince Albert and Britain’s Princess Anne and touted as the world’s first waterproof coffee-table book. Only 150 were made, so time is of the essence.

This month alone, Assouline will release 40 new books, including one of Prosper’s favorites, The Impossible Collection of Wine, an oversized limited-edition, hand-bound treatise on the 100 most exceptional vintages of the 20th century, which comes packaged in a wooden wine crate for $845. “I’m very excited about this one. It’s spectacular,” Prosper says of the book written by Enrico Bernardo, the acclaimed former sommelier at Four Seasons Georges V in Paris. He’s also enthusiastic about The Queen’s People, ($845), a volume that covers English royal protocol past, present, and future. A Buckingham Palace commission, Prosper worked with Queen Elizabeth II on the book and included her letters and photographs.

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When they launched their Paris-based publishing house, in 1994, Prosper had a background in fashion and magazine publishing, and Martine was an attorney and a publicist at the fashion house Rochas. Their first book, La Colombe d’Or, celebrated the hotel in the South of France where they often spent weekends.

“We were in love with this place, so we decided, why don’t we do a book?” recalls Prosper from Assouline’s New York offices. Martine handled the text for the book, while Prosper did the graphic design. It was a small, quiet hotel without pretense, but the book captured La Colombe d’Or’s charm, the kind of savoir vivre that eventually became Assouline’s trademark. Almost 1,500 titles later, the French version of how to live the good life is paramount in all of Assouline’s books, and continues to drive its focus, no matter the topic.

The Assoulines’ roles at the company have remained constant: Prosper, 57, is the creative director, while Martine, 63, is editorial director. Each project is a joint effort from start to finish. “Sometimes we have a different point of view,” he says, “but we don’t fight. Martine sees something different, and I see something different, but 95 percent of the time, we agree on everything. It’s a conversation.”

Over the last five years, the publishing house — which has offices in New York, Paris, and London — has been quietly building itself into a luxury brand, with offerings ranging from candles and stationery to ambitious library design services. Its series of lifestyle products capture the kind of literary life Prosper and Martine adore: Assouline aromatic candles based on the scent of a library, glamorous handcrafted bookcases, desks, and library lighting, special-edition Goyard travel trunks, rugs and case goods that evoke the written word, all layered with vintage books, objects and antiques scouted by Prosper on his travels.

Assouline now has more than 20 shops located across the globe, from Istanbul, Seoul, Mexico City and Los Angeles to New York. More than a repository for glorious and expensive books, Assouline is also an oasis of culture: A shop at the Plaza in New York City offers custom bookbinding services, while the first Maison Assouline, which opened in 2014 in London’s Piccadilly, includes an art gallery, bar, custom bookbinding service, and bespoke library service that curates books for the reader.

Here, Prosper riffs about his favorite topics: books, libraries, and a good cup of coffee.

The secret behind your coveted books.
What I love is to do books like a movie: I’m always framing things with my eyes. When I do a book, I try to tell a story — not always beginning, middle, and end in the boring way, but to break the rules. Sometimes it’s more like a scrapbook. I want to take your hand for one hour and a half, like in a movie, to give you the feeling of the music, the smells, the people, in a very simple way through pictures. If people get lost in my books, I’m very happy, because I know they are going to come back.

The formula that makes your books so visually lush.
It’s no magic formula; it’s made with a lot of love with a lot of work. But, seriously, everything is made by hand, in the same kitchen, so it all has the same flavor. There is a huge number of people working on each book.

What will the new Assouline store at Forty Five Ten in Dallas be like?
It’s going to be a big room, made like a big library in your apartment. You can buy everything in the room — furniture, carpet, a beautiful big collection of Assouline books, vintage objects I have chosen from travels.

Do your grown children work with you?
Yes, they all work with us now. Alexandre is the marketing director in New York. The other, Sebastien, is in Paris as the director of Assouline Europe. It’s good working with your family. At the end of the day, we don’t have to go, ‘What did you do today?’ Everybody already knows what we did today.

Assouline has moved from its offices in Chelsea after 16 years …
We moved in April. We are so happy. Sixteen years ago, we loved it because we were on the river, alone, but now Chelsea is a big zoo, with Neiman Marcus opening and so on. So, bye-bye. People told us to go to Brooklyn; we said no. Now we’re in the middle of the city on Park Avenue on the 27th floor. On the left side out the window is the Empire State Building, and on the right is the Chrysler Building. You have to come and see, I tell you. The coffee is ready.

About your unyielding passion for coffee.
Coffee is very important. I hate it when people say, ‘I just want a coffee, black coffee.’ There is a right way to make it with the cream and sugar. The cup has to be very thin; if it’s too heavy, the taste will be very different. You have to put the right amount of sugar and cream, not too much. It’s about proportions.

We have a big store in London on Piccadilly [Swans Bar at Maison Assouline]. It took me months to figure out how to sell coffee to London — coffee is not so important in England, but it is to us. We designed the cups, we designed the spoons — small ones in brass — and we serve the coffee on a handmade brass tray made in Istanbul. Along with the coffee, we also serve lokum (Turkish Delight sweets).

So are you launching a coffee revolution in England, much like Starbucks did in America?
Please never mention the word “Starbucks” to me again.

The book you’ve loved most.
Right now, it’s the Ballets Russes (2011, $845). I love the subject; I love this moment in culture. It was a short moment when everything was possible. There was so much freedom and talent then. It took us two and a half to three years to make it right, and we are fast people, so this was a long time.

The Lee Radziwill book is one of your most successful titles, selling more than 60,000 books around the globe. What’s the backstory?
Lee called us 15 years ago to say, “I would love to meet you.” Not “I would like to make a book” but just “… to meet you.” Someone wanted to do a biography of her, and she was loath to talk about the Kennedys again and again. So we told her, “We can do something completely different; we are in illustrated books.” We decided to create this scrapbook, Happy Times (2001, $50). I told her to bring me two suitcases of memories from her house. She came to our Paris headquarters with two or three suitcases full of pictures, some still in their frames, and letters, notes.

How do you come up with ideas for books?
We have a lot of people coming to us with book ideas, but we take maybe three to five a year, because we think it’s something we can do. Most of the other ideas we come up with.

How many books do you produce a year?
Fifty to 60 a year. That’s almost one a week.

A favorite from 2016.
We have 40 new books coming out in September alone. There is a book that I am completely cuckoo about, Mysteries of the Ear ($35). Martine and I met this woman, a doctor, who reads your ears, and she understands everything about you from this. We had dinner with her one evening, and decided to do a book about her. It is very esoteric, and mostly text, but very interesting.

A dream book.
My dream is to one day do a book about chocolate, but people have to taste the chocolate, not just look at pictures of chocolate. I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. I dream to create something completely crazy new. I’m working on ideas to create a whole new kind of paper, using new technologies.

Will Assouline ever be digital?
No, no, we will always be paper. For me, the paper is so important. I love to touch it, I love to print on it, I love the smell of it. When a book arrives on my desk, a new book we’ve just printed, the first thing I do is smell the book before I open it.

Smells are your Proust madeleine?
One of our very first books, 20 years ago, was about a Baroque Italian church, Les Anges de Croatie. I wanted to have the smell of the church in the book, so we found a company in Japan to create a paper with this smell: the incense, the candles, the wood of the pews. I’d forgotten all about this book, but I found a copy two weeks ago when we moved our offices. I opened it, and, I swear, 20 years afterwards, you continue to smell the church in this book.

In a library, you smell the leather, the wood from the bookcases and the paper. I had wanted to capture these smells for a long time. Our Library candles smell like the library. One smells of paper, one smells of wood, one smells of leather. It is the DNA of the library. To capture the true scents, we had to smell everything ourselves — the leather from the chairs, the wood from the bookcases, and the paper in the books. Martine and I smelled more than 1,000 books for two months. At the end, we chose only three books. Then we hired a top “nose,” a guy who analyzes scent for perfumes, and we created a proprietary scent for the candles. I’m very proud of the line — we used the best ingredients you can find, and it’s a very good price, very chic with new packaging and glass, coming out this month.

Your obsession with libraries … tell us about that.
Libraries are so peaceful. I like the look, the culture of libraries. I really love the New York Public Library. For years I went every Friday morning for three hours to be alone with paper and books. I had to stop doing that when we got so busy, but now our offices are not so far away, so maybe that will change. I am headed to Italy in a couple of weeks, and I always go to libraries there. You have hundreds of small libraries, many from the 18th century, all specializing in something specific like astronomy or architecture. There are too many to list.

Your personal library.
We have libraries everywhere — at our offices here and at our home in New York and our house and offices in Paris. The problem is, we’re never sure where a book is when we look for it. But Martine and I have a huge collection, thousands and thousands. In our new offices we don’t know where to put them; there are so many still in boxes.

Books that you collect.
I’m a huge collector of books and manuscripts from the 18th and 19th centuries. I just received a beautiful 19th-century manuscript bound in velvet with a crest in brass. I love books as objects.

Any particular genre or topic?
In my personal library, all of my vintage books are about style, but it’s not one topic. It could be about cooking, travel, fashion, architecture. I have so many books on architecture, particularly 18th- and 19th-century architecture. These people were so crazy who made the books. There was no photography, so they drew everything by hand. I bought a book two years ago at an auction, on the architecture of Mussolini. It’s really an object — it’s just huge, with a cover made from silver. I love it because it’s crazy. I love crazy people, because I am like them.

Have your vintage books inspired an Assouline title?

Venice Synagogues
Venice Synagogues, limited edition

Yes, we have one that just came out in our Ultimate Editions limited collection called Venice Synagogues, to celebrate 500 years of the Jewish Venice ghetto. It was inspired by my books from the 18th century. The hand-bound limited edition is $4,500, in a velvet clamshell, and hand embroidered. You’ve never seen anything like it.

Do you personally create Assouline’s custom libraries?
I have done 50 by myself. To me, it’s our most important service. It’s not easy to customize a library, to buy 500 books, which all have something to say together. I love that. Recently, we did a complete Assouline library for a new development in Tribeca — 1,000 square feet and 1,000 books. A few years ago for Neiman Marcus [Christmas Book], we offered a complete library for $120,000. It sold on the first day. [For the client], we did a library with huge Spanish antiques, two big portraits, and all our books. My favorite library is always the one I’m working on now.

Your dream library.
I never did one on a boat. This is our next target.

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