NEW YORK—If Martine Assouline has a motto, it might be that “beauty is necessary—or that culture is the best accessory.”
“I strongly believe that when you are surrounded by beauty, you will feel better, so you will be better,” said Assouline, co-founder of the eponymous luxury publishing house she founded with her husband, Prosper, that brands itself as a purveyor of culture. “And I strongly believe that it is the responsibility of me as a parent, me as a publisher, and me as a friend, to bring beauty in my surroundings to others.”
It’s an overused word, beauty, Assouline said, but this is truly the way she is choosing to live her life, personally and professionally. “It can be visual, it can be music, it can be words, it can also be a way to be, it can be light—beauty can be in everything,” she said. “It’s a question of knowing, of growing, understanding, comparing. Beauty is something that I think fills you, and brings you to peace.”
Prosper and Martine Assouline founded Assouline Publishing in the fall of 1994 as a passion project to create the kind of books they could not find in the market. The first book they published was on the history of the La Colombe d’Or, a favorite hotel of theirs in the south of France, with photos by Prosper and text by Martine.
“There are a lot of books that we decide on, Prosper and I, because it’s instinctive,” Assouline said. “We know of a place or a person, or we saw a film or exhibit that inspires us and brings us to other things [on] which we build a subject. There is no [boundary] between our life and our work.”
Gems of inspiration from their personal interests and travels crystallize into beautifully bound books that have found an audience. The family business became known as the first luxury culture brand and the first fashion publisher, and through sticking to their vision, gained international success. At a time when bookstores were closing and the print industry was mired in doubt, Assouline Publishing was expanding in the United States.
Today, by popular demand, the company has continued expanding into the lifestyle business, though books remain its core business. In 2014, to celebrate its 20th anniversary, the company opened its first concept store in London, Maison Assouline, a bookstore with a bespoke bookbinding service, custom furniture, regular pop-up exhibitions, a bar, a connecting cafe, and home decor like candles and vintage books—conceived to be an extension of their private home, where you can buy anything you see.
Next year, they plan to open another location in Dubai. They are also developing furniture for libraries.
“Our approach remains the same,” Assouline said. “We didn’t change, but I think the market changed.”
Marrying Intellect and Emotion
“When we started, it was a world with bookstores, which is not the case today,” Assouline said.
She has been a literary person her whole life, and her husband is more of a visual person, Assouline said. They both loved books. In the early 1990s, they would buy interesting vintage copies in bookshops, but were overwhelmingly disappointed with what was being published at the time. The books were neither creative nor refined in either content or form.
“We could not find the books that we could love,” she said. “So we thought it was time to do something else.”
They began with a series of books on fashion designers: small, around 80 pages, and meant to be affordable. It was like putting together a puzzle, assembling images and information, to tell the story of a single couturier, Assouline said. A lot of time and effort was spent on selecting images that would speak to people—”they have to have vibrations”—and that would convey the essence of the designer without words, yet entice someone to read. Big captions and pithy quotes were interspersed.
Assouline books are very much decorative objects for the home, yet the text is informative and full of substance. The writing is dense with facts and details, but lyrical, colored with description and emotion. Finding writers is the most difficult part; it can be a nightmare finding the most knowledgeable person on a subject who can still write with great emotion, Assouline said.
“It’s memory, it’s knowledge, and it’s pleasure. It’s at the same time emotion and intellect,” Assouline said. “Those are not only important values in the world because [they] make you grow, but also, at least for me, [they provide] a moment of pleasure. When I buy books, I keep them and wait for my moment to open [them]. I put on music, and I go inside—I plunge into the book.”
She loves the research stage—delving deeply into the archives for images and information, and really understanding a subject. “I try to bring people to read with images, with quotes that are really meaningful—to play on that and make people to go to the text by way of pleasure, by curiosity.”
The couple’s first books were a success, and others soon began publishing similar books, leading to a proliferation of large-format photo books on fashion—but these were low priced and often low quality, with bad paper, bad printing, bad layout, and so on, Assouline said.
By then, almost everything there was to say about fashion had been said, and Assouline did not want to repeat herself.
The success of the fashion books brought in other luxury brands that wanted to immortalize their story “Assouline-style,” she said. Not every project worked out, because not every project had inspirational substance, but it was a fulfilling challenge to work on books Assouline would not have created otherwise.
“I like to go into new territories, see new things, and see how we are going to translate that into a book,” she said. “It’s a challenge to understand and make and create.”
The company publishes 50 to 60 books each year. These range from the $50 bestsellers it reprints year after year, to limited edition works of art, like the artisanal “Ultimate” collection editions that run from around $800 to a few thousand (with special editions) and in which every image is hand-pasted. The “Ultimate” collection books are immersive profiles of artists and unique places, or definitive lists of cars, jewelry, Arabian horses, and, most recently, wines. The company worked with top sommelier Enrico Bernardo to create a hand-bound, over-sized book, presented in a wooden crate, for which Bernardo selected the best wines from each year over the past century.
The current trends in lifestyle publishing are interior design and travel, which happen to coincide with the Assoulines’ personal lifestyle and interests. The couple have always been explorers who have made their home in many beautiful places around the world, and when Assouline finds something she values, she wants to share it with everyone else.
“I think you can say that culture is a passport to a more interesting life,” Assouline said. There is the heritage side of it, because everything is culture on some level, but then there is what you choose to explore and understand.
“I love to learn and be in different ambiances,” Assouline said. “[Discovering] new places, it’s sort of like adrenaline. You discover, you have new ideas for books, you want to share them and find the right way to interest people of today in what you are finding, to hunger for what [they] have not seen before and not to be cliché.”
She works with many young people now and is always encouraging them to see things, to “learn and learn and learn.” Exploration is not just about good food, good wine, and a good time. It’s about feeding your mind, making the effort to understand your world, and staying curious and inspired, she said.
“I think that’s the responsibility of each one of us, to feed our knowledge, our mind, our soul, by those two sides of intellect and emotion. It’s very important; it’s a big part of our life,” she said.
World of Books and Inspiration
In a way, the company was always poised to take on the world of Instagram. The books are filled with catchy and evocative quotes, images that tell a story, and a lifestyle to aspire to.
“Today, because of social media, we are in the world of inspiration,” Assouline said. “A lot of the young generation loves [the brand] because they have found a subject, images, a way of [delivery] to open new doors to find inspiration.”
But the digital world is not her domain, Assouline said, and the users are not of her generation. Less than one year ago, she asked her son Alexandre, now 24, to come back to the company as director of digital strategy and marketing.
“I was raised for it,” Alexandre said. “Since I was very young, I was surrounded by all this beautiful content, and went to these specific places we made books about.”
He’d studied some art history, marketing, graphic design, and finance, and then went on to work for another company so he could get a sense of how business is run elsewhere, but always with the idea that he would return to the company. It just happened a bit sooner than expected.
Alexandre dreams of virtual reality integration and an app that immerses you even further into the book, with behind-the-scenes photos and snippets and a playlist that accompanies each book.
“Every time I open one of these—getting to the world of any of them is dreamy. You unplug and you get into the whole story of one person or place or environment. Flipping through them just makes you feel like you’re there,” he said.
His chief mission is to inspire, and with digital he believes fans of the company will grow exponentially. It is a niche brand, and the family never plans to become mass-market, but still there are many more people they could reach, he believes.
Books will remain their focus, despite the add-ons, whether they’re apps or bookshelves.
“I think that it’s more and more important to [do what we do], that maybe books are more and more important, because the world is becoming so virtual. It goes so fast,” Martine Assouline said. “I think books are important in life, really.”