The Talk: Taschen and the Art of Publishing
Updated: Jan 31, 2019
Standing in the middle of TASCHEN Paris it occurred to me, only at the house of TASCHEN would Homoerotica sit side by side with Horticulture, and Fetish Girls next to French Impressionism. A book is a many splendored thing but a TASCHEN book is a piece of art. The popularity of TASCHEN is due in part to the fact that they have become mini cathedrals to the art of book production. TASCHEN books are not simply words and pictures, they are experiences that unfold, mesmerize and stimulate with brilliant covers, photography, illustrations and type – they are brain candy.
TASCHEN celebrates books. People’s behaviors inside a TASCHEN store do not mimic the shopping mall, they look like they are standing inside a museum. Instead of endless rows of books, TASCHEN stores are broken up with display tables and glass cabinets that honor and pay homage. It is a curiosity brand and their mission is to excite and delight. While booksellers everywhere are struggling to maintain relevance, TASCHEN has become a global brand with A-List influence. The beauty of the Paris store itself can only be outdone by the Milan Storefront and the TASCHEN library at the Joule Hotel in Dallas, but every store visit is a curated event and they’ve got love if you want it.
TASCHEN has offices in London, Madrid, New York, Paris and Tokyo, but Cologne is the place to meet the man himself, inspect him, as it were, in his natural habitat. And so off to Hohenzollernring 53 we went to talk publishing and family with the royals of the book world.
Mr. and Mrs. Taschen
A German cathedral city on the Rhine, Cologne is not immediately recognisable as a place to promote fancy plans. In fact at first glance, it seems to be full of ice-cream parlours. Berlin, surely, with its psycho-sexual cabaret backdrop and tradition of cultural resistance, should be the breeding ground of the wayward. But Wolfgang Tillmans, an artist with whom TASCHEN has worked since 1993 and who grew up in this area, observes that Cologne is, in fact, exactly the right place for this operation.
'Berlin is more judgmental than Cologne,' he says. 'Cologne has an art-loving liberal past and it is much easier to get things done here. In the 80s, it was the centre of the West German art-scene, and was an important link to American artists. There were other artists living there, as well as collectors and rich industrialist patrons unlike Berlin, which is surrounded by agriculture and which, until recently, did not have strong connections to western Europe.'
TASCHEN HQ is a grand, grey mansion with pillars, white walls, glass and parquet floors that are screaming out for someone to tap dance on them. There is a suspended boat by the late Martin Kippenberger. There is a huge nude by Helmut Newton. There is also a staff of 75, and today both Benedikt and Angelika Taschen.
Benedikt Taschen is a quiet person who listens and asks questions. 'He doesn't give away a lot,' says Tillmans. 'And he doesn't talk about his emotions.' Nevertheless, he is enjoying himself. 'I always wanted to be number one in the area in which I worked,' he tells me. 'If the goal was not working, then I changed the goal.'
Mrs. Taschen is Angelika - graceful, lean, a cool blonde in red kitten heels. Born in Cologne, where her parents ran a bookstore, she originally wanted to be a ballet dancer, but grew too tall. 'I still get emotional when I read reviews of the new ballets,' she says. 'When a dream breaks it is very difficult.' She studied art history at Heidelberg instead. She arrived at TASCHEN in 1986 in order to oversee Kolner Junggesellen, a book that was supposed to initiate a series about single people all over the world. The book failed, but Angelika did not. She fell in love with the boss. They were married in 1996, in Cologne.
Angelika has a daughter, Ana, by her first marriage. Benedikt has three children by his first marriage - Marlene (who plays a major role in western European operations), Benedikt, and Charlotte.
The pair has since seperated, but the brand TASCHEN remains at the forefront. They all have dinners together in their apartment, which is walking distance from TASCHEN HQ. 'As a family, we discuss art and books constantly. It's our life.' Angelika maintains an additional residence in Berlin which is homebase for her own publishing imprint and home decor business.
The Taschens share basic beliefs - that the books must be well designed, and that the bad sellers don't matter so much. Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories, consisted of 195 photographs of upended corpses and crumpled bonnets taken by an unknown photographer in the 50s. It was not a hit, but, says Angelika, 'sales do not matter if it is an extraordinary book and we have made some nice friends as a result of working on it'.
'We never start with a huge print run,' Benedikt adds. 'We reprint. If you don't reprint a book, it is not a success, but neither is it a big failure, so you don't have a problem.' This attitude is one of their great strengths and is among the reasons why the company has managed to remain gleefully adventurous. Benedikt agrees that the company is subversive, but adds that 'it is not really intentional'.
Nor do they see themselves as educators; it is more to do with enjoying the fact that a lot of people like what they like. 'That is my idea of success,' says Angelika, 'when other people laugh or share the same thing as me.'
'We never cared about any fucking marketing department,' Benedikt proudly points out. 'Or Barnes and Noble or WH Smith, or whatever...'
Buildings and breasts have made Benedikt Taschen filthy rich. He does not buy cars (he drives an old Merc); he sometimes buys clothes; but mostly he buys art. His private collection, stored in a little gallery next to their Cologne house, is stacked high with models by Jeff Koons and pictures by the late Eric Stanton, an illustrator with a fixation for cruel mistresses.
Here is the lust that is compulsive acquisition. He understands the need for colour and stimulation. It is no coincidence that TASCHEN books, as bright and shiny as boiled sweets, appeal to the side of human nature that wants everything in the shop.
The new catalogue includes the highly anticipated Amy Winehouse book, The History of Graphic Design, the latest from Christo and Jean Claude, but it also includes Exquisite Mayhem: The Spectacular and Erotic World of Wrestling. This is classic TASCHEN. Photographs of voluptuous women grappling with each other in small apartments are accompanied by an essay by Roland Barthes, which promotes its status from what is basically kitsch pervery to a legitimate subject for the thinking sensualist. The company has long known how to transform underground ideas into a glossy package that, on the face of it, looks mainstream and they are not breaking form.
From the world's biggest coffee-table book to the rarefied delights of vintage S&M artwork, TASCHEN has broken every convention of publishing. In our next addition to the series, thirty years after he started out selling comics, founder Benedikt Taschen picks his proudest moments.
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