Volume 76, Number 30 | December 20 - 26, 2006

Photo by Geoff Smith

Taschen’s bookstores — in Cologne, Paris, Beverly Hills, and now New York — are as lavish and quirky as the volumes they sell.

Art books for pockets deep and small

By Stephanie Murg

If bookstores were people, Barnes & Noble would wear sensible shoes, The Strand a tweed jacket rundown at the elbows, and Taschen — well, Taschen would rock a Victor & Rolf runway sample and smell slightly of sin. See for yourself when you walk into the publisher’s New York store, its second in the United States, which opened last week at 107 Greene Street in Soho.

“Publishers of art, anthropology, and aphrodesia since 1980,” is how Taschen describes itself. The company was founded when Benedikt Taschen, then 18 years old, opened a comic book shop in Cologne, Germany. After a few years of publishing comics that featured such characters as Sally Forth, a scantily-clad blonde space explorer, and a detective named Ray Banana, the floundering company was saved by Rene Magritte when Taschen purchased and sold 40,000 remaindered books about the Surrealist painter.

Magritte would surely approve of the company’s progress since then, which has included publishing everything from “Martin Luther’s 1534 Bible” (a best-seller) and a primer on Moroccan Interiors to the “Dinnerparty à la Perestroika Russian Cookbook” and “The Big Book of Breasts.” One year, they made a profitable side business of selling inflatable gorillas.

Taschen’s bookstores — in Cologne, Paris, Beverly Hills, and now New York — are as lavish and quirky as the volumes they sell. Most of the stores are designed by Philippe Starck, a master of undulating lines and refined kitsch, who brought a distinct aesthetic to the Soho store. “In Paris and L.A., everything is constructed out of a deep, rich wood and the shelves are literally built into the walls themselves,” says Matthew Ricke, the manager of Taschen’s newest outpost. “In Soho, much of the exposed concrete from the original construction was left intact or incorporated into the design.” The store’s bookcases rise from the concrete floor and seem to float off the walls, which are covered in brightly colored murals by Brazilian painter Beatriz Milhazes. “I think the combination of those bright colors against the relative quietness of Starck’s design will be both arresting and unlike any other space in the city,” Ricke adds.

Formerly manager of the bookstore at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Ricke is new to Taschen but a longtime fan of its wares. “The first Taschen book I bought that really challenged me as someone who believed he knew a lot about art books, was ‘Exquisite Mayhem,’ ” says Ricke, of the 2001 release that features the work of Theo Ehret, who photographed the early days of professional wrestling in 1960s L.A. as well as women “apartment wrestling” in the 1970s. “I’ve given this book as a gift so many times and it never fails to fascinate.”

Although “taschen” is German for “pocket,” most of the company’s books are not sized for portability. In fact, Taschen is well-known for its luxuriously oversized volumes, the kind that require two people to turn the pages. “Sumo,” a 1999 tribute to the work of photographer Helmut Newton, weighed in at 66 pounds and measured two-and-a-half feet tall by one-and-a-half feet wide. It came with its own table. (“In defiance of the much-loved Japanese discipline that inspired the title of this colossal work, there is no need for its proud owner to wrestle with ‘Sumo,’ ” wrote the publisher.)

“Sumo” probably would not fit in the apartments nor, at $6,500 each, the budgets of most New Yorkers, but Taschen has something for almost everyone. “Our publications range from colorful, ten-dollar books on Michelangelo or Warhol, to immense and very limited collector’s editions, like our book of the work of [photographer, collector, diarist, and writer] Peter Beard,” says Ricke. “The bottom line, however, is that Taschen has always made beautiful art books affordable and accessible to everyone. Philippe Starck once said that Taschen invented democratic publishing, and I think that’s a good way to put it.”

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