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Sex & Beauty, Art & Kitsch 

The exquisite mayhem of Benedikt Taschen

Wednesday, Sep 11 2002
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Photo by William Claxton

GERMANY'S KING OF THE COFFEE TABLE LIES FLAT ON his back on a slab of cold porcelain tile and stares through dim, misty light at paint flaking from the ceiling. Naked but for a floppy wool sauna hat, he is drying off after a cooling dip in the pool. It's his first visit to City Spa, and later he pronounces himself fully satisfied with the facilities. "Look, they even have wild animals here," he says, pointing at a plus-size cockroach frozen in place next to a NO SPITTING sign. "I like that."

It's a quiet night at the spa, and Benedikt Taschen is in a mellow mood. I've never interviewed anyone in a sauna before, and the acoustics make conversation difficult anyway, so I decide to let him soak up the steam undisturbed. His status as an Important Person is quickly perceived by one of the regulars, who guesses that he's someone I'm writing about. He's not familiar with Taschen the publishing company, but when I mention the gargantuan Helmut Newton book, his face lights up in recognition. "Man, that book was ridiculous," he says, laughing.

Viktor, the parking-lot attendant, noted his wealth the moment Taschen climbed out of his navy-blue Ford Explorer in his Stijn Helsen suit and handmade frog-skin shoes and thumbed through a wad of bills to pay the $1.50 parking fee. In any language, the timeless expression on Viktor's ruddy Moldavian face translated as: Big Shot.

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Taschen is a postmodern tycoon for the 21st century, a brash and stylish entrepreneur who has turned the world of illustrated-book publishing upside down. Along with his blond, leggy co-editor and wife, Angelika, the jet-setting 41-year-old German publisher produces exquisite coffee-table books that range in subject matter from the complete etchings of 18th-century Italian engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi to the pornographic digital diaries of 21st-century Internet exhibitionist Natacha Merritt. Under the Taschen imprint, you will find impeccable, scholarly tomes (Masterpieces of Western Art), flashy compendiums of hip contemporary design (Designing the 21st Century) and lurid, twilight explorations of underground sexuality (Fetish Girls). These last, in particular, have made him notorious in what is traditionally a conservative division of the publishing world.

The price range is equally provocative: from as little as $10 for his pocket-size "Icons" series to a whopping $2,500 for SUMO, his backbreakingly definitive edition of Helmut Newton's photographs, a coffee-table book so big (it weighs 66 pounds) only the Vatican's Bible binder could stitch it up. By way of a thank-you, perhaps, Taschen plans to mark the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Bible by producing an exact replica of the original edition. No doubt the Vatican will find itself on more familiar, if less obviously stimulating, ground when the time comes to sew up its pages.

But Taschen is about more than just books. Or rather, stacked up on the coffee table, the books form the outline of a vision: a map, an atlas, a kind of Taschen Guide to the worlds of art, architecture, design, movies, travel, sex and — increasingly — L.A. The appeal crosses age groups and incomes. You may not have enough money to spend a night in any of the luxurious European hotels depicted in The Hotel Book, or you may have too much even to consider stopping at one of the dingy rooms lovingly photographed for Cheap Hotels. But, rich or poor, chances are you'll enjoy looking at both. In the boundary-dissolving world of Taschen, there are so many countries and subcultures and lifestyles to choose from that you have to settle for enjoying most of them vicariously.

Taschen is from Cologne, a traditional bourgeois city, where he has his main office, but his second home is now L.A. When he's in town, which is two or three months a year, he and his wife live — with trademark flamboyance — in the Chemosphere, the space-age, "flying saucer" designed by modernist architect John Lautner in 1960. An octagonal glass pod perched on a tall concrete pole, the futuristic residence is located high in the hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley and can be reached only by funicular. Since buying the home for $1 million in 1997, Taschen has not only restored the building to its former glory, he has also refurbished Lautner's reputation by publishing a well-received book on him.

Taschen's recent decision to close his New York office and move a dozen staffers out here and into the equally stylish Crossroads of the World in Hollywood, may do the same for L.A. publishing. Save for Getty Publications, which has the money and the clout but lacks the mandate or the ambition, the move essentially makes Taschen the biggest and certainly most interesting publisher in the city.

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