Sex & Beauty, Art & Kitsch

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.

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.  

"It's clearly a creative decision," says Jim Heimann, a collector and cultural historian who is Taschen's West Coast editor. "There's just so much more happening here than in New York, he finds it so much more stimulating. There's a different attitude too, because in New York there's this hierarchy of publishers and it tends to be a little stifling. I keep telling Benedikt, 'Do you realize what a big deal this is, having your American headquarters in L.A.?' And he just laughs and shrugs it off and says, 'Ja, so?'"

Knowing what he likes and dislikes — and not caring what anyone else thinks — is a Taschen strength, according to Heimann. "You'll probably read him initially as being a typical German, but he's fun, he's smart, he's really an interesting guy. He just breaks every mold that's out there. And I think that's one of the keys to his success — he doesn't follow any rules."

A typical German? As Taschen strides into his office with a confident, shoulder-rolling gait, I imagine a young Erich von Stroheim who has exchanged his monocle for a cell phone and dressed himself in a light-gray checked summer suit, a pink shirt, and brown suede shoes worn without socks. Taschen's voice is deep and reverberates around the rooms, still mostly empty but for some vintage Paul Evans tables and high-backed, burnt-orange chairs that look as if they were designed for a caveman with pretensions to a swinging-'60s lifestyle. Taschen refers to them as "Flintstone Neanderthal." "The base is wood, but with a kind of plastic overlay," he explains in his crisp, if occasionally wayward, accented English. "It's really unique, absolutely special. I really like it!"

Taschen leads me over to a cinema-screen Apple computer to show me the book he's working on. The working title is G.O.A.T. — Greatest of All Time. Photos of Muhammad Ali are spread over the worktable. Andy, a designer from Cologne, brings up some of the pages on the computer, and Taschen himself turns on the music. Yes, this is a book that will come with a soundtrack. "Ali, Ali, Ali . . .," black female voices warble, singing about rope-a-dope and the Ali shuffle. It sounds pretty good. I ask for the band's name, but Taschen says it's a secret. Then he asks, "This is cool music, right?"

G.O.A.T. (Taschen is aware of the word's negative connotation in sports, but doesn't care) will feature more than 2,000 illustrations, and texts from 100 writers. The limited-edition 700-page volume will cost a cool $3,000, and is clearly intended to be the book on the Louisville Lip, another high-priced extravaganza to be purchased by the kind of people whose living rooms are featured in Taschen books like London Style or California Interiors. It will feature not only photographs of Ali with the likes of Malcolm X, but also — if Taschen can track them down — photographs of Ali taken by Malcolm X. Going the extra mile is what makes Taschen Taschen. To further immerse himself in boxing culture, as well as to stay in shape, he has recently started training at the Wild Card boxing gym.

"How much will the book cost?" I ask.

"$3.99," he quips.

There's a logic behind the joke. SUMO may have been the most expensive book of the 20th century, but Taschen made his reputation by selling books that were as good as or better than the competition's at radically low prices. Even today, he sells books for $30 or $40 that would go for twice as much at most publishers. As a result, venerable houses such as Rizzoli, Abbeville, Abrams, Phaidon and others have struggled to keep up. Some have even been forced to cut staffs and lower costs by printing on cheaper paper just as Taschen has started to dominate the high-end market they used to own. Last month, he published a lavish, limited-edition book on Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, who, with his passion for nudes and flowers, is a kind of heterosexual version of Robert Mapplethorpe, for a cool $1,250. (A boxed display copy is available for viewing at Book Soup, and is well worth a look.) And this week, Taschen offers Marilyn, a $200 set of recently discovered photos of the young Norma Jean taken by André de Dienes, a French photographer who became the future star's lover.

"This is what could easily be the most beautiful book on Marilyn Monroe ever published," Taschen says, opening up the giant Kodak film box — an enlarged facsimile of the one Dienes used — that serves as the book's case. (As well as the book, the $200 also buys you a 608-page paperback reproduction of Dienes' typewritten memoir, spelling mistakes and all, of a cross-country road trip he took with Marilyn, and a 24-page brochure of all the magazine covers he shot of her.)  

"Dienes never wanted to cash into this Marilyn Monroe thing," Taschen says, riffling through photographs of Marilyn on the beach, in the snow, leaning against a car. But when he got older — he died in '85 — there was a book published in France with the title Marilyn Mon Amour, which used some of these black-and-white photos and some pages in the diary, but it was done really cheap. It had no magic. Which is a good example of how you can create out of exactly the same ingredients a completely different product.

"What has to happen with books is that people see them and instantly like them," he continues, warming to his theme. "And that they bring not only some pleasure to their life, but also more understanding about the world. They have to open doors on subjects which people probably never have heard of. I'm not talking about Monroe necessarily, though maybe people don't know how her life started. Or if we do a book about tiki, for instance, it's a kind of urban-archaeology work. The same with Richard Neutra or many other photographers and artists and so on. What it is about is not just the mainstream, which is defined by the style makers of the world, but the fact that the world is rich and there are so many other things which are equally important."

The youngest of five children (his parents were both doctors), Taschen went into business at the age of 12, when he started a mail-order business selling used comic books. At 15 he was financially independent, and at 18 he opened a store, Taschen Comics, in Cologne. (He skipped college.) Soon he started publishing comics himself. The cover of Sally Forth, the first Taschen Comics publication, shows a voluptuous nude blond in high heels being ogled by a variety of gnomelike creatures with bulging eyeballs — sex and voyeurism, a major Taschen theme, were already to the fore. A photograph taken in 1980 shows the young entrepreneur standing in his tiny shop, surrounded by comics and customers. He has the dark circles of a young workaholic and looks for all the world like a Continental analog of the obsessive, record-collecting hero of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity.

But unlike Hornby's hero, Taschen made money. In 1982, he opened a new, three-story store and was photographed for the venerable German magazine Der Spiegel standing in front of a homoerotic Taschen poster of a male nude. Two years later, he gambled on the book business by buying up 40,000 remaindered copies of an English-language monograph on René Magritte and sold them at double the price. The gamble paid off, and within a short time Taschen was publishing a book of Annie Leibovitz photographs under his own imprint. Books on Picasso, Dali, M.C. Escher and others quickly followed.

The hallmarks of the Taschen business method were in place almost immediately: quality products at low prices, high print runs, an instinctive feel for the popular pulse, and savvy, provocative marketing. The book on Dali was sent to bookstores together with a poster of the surrealist looking indignant under the slogan "A GENIUS LIKE ME FOR ONLY $6.99?" To this he would later add an impressive sales-and-distribution system that has made him a truly global publisher. Two years ago, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas reported finding a book he'd published with Taschen on sale at the airport in Lagos, Nigeria.

By 1990, Taschen had opened an office in a beautiful three-story 19th-century mansion on a busy, tree-lined street in Cologne. From the outside, it looks like the kind of building that might once have housed a respectable industrialist, but Taschen quickly set about changing that perception on the inside. He suspended a sculpture of a gondola by the artist Martin Kippenberger from the ceiling over the main staircase, installed a Donald Duck handle on the front door and hung a gigantic, photographically precise Jeff Koons painting of the artist being straddled by his Italian porn-star wife, La Cicciolina, in the boardroom. (Japanese visitors, in particular, are said to be shocked by it.)

While pushing ahead with his business, Taschen also found time to start a family with his first wife (they had three children together), although Angelika had already started working for him as an editor. (They married in 1996.) In 1993, he cemented his notoriety when he ran a provocative centerfold ad in Publishers Weekly to announce a change of distributor. In an article about the resulting furor, Crain's New York Business described the ad as "a photograph of a nude blond woman luridly leaning on a fully clothed man over the headline 'Luxury for Less.'" Taschen was the man, Angelika the blond, and the reaction was immediate and angry. "Shocking, tacky and in very poor judgment," fumed an editor at HarperCollins in a letter of protest. "It sends a disturbing message that women are just a commodity to be sold as a 'luxury.'" Hundreds more letters (and canceled subscriptions to Publishers Weekly) followed.  

Taschen professes to be amazed by American attitudes toward sex. In particular by the problems he had with SUMO, which featured one of Newton's patented "big nudes" on the cover, breasts exposed. American booksellers wanted to airbrush the nipples on the poster advertising the book, and the cover could not be shown on television.

"What is really bizarre is that there's so much violence everywhere, on movies and TV, and then they are afraid of nipples," Taschen says, shaking his head. "They are really a big threat, like an alien terror attack — the nipple attack! It comes right after al Qaeda, the threat of the nipples. But besides that, I really love this country. With the nipples they have a little problem, but there are other problems in other countries, and so I can easily deal with this."

Taschen may have brought a trash aesthetic to the buttoned-up world of art publishing, but he delivered plenty of traditional museum-class goods, too. His editions of van Gogh and Picasso are considered definitive, and he has also published valuable works on more-neglected artists, such as Chaim Soutine, that are clearly labors of love. In 1994, Paris Interiors (edited by Angelika) kicked off what has become a long line of glossy explorations of travel-themed books. He also brought out several volumes of the extraordinary animal photographs of Frans Lanting, as well as risqué collections by grizzled artist-pornographers such as Elmer Batters (From the Tip of the Toes to the Top of the Hose), Eric Stanton (For the Man Who Knows His Place) and Theo Ehret (Exquisite Mayhem). Some of the artists had never been published in book form before. "You see, it's nice for these older guys to finally have their work taken seriously," Taschen told a reporter from Vanity Fair. "Then they die. But they die happy."

For a man who only recently was still a young hell-raiser, Taschen has demonstrated a touching solicitude for his elders. In L.A. alone, the late film director Billy Wilder, architectural photographer Julius Shulman and jazz chronicler William Claxton have all seen lovingly detailed books published about them by Taschen. There have also been books about modernist architects Richard Neutra, R.M. Schindler, and all the architects behind the Case Study Houses, whose work Taschen has enshrined in a definitive boxed volume. To a city that tends to shed its past without a glance in the rear-view mirror, Taschen has brought a European veneration for history as well as a genuine excitement about L.A.'s present and future.

"I think it's nice that he's here rather than in New York," says artist Mike Kelley, who has worked with Taschen. "He's interested in a lot of traditional L.A. things, like the Billy Wilder book, and as you know, Hollywood doesn't care very much or support its own history. It's great he digs up these '50s masters like Elmer Batters, or this wrestling book by Theo Ehret. That guy was the house photographer at the Olympic Auditorium. I don't see anyone else doing a book on that, or on Julius Shulman. L.A. is lucky he's interested in such things."

"I always loved Los Angeles," Taschen explains. "When I was a child, I read all these novels from California — John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski — and in my visual imagination I have all these Hollywood movies. When I came here, every side street looked familiar to me. I felt comfortable, and the same for my wife."

There are further reasons for the move. One is a Taschen bookstore, designed by Philippe Starck, that will open in Beverly Hills next year. Another is Taschen's growing interest in making books about movies, which he feels have been badly served by publishers in the past. Some Like It Hot, his $150 valentine to Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy classic, earned rave reviews, and in the future he hopes to produce about 10 movie books a year.

As for the Big Apple, Taschen found it enervating. "I certainly like how it is, but it makes me sick. Not only because of the weather, but because it's too noisy, every half a minute another fire engine or police siren. It's not for me."  

"I met a woman last night at the sauna," I tell Taschen, who, with his jacket off, is seated in one of his Paul Evans chairs, munching on a muffin and drinking an iced coffee from Starbucks. "A Russian woman, a photographer. I told her I was meeting you, and she asked me to thank you personally for the fact that she was able to buy so many of your books when she couldn't afford to buy those of other publishers."

"At the sauna," he says, arching his eyebrows. "How interesting!" And then, looking pleased, "That's gut!" A reminiscence has been triggered. He tells me how awkward he felt, as a teenager in Cologne, having to buy books on art in specialty stores. You had to stand there "like a dummy," he says, waiting for the manager to take down a book from an enclosed glass case so that you could have a look at it. There was nowhere else to buy books on art at the time, and they were prohibitively expensive. Early on, Taschen decided to change that.

"What we always wanted to do was to make the books accessible and available and affordable for everyone who was interested." He takes a couple of Taschen books in the "Basic Art Series" from a pile on the floor and shows me with evident pride how well-made, for $8, are these popular monographs on artists such as Frida Kahlo and Roy Lichtenstein. "As you saw from this Russian woman, I think that these kinds of books can certainly change the lives of many people. Because they can see that there is more around than you can see in the TV, the newspaper, and so on. And I'm really positive that has a strong influence, at least on the lives of some people. I'm sure that one reason that we are very successful with the more high-priced books is that many of these readers grew up with the program. Probably they started five or 15 years ago with a $6 Renoir book, a Bosch or Duchamp. And now they buy maybe a $150 book on Case Study houses, ja?"

Despite his youthful image, Taschen looks older than his 41 years. His thinning hair is cropped close to his skull, and when he laughs, revealing charmingly uneven, ivory-colored teeth, his receding chin disappears into his neck. But his eyes — large, slightly bulbous and delicately shaped — hold your attention. Without being flashy, he smells of money, authority — and cologne.

"He comes across as a very businesslike businessman," says Kelley. "Expensive suit, a kind of standoffish demeanor. I know him personally and we get on, but he's a very hard businessman. You have to watch and make sure that everything in a contract is stated the way you want it to be stated. He likes to make it look like he has this crazy social life, but I don't know how true that is, because if it was he couldn't get so much done. It's not like you go up to that house and there's a rip-roaring Hollywood party all the time."

Still, with his well-publicized taste for pornography and books of straight and gay erotica, an area no other major art-book publisher has dabbled in, Taschen is likely to remain the bad boy of illustrated publishing. Unlike any other publishers in the field, he and his wife have given the Taschen imprint a strikingly personal touch. Photographs of the Taschens, separately or together, are featured prominently in their catalogs, along with pictures of parties at the Chemosphere. (In one, Angelika can be seen dancing wildly with Kelley.) The impression is of a fashionable couple enjoying a fabulous lifestyle with the occasional time-out to publish books. In fact, both Taschen and his wife — whom he considers an equal partner in the enterprise — work extremely hard.

"Taschen knows everything about the company," Heimann says. "He could probably tell you what they're serving for lunch at the Cologne office tomorrow. He's very hands-on. There's nothing that doesn't go through him. But he also has lots of people giving him ideas, including his wife. He roams around — Cannes, Italy, Spain, London, Cologne — but it's always work-related. He works nonstop. With the amount of involvement he has with the publishing house, he has to. And I think he derives tremendous enjoyment from that."

"I always did it because I liked it," Taschen says when I ask him how he accounts for his astonishing success. "I never did anything as business because of business. It's not that I don't like business. It's the opposite — I love it. But I only love it if I like what I'm doing. And I think, for me, and I can say the same thing for my wife, it's impossible to do something because of money. First of all, I think it does not work" — he laughs — "because people are not so stupid. Maybe it works once or twice, but after that they see or feel where it comes from. I only respect people in business if they make money with quality, because there is no reason to do it otherwise. If you make lousy things all day long, it's not good. Mentally, it will bring something of a disorder."  

Taschen speaks scathingly of publishers who create focus groups — "10 assholes in a row" — to find out what the public is after. "You never get anything interesting out of this, especially when it comes to taste. Because, first of all, most people have no taste." He picks up a copy of Exquisite Mayhem, a large-format book about apartment wrestling filled with bodacious women in bikinis stomping on one another in sleazy settings. "If you show this to 10 different people, nobody will say, 'Yes, this is exactly what we've been waiting for!'"

The way he says this cracks me up. When I've finished laughing, he leans forward and says, "Now tell me more about this sauna."

It's a late night in Hollywood, and I'm tailing Taschen's car en route to an obscure karaoke bar, where we are going for dinner, wondering how much faster he'd drive without a journalist behind him. At Thai Hollywood we are joined by Andy, the German designer working on the Ali book, who's wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Clint Eastwood on it. Taschen orders a round of Sapporo beer, chicken satay and a spicy fish soup. Along with Musso & Frank, this is one of his favorite L.A. eateries. "People are making fun of me because I always choose B-graded restaurants," he says, chuckling. "I didn't even know there was a grading system."

As Jim Heimann said, Taschen works pretty much all the time. "It's hard to say what's not business," he answers when I ask him how he spends his leisure time in L.A. "It's all mixed together." Even now, at the restaurant, he eagerly examines a sheaf of proofs of the Ali book Andy has brought over from the office. "If there were an Oscar for books, this book would get 10!" he says, delighted with what he sees.

"Are you a big reader?" I ask.

"I can't imagine a life without books," he replies. "I read many biographies. I also love to read fiction when I am not being disturbed." On Taschen's current reading list is Dostoyevsky's The Gambler, a biography of Truman Capote, and the diaries of Hitler's secretary — "She wanted to become a dancer," Taschen says. He's also reading a memoir by Chairman Mao's personal physician. "You can't imagine how banal it all was," he says. "If Mao was going on a trip, they built up all this fakery so everything looked very prosperous. And this guy spent most of his time lying in bed with young girls!"

Feeling relaxed and enjoying his time in a city he loves, Taschen is in an expansive mood. "After a few months in Cologne, I feel terribly bored, like a hamster," he says. But L.A. is different. By his third beer, he's even singing along to the karaoke songs. "If you're going to San Francisco/Be sure to wear flowers in your hair," he croons as the ancient Scott McKenzie number booms from the speakers. Andy tells me that Taschen holds an annual party in Cologne for all the staff members from the company's various offices. This year, he says, they had a karaoke contest.

"Who won?" I ask.

Sheepishly, Andy indicates the man sitting next to him. "Taschen, of course."











11. SUMO

12. SUMO














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