Benedikt Taschen on The Best of All Possible World
By brett sokol
"Why would you want to take the surprise away?” Benedikt Taschen asks incredulously. He’s referring to his and his wife’s decision to keep their baby’s gender a mystery until the moment the newborn emerges inside the hospital delivery room. But Taschen could just as accurately be describing the ethos behind his eponymously named publishing house, set to open its own bookstore on South Beach this month. Indeed, while the rest of the publishing industry keeps shrinking the size of their books, forsaking the very notion of ink on paper in favor of ephemeral pixels on a screen, Taschen’s books aren’t merely physically larger than many of the coffee tables they’re designed to sit atop. They’re also becoming ever more elaborate and, well, surprising.
The 48-year-old Cologne, Germany, native leapt into the publishing world early. At a time when most teenagers were being convinced by their parents to throw away their comic-book collections, Taschen was selling his through the mail. By 1980, a barely legal Taschen had already opened his own bookstore, a move followed by the launch of a series of sexually charged, Heavy Metal-styled comics. By the next decade he was raising eyebrows anew—and building a loyal high-end customer base—as he plumbed the worlds of runway fashion, underground cinema and avant-garde architecture, twinning a playfully louche touch with sumptuous production values. In 2000 he threw down the literary gauntlet to his competitors with the publication of Helmut Newton’s SUMO, a 464-page, 20- by 27-inch collection of Newton’s celebrated erotic photographs. Weighing in at 66 pounds (with an equally hefty $1,500 price tag), SUMO was an art book worthy of that title.
“It’s not about blowing something up just to make it big,” Taschen explains. “It transformed Helmut Newton’s photos into something even more special. It added another dimension, to create a beautiful object that reflects the true passion of book lovers.”
Taschen trumped himself with 2004’s GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali, a 75-pound, 792-page, 20- by 20-inch tome lavishly illustrated with more than 3,000 images of the storied boxer (many rarely seen), serving as the final word on the sports legend and cultural phenomenon. It too carried an oversize price, with the first 1,000 copies—bundled with a custommade Jeff Koons sculpture—commanding $7,500. Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio called it “the publishing equivalent of an epic movie.” For his part, Taschen told reporters that helping assemble GOAT’s pages had given him a double hernia.
Those deluxe books join a catalog whose recent titles include MoonFire, a tribute to the 1969 lunar mission complete with Norman Mailer’s long out-of-print Life magazine opus on NASA and (if you’re willing to pony up at least $110,000 for one of the collector’s editions) an actual moon rock; Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, a six-volume set that’s as much an exploration of Playboy magazine as it is a revealing memoir of Hefner himself; Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made, at a mere 23 pounds, a compendium on the director’s aborted 1969 biopic, ranging from the unfilmed screenplay to insanely detailed production notes and correspondence with Audrey Hepburn (who passed on the role of Napoleon’s mercurial first wife, Josephine); and Walton Ford: Pancha Tantra, a monograph of the painter’s dazzlingly rendered (and downright eerie) wildlife.
ABOVE: Benedikt Taschen, 2002
photograph by william claxton and neil leifer