"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
Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of these releases to arrive on your Kindle. While much of the publishing world alternately embraces or gnashes their teeth over the rise of e-books, Taschen merely shrugs at the notion of encroaching bits and bytes: “We don’t regard it as a threat. Our books apply to all the senses—touch and smell, as well as sight. How they are made is as important as how they are read. You can’t translate that into a digital form.”
Taschen is taking a similar approach to his new Beach bookstore, a 1,400-square-foot space inside developer Robert Wennett’s much-buzzed-about 1111 Lincoln Road building. Modeled on similar Taschen outposts in New York City and Los Angeles, this spot is intended to be as much an art installation and event center as a retail site. London painter Toby Ziegler has designed a series of brightly colored, denatured landscapes for the walls and floor, a setting Taschen says matches Miami’s own intensely surreal vibrancy.
He remains mum on the specifics surrounding the store’s grand opening, though given that his wife, Lauren, is Art Basel’s VIP-relations manager for the West Coast—the fair was where they first met several years ago—expect something a bit over the top. There is, after all, a company reputation to uphold.
“We have a very personal program,” Taschen adds. “Bigger publishing houses are part of big conglomerates. Individuality is not often required. They’ll tell their editors from 10 different sides why they can’t do something. As with TV shows, they level too much down to the lowest common denominator. They’re trying to address too many people.” He continues with a sigh: “I never understood this concept. You have to take risks in order to make something special.”
His own editorial philosophy is dramatically simple: He only publishes what he personally loves. And where do these idiosyncratic ideas come from? “They fall from heaven into a prepared mind,” Taschen answers with a chuckle before turning serious. “It’s a huge beautiful world and the mainstream is not what we’re interested in. There’s so much more to explore! At the end of the day we have to stay in business. People have to buy our books. But so far we are in the lucky situation that a certain number of people around the world share our aesthetic. If you can run a business on your passions, and inspire people as well, it’s the best paycheck of all.”
ABOVE: Taschen with Helmut Newton and SUMO on its Philippe Starck-designed table, 1999