Meet the Family Behind Legendary Luxury Coffee Table Books Publisher, Assouline
So here’s the pitch: a woman arrives in Paris from South America. A lawyer and model, she is striking and glamorous. She meets a dashing Morocco-born Frenchman making a name for himself as an art director in fashion and advertising. He is drawn to her taste and elegance; she is impressed by his creativity and, a decidedly un-French trait, his “enthusiasm”. Starting out as friends, they become husband and wife, and eventually launch a publishing company that turns the tables on the world of coffee-table books.
The story of Assouline is, if you’ll forgive the pun, one for the books. It could well be a rom-com with a literary theme come to life, where the characters are so suave and attractive and polished, their homes and boutiques so exquisitely designed, so expertly curated. And then there are the books: sleek, alluring, delightful and irresistible, adjectives that apply just as aptly to the Assoulines themselves. For indeed, they—Prosper, Martine and their sons, Alexandre and Sébastien, who are now part of the family business—inhabit the same world of luxury that their books embody.
Assouline did not so much reinvent the book business as stake out a niche all its own when it launched in 1995. Other revered publishing houses like Rizzoli, Stewart Tabori & Chang, Phaidon, Thames and Hudson and Taschen produce books that can be equally lavish and beautiful, but Assouline books have a je ne sais quoi in their DNA.
Their tomes celebrate the heritage of the world’s most exclusive luxury houses, such as Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton and Gucci. They focus on glamorous travel destinations like Capri, the Amalfi Coast, Tulum, Mykonos and the latest, Zanzibar. They catalogue in glorious detail the art, photography and design of Picasso, Gruau, Warhol and Mario Testino.
From book lovers to publishers
“Our creation of Assouline,” Martine says, “was led by the desire to propose a new style in publishing. Bookstores in the early Nineties were filled with volumes that were a bit too conventional and boring for us book lovers.”
Prosper and Martine envisioned Assouline as “the first luxury brand on culture”. As Martine explains, “we are inspired by the opportunities of life. Prosper and I are very curious, and we need the inspiration to breathe. Whether it be travels, exhibits, books, films, music, people... we are always in a degree of mutual stimulation.”
Their creative process is always instinctive. “We know when a subject is for us and when it is not,” she notes, and likens the creative process to making music. “I love to come up with the best way to create the book,” she says. “It is during that very special moment when we find its ‘music’ or flow. I like to select the key images, or the musical notes so to speak, that will compose the book’s melody.”
The notes have since become a soundtrack to a kind of members-only lifestyle and the brand an empire encompassing books, boutiques and accessories, such as bookstands and book-ends, scented candles, trunks (a collaboration with Goyard) and even quilted leather slipcases (a collaboration with Chanel).
Expansion plans by the next gen
The first Maison Assouline store opened in London in 2014 in a tony building on Piccadilly that had once been a bank and then an art gallery. Prosper, in an interview with the St Regis magazine, said that the building was “completely empty and it had no windows, but for me there was something magical about it. I had always dreamed of combining a café, a cocktail bar, a gallery and a bookstore.”
Now, their 27-year-old son, Alexandre, is spearheading the expansion of that vision to decor and furniture. The furniture, he says, is intended to complement “our library curations”. The pieces being developed are predominantly designed by the family. “Each piece will be a part of the overall experience and feel that we create for our books and libraries, so that we continue to build our unique vision further.”
His older brother, Sébastien Ratto-Viviani, 44, is the director of Europe and new business at Assouline, while Alexandre is a vice president. The younger son, in fact, was born around the same time that Assouline was founded, and Prosper says that “it was almost natural that he would be involved. After having successfully graduated from his studies and performed roles at other companies, he ultimately was passionate to join the family brand.”
Overcoming the Covid-19 crisis together
The family has also come together during the coronavirus pandemic, and has remained together in Paris, working to adapt the business in order to survive. Martine credits Alexandre for anticipating a lockdown in the United States. “We had to act extremely fast with such measures, in order to maintain our company’s well-being for the long term,” she says.
That included adapting its promotional efforts, especially with the travel bans in place. “For instance, we’ve been focusing on highlighting our destination category of books both on social and onsite,” Alexandre says. Moreover, he insists on “maintaining our commitment to being present for our clients and are always happy to engage with them much as possible”.
The lockdown has not put a damper on Assouline’s Asian projects. Currently there is one branded Assouline location in Seoul, and another is planned for Tokyo later this year, as well as a warehouse in Singapore. The Assoulines are making these moves now in order to ensure the company remains a family-run business.
Alexandre feels that “because we share the same defined perspective as a family, which is essential, we would like to have the company remain in our hands”. Adds Prosper, “We do work very well together because we each have our own area of specialisation within the company.”
“Martine brings her editorial expertise, Prosper contributes both his artistic vision and keen eye,” Alexandre says, “while I incorporate my business background.”
One thing they try not to bring to the table, however, is, believe it or not, their work.
“We also like to keep a business and home life balance,” says Prosper, “by making an effort not to talk about work during lunch or dinner.”