Benedikt Taschen

Giant Magazine, 2007

The Hugh Hefner of the Coffee Table Book: Benedikt Taschen is the multi-millionaire maverick of luxury book publishing. If you own a coffee table, chances are you own a Taschen title. Here he reflects on porn and Uncle Scrooge.

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“The Hugh Hefner of the coffee table book?” Benedikt Taschen considers this description of himself with a wry grin. “I feel certainly honoured,” he says, in his clunky German accent. “I have great admiration for Hefner. But I don’t know if I see myself that way.”

To be fair, the scene at his home today is a far cry from Playboy. While Hef’s house hops with bunnies, Taschen’s houseguests include the jazz photographer William Claxton leafing through proofs in his office and a crew from Architects Journal shooting his living room. And in contrast to the classic English style of the Playboy mansion, Taschen lives in the Chemosphere House designed by modernist John Lautner, which looks like a flying saucer come to roost at the top of Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills.

Nevertheless, there’s something to the comparison. Like Hefner, Taschen has perked up and transformed a stuffy genre of publishing – the coffee table book – and he did it, in part, with sex. No Taschen catalogue is complete without a throbbing vein of erotica.

“We really don’t make that much,” he says. “I recently just counted how many sex books we do, and unfortunately it came to not even 50 – that’s not even ten per cent. I wish it could be more.”

A long, skinny German of 46, with a receding chin and baggy, tortoise eyes, Benedikt Taschen rather enjoys his reputation as the bad boy of the art book world. When your catalogue makes bedfellows of the Lutheran Bible and books about foot fetishism, then a little notoriety is to be expected. And it works – a dollop of sex has seen Taschen through from his start publishing comics at the age of 18 in Cologne Germany, right up to his current market dominance with offices in London, Paris, Madrid, Tokyo and Los Angeles. The cover of his very first publication, a comic book, showed a voluptuous nude blonde in high heels. Taschen then married a leggy blonde called Angelika (they’re now divorced) who in 1993 appeared nude in a Publishers’ Weekly advertisement. And so long as his head office was in Cologne – he since moved it to New York, and then in 2002 to Los Angeles – visitors were greeted in the boardroom by a huge, photographically accurate Jeff Koons painting of the artist humping his porn star wife La Ciccolina.

But sex isn’t the only way that Taschen revamped the coffee table market. He both democratised art books by making them affordable and plenty and, at the other extreme, he single-handedly reintroduced the book as an extravagant artwork unto itself, by making a limited number of books extremely expensive and rare. The first was the giant Helmut Newton book, “Sumo” at $1500 – so big it came with its own Philippe Starck book stand and had to be stitched together by the Vatican’s Bible-binders. Then came the even bigger Muhammad Ali book, “G.O.A.T (Greatest of All Time)” which at $3000 and 700 pages remains the undisputed heavyweight champion of books. Taschen gave himself a hernia trying to lift it.

“There’s a tradition of amateur bookmaking from the 18th and19th centuries,” he says. “Amateur didn’t have a negative connotation then. It just meant someone who does something for love, not money – mainly the aristocracy from England who made books about elephant hunting in northern India just to make the greatest book on the subject. I wanted to find out how you can use state of the art technology to do not just 100 copies, but say, 10,000 copies. So to combine modern technology with a century old tradition.”

At which point, he produces a wodge of proofs for a book he’s clearly excited about. It’s not the one about Valentino, nor the one about Aesthetic Surgery, nor the one about Oscar Niemeyer the architect in Sao Paolo. No, it’s a classic Taschen title – a feast of sex, design and homage, all beautifully laid out and oozing with authority.

It’s his comprehensive history of the first 25 years of Playboy Magazine.

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How did you get along with Hefner himself?

Oh he’s a very nice guy. Of course these people often have strong egos and personalities but they are usually very modest and generous. And they have the curiosity of young boys. They see life with the eyes of a child to make things simple for them.

There’s a sense in early Playboy that the girls lure you into the heavier articles by Norman Mailer and stories by Nabokov. Do you use sex as a lure at all?

No, we don’t use sex to sell anything. But the program must look attractive. People must get interested in subjects they never even heard about or people they didn’t know existed. It’s like entering a room you’ve never been in before. It enriches your life.

Did you ever experience a backlash against your erotic stuff?

No, not really. With the Helmut Newton book it was only once or twice on the TV because on the cover you see nipples and they want to airbrush it and everything. Really, this is the number 2 threat for Americans. Number one is terror. Number two is nipples. They’re totally freaking out about nipples.

And yet here in Los Angeles, there’s this huge porn industry on your doorstep.

But the porn industry is totally boring for me. I don’t think it’s interesting or sexual. It’s 99.9% stupid. If they’re going to make a big budget movie, the first thing they do is rent a Ferrari and get a big house – all the most stupid stereotypes about men and women. It was a little different in the 70s. There were some great porn stars then. The greatest is Vanessa de Rio. We do a book on her.

Do you draw a line between pornography and erotica?

No, the line is too narrow. You cannot import a book on Renoir in Saudi Arabia and many other countries – the definition changes wherever you go. That’s why we don’t usually use the word erotica in our catalogues. I always thought ‘erotica’ sounds like an excuse. As though it has to be aesthetically interesting. And you don’t need an excuse for sex. Sex is a great thing and there’s nothing to defend. Nothing.

What about the line between highbrow and lowbrow art?

I don’t care too much about it. What’s important is if something is inspiring, does it have a special quality or not. Raymond Chandler was considered low because of the nature of what he’s describing. But I don’t care – it’s either a great novel or not. Take someone like Carl Barks who created Donald Duck. He is still widely disregarded in America but without any doubt, he’s one of the great, great storytellers.

You had a Donald Duck door handle in your Cologne office.

Yes, I grew up with American pop culture, whether it was the TV series Flipper, or the live satellite pictures of Muhammad Ali or the moon landing. And Carl Barks was a totally undervalued genius. I learned a lot about California and capitalism through Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge.

Did America match up to your expectations?

Yes, I liked it from the beginning. The people were mostly open-minded and liberal. They came from all walks of life and all over the world. I’m talking about the America in Los Angeles, New York or Miami, that’s all I know. We are people who need our inspiration from cities. I’m very positive that one day they will change their government again and it will be even better to live here.

Why move to Los Angeles from New York?

New York is just too concentrated. Too hectic and nervous – I hate that. I very much prefer to sit in the sun without all the struggle of a huge city.

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You’ve made a huge impact in Los Angeles. After your book about Some Like It Hot, didn’t Billy Wilder once say “people are always impressed when I tell them I know Benedikt”?

Yes, he was a very sweet man. And always curious. Right into his 90s, he went to lunch and dinner every day. I admired him hugely. He combined European traditions with American pop culture in a unique way. He and the other émigrés who came to America – the same with Helmut Newton – they were a missing link to a part of Germany which made me proud, but which was totally washed away by history, by the Nazis. So to be friends with these people was great for me, as a German.

Are you ever awestruck by the people you work with, the list is just extraordinary. 

Yeah, it’s like a kind of constant awe. I work with people I have admired and respected all my life, and still get paid for it, so I’m certainly lucky. These are the people who make the world go round. Because if you look back even to the Egyptian pyramids or Tutankhamun, then what remains is culture, what the artists created. Not what the stupid politicians did, because, thank God, most of them are forgotten anyhow.

With the Helmut Newton book, you provided a Philippe Starck stand for it – was that an afterthought?

No, it was there from the beginning – we wanted to take away the weight of the book, and make it part of the interior design. The book as furniture.

Then the limited edition Ali book came with a Jeff Koons sculpture. You like these partnerships.

Yes, I always wondered what it would be like if there was a book like that about Marilyn Monroe, signed by her, and with Dali doing whatever kind of project too. Or Elvis with Andy Warhol.

They’re very decadent these huge books – no expense spared and all that.

Yes, certainly it is decadent. But you know if you compare a book that costs $3000 with anything else you can buy in a luxury brand shop, it’s still nothing. You can buy a stupid handbag that costs double.

And yet you were all about bringing the price of books down.

We are. The most important series we’re doing is the so-called Basic Art series, we have about 100 titles all with monographs by artists and architects – each costs under $10.

How are you different to other publishers?

Not so different. We don’t pay royalties because many artists prefer to have one fixed amount instead of a percentage against future sales. And where other publishers try to target a certain group, I don’t believe in that shit. We can only do what we feel it is important to do. If it’s interesting for us, maybe other people will share this opinion. But to ask questions like – what can we do for 35 year old bachelors who make more than $100,000 and like to listen to country? Who knows? And who cares? I never thought like this.

So who are Taschen readers?

We make a product for curious and intelligent people all over the world. But I can’t tell you whether they’re 16 or 80 years old. Maybe what brings them together is a curiosity for inspiration.

Or a fetish for feet.

I never saw a problem why shouldn’t be someone interested in buying Elmer Betters’s foot fetish book and at the same time a wonderfully illustrated Lutheran Bible? One doesn’t exclude the other. We’re grown up enough that we don’t have to be ashamed of being interested in this or that. If somebody’s interested, he or she should have fun with it.