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35 Jahre Taschen by Michaela Cordes | 5th June, 2015 | Personalities

Art, architecture and photography mixed with a gutsy dose of sex. What started as a young boy from Cologne in Germany with a passion for rare comics Benedikt Taschen turned into the biggest publishing house for spectacular books.

Tucked away behind the famous Mulholland Drive, with a view onto Universal Studios, lives the Lord of the Books – Benedikt Taschen. We are standing in his garden among the lush greens of a cultivated wilderness. Above us hovers what must be the most stylish habitable flying saucer, the octagonal Chemosphere House built by John Lautner. Next door lives one of Taschen’s friends, the painter David Hockney, with whom he is in talks for a new project. Below us, an eagle is quietly gliding into the vast valley. Taschen, who has just returned from a short trip to Berlin, chose this beautiful spot as his second home 15 years ago: “I love to spend time in L.A. I just feel at ease here.”

No wonder. Taschen himself has become an established figure in Hollywood. Admired by many, endlessly imitated, but never matched, his TASCHEN publishing house is today considered a global phenomenon, with sales of 20 million books annually. The man from the German city of Cologne has published more than 1,000 titles worldwide in the last 35 years, selling his spectacular works in Philippe Starck-designed TASCHEN Stores in locations from London, Paris, and Milan to New York and Los Angeles. What makes him so unrivaled? “His unique publishing portfolio is without equal. It blends ‘high and low’; mixes art, sex and popular culture. Benedikt is one of the most important tastemakers of our time. He has strongly influenced the taste of our era and the art market,” says his good friend, the auctioneer and art expert, Simon de Pury. “As a person, he is as multifaceted as his publishing house. His humor, nonchalance, creativity, well-developed sense of friendship, and loyalty make him one of the most fascinating personalities in the arts and culture scene.” Equally impressed is star designer Marc Newson, who created a bookstand for TASCHEN’s new Annie Leibovitz book: “I admire his incredibly broad field of interests, his extraordinary connoisseurship and taste, his friendship and loyalty, and especially the fact that he has such a brilliant and naughty sense of humor!” TASCHEN’s portfolio is as colorful and diverse as Benedikt’s personality: architecture, art, design, fashion, photography, and, of course, sex. The fact that a book about architect Zaha Hadid is produced with as much passion, dedication, and attention to detail as Big Butts in 3D – is for Taschen a total given.

“His extraordinary connoisseurship and taste.  His incredible friendship and loyalty, but above all his brilliant and naughty sense of humor!” Marc Newson on what makes Benedikt Taschen so unique

It is 12 noon as we sit in the sunny shade in front of his home office. Benedikt lives here with his third wife Lauren. (She was a co-founder of Art Basel Miami Beach, and is in charge of the event’s program and sponsorship). His youngest son Balthazar (age 2) is having a nap, 5-year-old brother Laszlo is sitting on daddy’s lap, drawing.

Your passion for printed works was born when you were a young boy. Do you remember the first book that had a big impact on you? I believe it was the books by Jules Verne, which I read at the age of seven. I grew up surrounded by books, and that hasn’t changed to this day. I spend a couple of hours every day reading books and newspapers, but always hardcopies, never on the computer.
How would you describe your childhood? What did your parents do? Both of my parents were doctors. My father was an internist and my mother a general practitioner. I am the youngest of five siblings, and grew up with three sisters and one brother. My oldest sister is 16 years older than me.
There is the anecdote about how you seemed to have had an early sense for business, even as a child. On summer vacation at the beach in Holland, you would lie in wait under the wooden planks for change to fall through the gaps from the ice cream stand above. Later as a teenager, you founded a mail order company buying and selling comic books. Yes, I earned my own money early on. Back then, you had to send everything cash-on-delivery, or get paid via a post office account. The mailman would bring the money in the morning, while I was at school.
What did your parents say about your early business ventures? My whole family, and especially my parents, were very supportive of me from an early age, in a variety of ways, including financially. I felt loved and knew that my family had faith in me, no matter what I did. That was very important to me and was an invaluable advantage. I was very fortunate and had everything I needed. I felt secure and inspired, and was left to my own devices. Nobody told me what to do or when to be home. I grew up happy, with a lot of freedom, and was treated as an equal, like an adult from a very young age.
Where did your great passion for comics come from? When I was about ten, I was hooked on Mickey Mouse comic books. They totally captured my imagination and I began collecting them. I bought old comic books, and visited comic book stores in Cologne two or three times a day. At the time I did not realize that other people might also be interested in them. Much later I discovered that there was a collector’s market and that many people try to recapture the dreams of their lost childhood by buying vintage comics.

“One of the most important tastemakers of our time. With a personality as multifaceted as his publishing portfolio.” Simon de Pury

How did you discover that other people were also interested in rare comics? When I got my hands on the first comic book price lists in 1976. I realized then that I wasn’t the only person in the world with this passion. On my search through the stores, I then started buying duplicates and comic books that others were interested in. I started enclosing price lists with the comics I sent to the collectors, who would then place orders by mail or simply call me up. New orders would arrive every day: for 30 Deutschmarks, or a few hundred, sometimes even more. I operated this mail order business out of the basement of my parents’ house for a few years. After passing my Abitur, the final exams before entering university in Germany, just shy of my 18th birthday, I opened my first store.
Instead of attending college? Graduating was the only request my parents insisted on. In my store, I continued selling the vintage collector’s items, but also new books and magazines from around the world. In 1980, I took my first plane to California, where I visited a few comic book sellers and publishing houses. Back in Germany, I sold all the stuff that I had imported from the U.S.
Did you already envision yourself a publisher by that point? That development happened more or less by chance. Business was good and we always needed new stock. We bought from publishing houses and distributors in various countries, and quickly learned what would sell and what wouldn’t. Apart from comic books we sold remainders and overstock items: art, movie, and photographic books, which publishing houses in the U.S., England and France were not able to sell at the regular price. Our game changer was a monograph about the Belgian artist René Magritte. We acquired 40,000 copies in the U.S. for a dollar each and quickly sold them on for 9.95 Deutschmarks apiece. A surreal success. At that time the distribution to other booksellers within Germany and abroad was organized by my then partner in crime Ludwig Könemann, a crazy-brilliant young man. Without him, there wouldn’t have been a company in the early years.
Your big breakthrough happened in 1999 when you published the biggest and most expensive book of the 20th century. Your first SUMO book on the works of photographer Helmut Newton broke all records. Much more than a book, you published a Limited Edition work of art. Newton was a milestone for the publishing company and for me personally. The whole thing was a wild idea: number 00001 of the SUMO book, signed by more than a hundred of the personalities photographed in it, was auctioned off for 630,000 Deutschmarks in 1999. It was the most expensive book to be published in the 20th century. Once again, I was very lucky. The book was a phenomenal success and has been sold out for many years now. Copies in their original packaging are today being traded for ten to fifteen times the original issue price of 3,000 Deutschmarks/$ 1,500. On top of that, I had the pleasure of getting to know Helmut Newton, who became a close friend until his sudden death in 2004.

“He’s very popular in L.A. – all the artists want to know him.” Billy Wilder on Taschen (Vanity Fair, 2000)

How did you come up with this revolutionary idea? I met Helmut at the end of the 1980s in Berlin. He was one of my big heroes and I asked myself: what could I offer him? What could I suggest to get him interested in working with me? I needed something completely original! So I came up with the idea of the oversized SUMO book. He loved the idea, and being his adventurous self, he agreed to do it. Every now and again, he would have some doubts. After all, he was at the pinnacle of his career and was taking a big risk. But in the end, everything came together perfectly, and the book looked exactly how we had envisioned it.
Because of your first SUMO book you were able to establish prices that would have been unthinkable in the publishing world before. After the sensational success of the first SUMO book, we felt confident to publish more extraordinary, elaborately produced books that were as unique as they were expensive. All of a sudden, we found ourselves in this unusual, but fortunate position: we were publishing books with a huge print run for 10 dollars, and at the same time producing lucrative Collector’s Editions with a much higher issue price that were restricted to 1,000 copies. We want to make it possible for everyone to buy the books they are interested in – independent of their wealth.
It seems that today you and your company are almost regarded as a platform or advocate for artists? Creative people need an environment in which they feel understood and taken care of, and where they are in the company of other artists who appreciate them. That is the home that TASCHEN offers.
Your gut feeling – is it the secret to your success? (laughs) Naturally, it comes with both advantages and disadvantages. If something looks relevant and unique to us, we try to make the best out of it. In addition to mainstream themes, we also like to feature more niche subjects. But in everything we do, we treat the chosen content with the same diligence and passion, no matter if we are working on the complete works of Leonardo da Vinci, Tiki culture or the foot fetishist Elmer Batters. What is not of interest to us, we do not publish, even if it promises to be commercially lucrative. The TASCHEN portfolio reflects the personal and often idealistic visions of the editors – and myself. All in all a rather anachronistic program.
You have turned the coffee table book into a desirable lifestyle object. A new sort of art collection you can take home. What do you think of those who try to copy you? What others do, or who they copy, is their business. We are busy enough with our own work, and are primarily concerned with one main objective: how to keep our loyal TASCHEN readers inspired and devoted to us. Many of our customers have grown up with us and have been loyal readers for ten, twenty or thirty years. Some are even second-generation readers.There are TASCHEN customers who bought their first art books for a few dollars as teenagers, and over the years, have built up libraries of hundreds of our books (sometimes even more than a thousand). One of our most devoted clients is the Belgian collector René Rousseau, who owns 179 limited Art and Collector Editions plus 650 unlimited TASCHEN books. He even built a beautiful, small museum for his TASCHEN collection, with custom-made shelves and special air conditioning for the books! Every day, we get dozens of emails and letters from readers around the globe who are delighted with our books, in which they discover whole new worlds. This kind of feedback is crucial to our work.
Are you thinking about going digital at some point or does that run counter to your philosophy? If we have one! (laughs) No, e-books are not for us.
You have grown from dealing with comics into the global market leader of art books. What drives you now? What inspires you? That’s a good question! I am still as curious as a little boy, which is why I am still having so much fun working on a daily basis. There is never a chance for boredom, because the range of subjects is so vast. On top of that, I am extremely privileged to work with people that I value highly for a variety of reasons and with outstanding talents from around the world in their respective fields.
You have collaborated with Billy Wilder, Helmut Newton, Muhammad Ali, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Koons, Kippenberger, Valentino, Starck, Ando, Salgado, Leibovitz and many others. Did they all approach you? Well, somebody has to do the job. Yes, most of them approached us, but it also happens the other way around. If we then manage to find some common ground, we are in business.
How long do you normally spend working on a book? If things move along quickly, about a year. But sometimes a book takes longer. In some instances three, five or more years. Salgado’s masterpiece Genesis took more than ten years.
The U.S. media like to call you the successful “bad boy” of publishing, because of your racy sex publications. Does one need to be provocative to be noticed around the world? I don’t know. I’m not interested in causing controversy.
One thing that may not be quite as well known about you is the fact that you are a father of five. Are your children involved in the company? Marlene, my eldest daughter, is running our Milan office. Charlotte is an actress, and works at TASCHEN in Los Angeles, when she has the time. My son Bene advises me on photography and organizes successful pop-up exhibitions with his “Hardhitta” gallery. Laszlo, Balthazar, and my granddaughter Aurelia have everything under control: the next generation, so to speak, currently active in preschools.
One of your greatest passions is devoted to the city of Los Angeles. Why is that? When I first visited L.A. in 1980, I immediately felt I belonged here. Many things seemed so familiar to me, thanks in part to my favorite authors back then – like Chandler, Steinbeck and Bukowski – but also because of Disney’s comics, TV shows, movies, and music, of course, as well as pop culture. On top of that, the Americans themselves welcomed me in a super open and friendly way, charming with their almost childlike curiosity. I quickly got to know individuals from the most diverse backgrounds who treated me with an ease and openness that I was not so used to from my time growing up in Germany.
When I told friends that I was going to meet you, their first question was: but can you still make money selling printed books? (laughs) “Painfully the squirrel feeds itself,” as the German proverb goes. Yes, sometimes I do feel like a silent movie producer. There is something very anachronistic about books. But you can definitely still make money, especially if you already have a few bucks, and luck. We’ve been in business for 35 years now, and are still very much alive and kicking – a kind of a big fish in a small pond – “Knock on wood!” as my good friend Simon de Pury would say. I am extremely grateful for our ongoing success, and thank all our loyal TASCHEN fans around the globe who are such a big part of it. MC

IssueGG Magazine 03/15
City/CountryLos Angeles/ U.S.
PhotographyMark Seelen