Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A Story with Many Stripes: In Conversation with Publisher Prosper Assouline

Publishers Prosper and Martine Assouline (Photo by Jordan Doner)

At a time when electronic versions of books can be downloaded for free, luxury book publisher Prosper Assouline stays the course by continuing to put out titles on a range of subjects which cost top dollar. “My books are expensive,” he says unapologetically. “People, we have discovered, will pay dearly for a book if it is of top quality and beautiful to look at.” While some of his more exclusive books can cost upwards of thousands of dollars each, one of his latest, a history of Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company is a comparative bargain at $65. But while the price might be lower than the $7,000 being charged for Gaia, the Special Edition coffee table book Assouline published in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil’s Guy Laliberté, Hudson’s Bay Company is teeming with text and more than 200 images, making the book, with a forward by Canadian-born Vanity Fair editor in-chief Graydon Carter, feel rich indeed. Art, fashion, the performing arts and architecture tend to make up the bulk of the books the Paris-raised, New York-based Assouline has published since launching Assouline, his boutique company with wife Martine in their native France in 1995. But there’s always room for the eccentric and the extravagant, which the story of the Hudson’s Bay Company epitomizes in being a history of the fur trade and the formation of a Canadian identity. An ebullient man who started as an art director in magazines when he was 16, Assouline spoke with Deirdre Kelly at The Bay’s Queen St. W. flagship store in Toronto at an intimate lunch commemorating the launch of the book, recognizable for the iconic Hudson’s Bay multistripe Point Blanket on the cover. Here is some of their conversation: 

dk: What is a Parisian like you doing with a book documenting a piece of Canadian history?

pa: We are interested in brands. We started by publishing books on fashion designers Chanel and Dior, followed by a book on Cartier, the fabled French jewellery company. Eventually, we expanded to other fields, with books on fine hotels, cars and even countries. It is a question of point of view. But we are good at histories. It’s part of our DNA. Canada’s Hudson Bay Company has a very unique and fascinating history. The first thing I noticed was the fabulous link between this company and the history of Canada as a whole. The two histories are intertwined, which to me is extremely interesting. Maybe if there had not been a fur trade there might have not been a Canada. It’s an interesting question, and it is why we decided to do this book.

dk: How did it evolve?

pa: First, we had to go through the whole story to understand the spirit which drove and continues to drive such a huge company like The Bay. Then, we had to choose the best way to express it. Because of the extraordinary amount of information that is out there, in order to make it palatable and easily accessible to others we decided to take a visual approach. We had previously done books on American, Russian and Brazilian culture using this method. It worked before and we believed it worked again, this time for Canada.

dk: The result is a beautiful book as beautiful as your others. Why are beautiful books important to you?

pa: A beautiful book is, for me, a must-have, being a beautiful object as well as a tangible source of inspiration and pleasure. When my son Alexandre was born, I wanted my wife, Martine, to be able to stay home with him, actually it was her choice, and so with her help I started creating books that we couldn’t find in bookstores, and which made us feel happy staying at home, not feeling we were missing out on life’s richness. And so we created a new style of books. The success came fast. Others shared our love for them.

dk: Is reading a trend again or is the emphasis more on looking?

pa: Texts are very important but they have to be appealing to an audience of potential book lovers. Illustrated books go the extra mile. Their visuals are a core part of the reading experience. If done properly, then people won’t just look at the pictures: they will read the words accompanying them. That’s the goal. Our big strength at Assouline is the image; we have a huge image bank which we edit and lay out ourselves. Everything is matter of creation, and it is all done in house.

dk: Can you share your thoughts about books as art objects?

A page from Assouline's Hudson's Bay Company
pa: It comes down to how you drive a subject. How do you make it appealing? A beautiful book can be a piece of decoration like art or other precious objects within the home. But it can also be something that will be read and shared through the generations. In any event, it will form a part of someone’s library, so colours and typography need to be taken into consideration if it is a book to be admired and treasured for all reasons.

dk: How many titles have you to date and do you have a favourite?

pa: Two years ago, we decided to create a collection of books for a series we have called the Ultimate Collection. These are hand-made books with images tipped into the pages, and presented in luxury boxes. They are so much more expensive than our classic books. It was a challenge at the time. Everybody was pronouncing the decline of books because of the proliferation of Kindles and iPads. But it turns out that people still like the feel of a gorgeous book in their hands. This collection had a huge success and most of the titles are now out of stock. One of the latest in the series is on Les Ballets Russes by André Tubeuf. It is the best book ever on the subject, a masterpiece created in limited edition.

dk: How do you determine what subjects to devote to a book?

pa: My wife and I are constantly making projects as we are very reactive to what life throws our way. Everything is inspiration for us: travel, people, exhibitions, new places and other books. We usually don’t have to wait long for something new to strike us.

dk: What titles have you done lately?

pa: Oh, too many to say. We publish between 40 and 60 titles a year! But let’s choose three extremely different ones. Ivy League by Daniel Cappello is about the eight greatest universities ever, in my opinion. It is interesting to see them as brands and understand what makes them different from each other. A picturesque book, Dior 3, part of a slipcase set, is by Caroline Bongard and Jérôme Hanover and explores all aspects of the iconic fashion house  fashion, perfume and jewelry  in understanding its quintessence. The Impossible Collection of Motorcycles by Ian Barry and Nicolas Stecher was created with the help of three specialists and showcases the hundred best pieces from 1900 to 2000. It is a super production with photos taken from museums in Japan, England, Germany, and the USA. Another masterpiece!

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, is published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out www.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates.

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