His back pages

Times Staff Writer

One night this fall, Benedikt Taschen was planning a modest dinner with the editor in charge of his Los Angeles office. Something in Koreatown, he figured, or maybe Tom Bergin's, perhaps a drink later at an old Hollywood haunt like the Formosa Cafe. Although he runs an international empire and favors expensive suits, the German publisher makes it a point of pride to eat only at restaurants with a B or C health rating.

But Taschen, it turned out, had scored invitations to a fashion show at Armani, and soon he and editor Jim Heimann were standing in frustration behind a roadblock on Rodeo Drive. Beverly Hills looked poised for an invasion, its streets patrolled by young people wearing sleek black clothes and headsets.

Taschen and Heimann have become, over the last two decades, innovators in a new kind of publishing, one that brings the humor of pop culture to high art and some of high art's seriousness to kitsch. It was Taschen, a friend of fetish photographer Helmut Newton, who published Newton's collected works in a $1,500 coffee-table book that came with its own coffee table.

None of this, though, helped with the burly guards on Rodeo. Clearly not used to being detained, the publisher stood seething until a shapely blond Englishwoman apologetically escorted him and Heimann to the Armani store's entrance, terming the scene outside "very uncivilized."

"Yes, it is," Taschen intoned.

Pouty models were soon marching down a red carpet as music pounded, and Steve Martin appeared to praise and tease a smiling Giorgio Armani. Then Taschen was off to a Vanity Fair after-party, where he sipped a pomegranate martini and shook hands with Macy Gray, Samuel L. Jackson and Armani himself.

To some, it would have been a big night out. Heimann, who drives Taschen around when the publisher's in town and acts as what he calls "court jester," seemed to enjoy the display of flesh and star power. But his boss was unimpressed, calling the party OK and Armani's clothes "completely overrated."

"I'm not that social," Taschen said over dinner later at Mr. Chow. "I'm more private."

In a crowd of his own assembling, by contrast -- as at a party Monday -- he's so much looser and more effusive that it seems as if his very DNA has changed.

Just who is Benedikt Taschen? His late night after the Armani show offered a sort of analogue of his career. From scrappy origins -- as a teenage comic book merchant in Cologne, Germany -- he has wandered casually into a world of glamour and sexuality. Now 42, he runs offices in six countries, employs 150 people and sells 15 million books a year, mostly on his own whims and hunches. These volumes often anticipate cultural trends. They allow buyers to live vicariously, to play voyeur -- in Neutra houses, German art museums, Japanese sex hotels.

For a certain kind of retro-minded sophisticate, Taschen books are the gold standard. Even expensive, lavishly packaged tomes spotlighting the experimental Case Study House program and rare early photographs of Marilyn Monroe sell rapidly. Taschen's success, with generally low prices, huge print runs and taboo subject matter, has rival publishers scrambling to keep up.

Outside Mr. Chow, Taschen paused to admire one of Hugh Hefner's limousines. He himself has a reputation as the Hefner of the art book, a jet-setting maverick in frog-skin shoes.

In September 2002, the company moved its U.S. offices from New York to Hollywood, which has led to a new emphasis on Americana and pop culture and the hiring of Heimann, 54, a graphic artist and author steeped in L.A. history. While once Taschen changed the world of the art book, now Los Angeles has begun to change Taschen.

Last week, an "Old European," mahogany-and-brass Taschen store, designed by Philippe Starck, opened in Beverly Hills to showcase the imprint's books and provide a space for lectures and events. It will be for Taschen what the Playboy mansion is for Hefner, a way of packaging, and bringing to life, a mystique -- an idiosyncratic blend of art, kitsch, nudity and international capitalism.

Eclectic range

Sharp suits and cool taste aside, Taschen makes an awkward figure of glamour. Though he's tall, his heavily bagged eyes and weak chin give him the look of an introspective tortoise, always on the verge of retreating back into his shell. Often reticent or cryptic in conversation -- when asked which American women he fancied as a boy, he responds, "Besides Minnie Mouse?" -- he speaks most loudly through his books.

The catalog Taschen puts out twice a year is among the oddest, least predictable publications on Earth. Last spring's edition, for instance, announced a book about Jaybird, a late '60s/early '70s nudist magazine that showcased hirsute, liberated young people frolicking in pastoral settings -- California as Eden.

In the same catalog was a book that captures Eden more literally: a facsimile of the 1534 Lutheran Bible, printed in Germany, bound at the Vatican and featuring scores of flaming chariots, rolling hills and pious shepherds in full-color woodcuts.

With typical Taschen aplomb, the catalog imagines a riot involving the characters in both books -- "The naked protesters and the Protestants marched hand-in-hand to the Crossroads of the World where they staged their protest at the Taschen offices" -- and calls the 1534 volume, which launched Protestantism, "the first bestseller in world history."

Sex and God don't mark the limit of the house's taste. The same catalog offers the latest installment of "All-American Ads," this one on the 1950s: a huge, heavy tome of magazine advertisements where suburban moms swoon beside Frigidaires, and lantern-jawed, snap-brimmed dads earnestly pilot sedans. Despite a fascination with the goofy exuberance of American capitalism, fall's catalog leads with a book of Chinese propaganda posters, in which Chairman Mao appears as "the Communist superhero."

The scale of Taschen's books ranges almost as widely as its subject matter. A new line called Icons boils down everything from contemporary architecture to old travel posters to female genitalia into small books priced at $9.99. And the house is perhaps best known in publishing for democratizing the art book with its cheap volumes on Dali, Picasso and 20th century photography.

Increasingly, Taschen also turns out projects like a gargantuan book on Muhammad Ali, an 800-page compendium of photos and text that will retail for $3,000; 1,000 "Champ Edition" copies will cost $7,500 and include a sculpture by artist Jeff Koons. In part because Taschen, unlike most publishers, has worldwide distribution, many copies of the book (called "GOAT," for "Greatest of All Time") are already spoken for, though they won't ship until spring. If "GOAT" has the same success as 1999's "SUMO" -- the Helmut Newton volume -- it won't grow old on bookstore shelves.

Early biz savvy

By the time he was 12, Taschen was already a seasoned entrepreneur, with his own mail-order business selling comic books.

He was born in 1961 in Cologne, a large Rhineland city, Gothic in style, with a reputation for tolerance, mercantile savvy and serving beers in small glasses instead of massive steins. The youngest of two doctors' five children, young Benedikt actually started shilling when he was 8, with a booth on the fringes of an art fair where he peddled his vampire drawings. "At the end of the fair, he had 800 deutsche marks in his pocket," says Veronica Weller, the publisher's personal assistant. "Which made him more successful than some of the artists inside the tent."

Taschen also developed a passion for American comic books. "I fell in love with this artist, Carl Barks," he says with gravity of the creator of Donald Duck. He loved "the psychology" of the comics as well as their Technicolor glow, so different from the prevailing grays of German culture.

"I learned so much about American capitalism, about all these big shots, Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge. It was a major influence. I thought I would be the only one who was interested in this stuff."

On the contrary -- as his mail-order company soon demonstrated. By 18, he had opened a store in Cologne called Taschen Comics and begun to publish his own.

In 1983, still in his early 20s, he teamed with a friend to buy 40,000 remaindered copies of an English book on the surrealist painter Rene Magritte and doubled their investment reselling them. With his new nest egg, Taschen published similar artist monographs, most priced under $10. Tired of waiting for clerks to fetch art books from glass cases, he aimed to make his books as accessible as comics.

Angelika Muthesius, a Bonn native who had just earned her doctorate in art history, remembers going to the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1986. "I saw all the serious art publishers," she says, making the face of a long-suffering pedant. "It was too dry. Like, 'Don't touch me!' I was 26, I wanted to have some fun. Even though I'd gotten a PhD, I was never an academic person. My fantasies were much more crazy. And I saw Benedikt's booth -- they were young people, they were laughing, they were drunk."

Muthesius wrote to Taschen, asking for work, and within two months she was an editor in the Cologne office. A tall, thin, outgoing woman, she became the second Mrs. Taschen in 1996. (The publisher has three children from an earlier marriage.) More clearly embodying a mix of intellectualism and sexuality than her husband -- she stood nude in a now notorious magazine ad while he sat beside her fully clothed -- she edits books on art, design and interiors.

Taschen Books experienced tremendous growth during the '90s, beginning with the purchase of a three-story Cologne mansion, outfitted with Donald Duck door handles and pornographic photos, to serve as a new office. Taschen set his mind on world domination: As the decade wore on, communications technology made working in multiple cities possible, expanding his company's reach.

"In the last 15 years," Taschen says, sitting in his Hollywood office below a Nazi-themed Mike Kelley painting, "art books have become an international market. Before that, you had a book's publisher in America, one in Spain, you had five different jackets, and so on. Our idea was to make it so we never sold any rights to anybody. Keep 100% control. I saw that the market wasn't Germany but the world. So we released each book with the same cover and look, under the same title."

Taschen also offered his artists unusual contracts, with a big payment upfront and no royalties. "There's not an artist alive who doesn't like getting a chunk of money," says William Claxton, the photographer of the 1950s West Coast jazz scene. "Instead of waiting for accountants to send you little checks over time."

The house's business style is unorthodox: It prints 20,000 or more copies of most books, distributes them itself, insists stores take a minimum number of copies if they want a title and refuses to take returns.

"In cases where I've disagreed with a book's approach," says Glenn Goldman, owner of the Sunset Strip emporium Book Soup, "I'm almost always proven wrong. I thought the Newton book was beautiful, but I questioned whether it would sell at $1,500. It sold extremely well."

The company guards its financial information closely, but some estimates have sales quadrupling in the last decade, to about $40 million annually.

"We're a private company. We can do whatever we want," Taschen says. "That's why artists like to work with us. They're the most important ones. Any book has to represent the artist without any compromises."

Another area where Taschen doesn't compromise is books about sex, which are usually a bookstore's most explicit volumes. Some look at mores in the past -- Taschen was into Victorian nudes years before the Brooklyn Museum -- while others are contemporary and depict not soft-focus "erotica" but actual sex. Dian Hanson, Taschen's "sex editor," says every time she walks into Book Soup she sees publishers ripping off Taschen's work. "But they don't get it right, because they're not thinking with their groins."

"Naked as a Jaybird," with a text connecting hippies to the German nudists of 1900, is one of Taschen's favorites. But he insists these books don't keep the ship afloat. "I only do the sex books because they're supported by the art books," he says, explaining that volumes about sex account for about 10% of sales.

"There's nothing wrong with sex," he adds, confused by American puritanism. "There's a lot wrong if you don't have it."

The new guy

When he first saw California, Taschen says, he half-recognized it from "Donald Duck" and reading Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski. In 1998, he bought the $1-million, flying-saucer-like, John Lautner-designed Chemosphere House off Mulholland Drive and, after renovation, began to live here part time.

An important aspect of Taschen's MO during his Los Angeles years has been to cultivate friendships with older artists -- father figures like architecture photographer Julius Schulman and director Billy Wilder. The first book about film he put out was a $200 tribute to Wilder's "Some Like It Hot." That was followed by volumes on Fellini, Kubrick and other masters.

"Benedikt reminds me of an old-time Hollywood figure," Wilder told Vanity Fair in 2000, two years before his death. "A studio head, someone who is in firm command and has his hand in everything. And I know when I tell people that I know him, it is always a feather in my cap. He's very popular in Los Angeles -- all the artists want to know him."

Claxton, another father figure, recalls dinners at the house with "an incredible group of people: Billy Wilder, a porn star, a few writers, someone who'd worked with Andy Warhol, saxophonist Benny Carter. After a semiformal dinner, the evening would burst into a dance party. Benedikt would play jazz and dance on the table. Everybody would dance, including his chef."

Despite the publisher's comfort in Los Angeles, the company's move here took many by surprise.

Says his assistant Weller: "That step was much criticized: 'This is a mistake. He will regret it.' 'It's a known fact that New York is where the media are, the intellectual and publishing worlds.' But L.A. reflects his interests much more than New York. He fits in much better here -- he hates the noisiness, the rain, in New York, and doesn't like formality or conventions."

Still, a few months after the opening of the Los Angeles office, Taschen and Angelika separated. They have since divorced. That awkwardness -- he now stays at a hotel off Sunset when he comes to town -- and the consuming nature of the Ali book have made him scarce for the last year. (She continues to edit for the press and live in L.A. much of the year.)

His staffers attribute changes to Taschen -- a "going native" -- despite his limited sojourns in Southern California. They say he's tanner, more relaxed, into convertibles.

"His style of dress has completely changed," says Hanson, who came to the press after 15 years at Leg Show, which she proudly calls "Benedikt Taschen's favorite men's magazine."

"He's more tropical. Benedikt has become quite buff and muscular recently, and I think that comes from lifting his own books."

His urge to make everything bigger and better probably can't go on forever, though. William Drentell, a small publisher in Connecticut, points out that the Italian art book publisher Rizzoli opened stores around the U.S. during a period of expansion but recently retreated, laying off staff and closing all but a single outlet.

"It starts to be a little more like the movie business," he says. "If your blockbuster doesn't sell, it's a major loss."

No pigeonholes

Taschen's associates say that he keeps his finances to himself and that it's hard to guess what he's worth because of a lifestyle both extravagant and frugal. "One side is very glamorous because he's a jet-setter," says photographer Claxton. "He could be in Indonesia tomorrow and then at a party in Miami the next day."

"He's pretty thrifty in a lot of ways," says editor Heimann. "If he's gonna spend money, it's on art, or on Eames chairs or something."

Heimann says Taschen's favorite haunt in Cologne is a brewery dating from the 19th century that serves sausage and sauerkraut and where the bill comes on a coaster marked with a grease pencil.

People who know Taschen seem to agree on one thing: He's driven. Yet even his closest friends -- and he inspires a powerful bond -- have a hard time explaining that ambition.

"Oh, my God, it's unbelievable," Newton says. "I don't know what drives him. He puts an enormous amount of time and energy into it."

The Ali book is especially baffling. "I have my interpretation, but I don't want to share it," ex-wife Angelika says with a laugh. "Because what Benedikt puts into it, his energy, and money-wise, it's more than any book he's ever done. I think he's an obsessive person. When he goes for something, he goes for it."

Claxton sees Taschen as a Chandler-esque figure. "He's an amazing detective. He knows how to seek out people who have valuable and maybe obscure information on a subject. To me, that's his greatest talent."

Hanson says her boss is always racing to keep from falling into a rut, becoming predictable. "He reinvents almost as often as Madonna," she says.

"I think Benedikt, like most great men, is somewhat alienated from society. And he really doesn't care what other people want or like. He follows his own inner directives. We're doing a big Playboy book, for the 50th anniversary, and that was exactly Hefner's formula. He just did what he wanted, and he had absolute confidence that this was going to work."

Private eye, Madonna, Hef? Who is the real Benedikt Taschen?

"I want to have a happy life," he says. "You see, I am very simple-minded."

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The high-end game

What makes a book -- even a quite nice coffee-table tome -- worth four figures? Taschen's Muhammad Ali tribute, "GOAT" (an acronym for Greatest of All Time), comes in a standard collector's edition ($3,000) and a "Champion's Edition" priced at $7,500. The books will go from Milan to the U.S. and be delivered to consumers in the spring, with slightly more than 5,000 to be sold in the United States. Among their selling points:

Rarity: The limited edition consists of 10,000 copies, each signed by Ali and artist Jeff Koons.

Heft (physical and intellectual): Roughly 800 pages, with more than 3,000 photographs and illustrations and text by more than 100 writers, including David Remnick, George Plimpton, Norman Mailer, Howard Cosell and George Foreman.

Size and quality: Measures 20 inches by 20 inches and weighs 75 pounds; printed and bound by the Milan firm that handles the Vatican's Bibles.

Design: Comes in a silk-covered box illustrated with an image from the 1966 Ali vs. Cleveland Williams fight; spine and logo on front cover designed to approximate the metallic pink leather of Ali's original pink Cadillac; paper edged with gold leaf.

"Extras": The lower-priced standard edition comes with a Koons photo-lithograph; the "Champ's" edition includes an original sculpture by Koons as well as four silver gelatin prints signed by Ali and photographer Howard Bingham.

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