Benedikt Taschen has way too much fun. He lives in L.A.’s Chemosphere, an iconic flying saucer–shaped house designed by John Lautner. He collaborates and socializes with artists and celebrities. He is the force behind Taschen, an international publishing house that produces books on "art, anthropology and aphrodisiac." He has stores in 12 international cities, 250 employees, and releases 100 new titles a year.
Not bad for someone who began by selling comic books in Germany in 1980. Now, he is hailed (and scorned) as a publishing maverick.
Taschen is a "living brand," not unlike Jobs, Branson, and Zuckerberg. I’m told not much gets done without his blessing: books, store design, calendars, even shopping bag art. While it is his singular vision that drives the company, he said in an email that a collective passion that everyone brings to their work and "fearlessness…pushing against the boundaries of society whether they are moral, racial or social perspectives" unifies his team.
The audacity of the Taschen brand sets it apart. No other publisher has a catalog that contains the truly arcane, such as The First Six Books of the Elements of Euclid, to monographs on starchitects like Santiago Calatrava, to "sexy books" like The Big Book of Breasts 3D. However, for every book of erotica he publishes, you’ll find volumes on painting, industrial design, typography, architecture, natural history, sports, travel, and fashion. At a Taschen dinner party, I can imagine riveting conversations among Hugh Hefner, Christo, and Zaha Hadid.
Taschen (and his naughty-by-nature persona) is the reason that Taschen is better than good. Phaidon, Steidl, or Rizzoli consistently produce outstanding illustrated books and are tough competitors. Taschen speaks highly of his competition, acknowledging Penguin as "a great classic and innovative house." But none of them has Benedikt Taschen at the helm.
Taschen’s far-flung interests are at the core of the publisher’s library, and the company is focused on delivering beautifully printed books with high-production value on a range of topics. Borrowing from another German visionary, Mies van der Rohe, Taschen says his basic mantra is "less is more." His antidote for information overload is great editing, which he regards as "one of the most valuable services offered today." A trusted editor, he says, "can curate—and perhaps most importantly, simplify—an area of your life."
Author and design educator Steven Heller sees the publisher in a missionary role: "If not for Taschen, a large percentage of our mass culture will go undocumented. As books are hitting a rough transitional patch, Benedikt Taschen and his crew of ‘cultural documentarians’ are the bright lights."
The magnetism of the books inspires a devoted worldwide following. Taschen says he has "been continually surprised and humbled" that people share his passion for great books, calling his readers’ connection to the books "almost fetishistic."
Taschen might also add "big is better" as a mantra. Its artist editions and "XL"-format books are a distinctive signature and can cost thousands of dollars. A "lunar rock" edition of MoonFire, Norman Mailer’s account of the Apollo 11 mission, measures 14-by-17 inches, includes a certified chunk of moon rock in a Marc Newson display, and can cost $500,000. However, if you’re a little short on cash, ten dollars will buy you one of hundreds of soft-cover, well-edited artist monographs.
Taschen’s superb branding extends to its stores, which are sanctuaries of culture designed by Philippe Starck. Each is tailored to its location while clearly evoking the cohesive essence of the brand. In a smart move into co-branding, the publisher opened a "shop within a shop" at the Art Institute of Chicago. The company’s presence is equally impressive at book fairs, with installations designed by Shigeru Ban and as a semi-annual "magalog" that boasts rarified advertisers such as luxury automaker Maybach and Monocle magazine.
Taschen is a finely tuned brand; however, its website, despite recent improvements, is its weakest link. For such an essential marketing channel, it lacks its hallmark graphic-design sensitivity. Its congested interface should be stripped down and restructured to better highlight the products.
Publishing’s push to the digital world may pose the biggest challenge to the future of Taschen, where the e-book is all about convenience, cost, portability, and up-and-coming technology.
Julius Wiedemann, Taschen’s director for digital publications, recognizes the challenge. "Finding the right balance with all the interactive tools available will be key," he says. The company’s first step is an iTunes app called Yes Is More: An Archicomic on Architectural Evolution by BIG, that accompanies a printed monograph on the trendsetting Copenhagen-based architecture firm led by Bjarke Ingels. The interactive version includes dynamic diagrams, animated renderings, and video content. Taschen adds that over the years, one thing in publishing has not changed: "Books make a statement about their owners, whether proudly displayed on the coffee table or shelved in rows in the library." Does this include on an iPad?
My own "XL" copy of Michelangelo: The Complete Works—with 548 pages and weighing in at 22 pounds—is perched on its specially designed clear acrylic Taschen stand in my office. There it is transformed from a book into an object of art. It’s hard to imagine that the e-book version of this tome will be very compelling. However, if anyone can change my mind, Taschen will. Because that’s what great brands do.