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His back pages

Every year, Benedikt Taschen sells 15 million books full of taboos, whimsy and Americana. Some tomes from the enigmatic German go for a few dollars, others go for thousands. Who is he, and how is L.A. changing him?

November 23, 2003|Scott Timberg | 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.

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