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Bringing boundary-breaking art books to Berlin

Kristen Allen · 7 May 2009, 15:59

Published: 07 May 2009 15:59 GMT+02:00

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Benedikt Taschen looks slightly fatigued by the onslaught of news cameras and social-climbing well-wishers in his new 82-square-metre store nestled between luxury retailers on Berlin's Freidrichstrasse. Like the publisher’s eight other stores across the globe, the bookstore in the German capital was outfitted by celebrated French designer Philippe Starck – and it’s swarming with flamboyantly dressed big shots from the city's art scene.

“I’ve been looking for a location in Berlin for several years,” Taschen says. “It probably has the largest concentration of our readers with the art and culture scene, not to mention all of the international visitors to the city.”

The grey-haired 48-year-old graciously receives everyone who asks, taking a moment to admire a towheaded little girl and lift a beer from a passing tray. It’s Kölsch, the local specialty brew from his hometown Cologne, where he first went into business at age 18 by opening Taschen Comics in 1980. After nearly going broke, Taschen borrowed money from his family to buy 40,000 remainders of a Magritte book published in English. Germans snapped it up, providing enough steam for Taschen to begin printing original titles. Now Taschen publishes about one new book per week, in addition to reprints and new additions.

Click here for a photo gallery of Taschen and his books.

“He’s actually ok,” one female party-goer says, watching Taschen pose for photos with his fantastically leggy ex-wife Angelika, an art historian and long-time editor at the company. “But I guess he would be – he gave the go-ahead on ‘The Big Penis Book.’”

The best-selling photo chronicle of the age-old fascination with the phallus, and follow-up companion to the “Big Book of Breasts,” was published based on the assumption that “a big penis never goes out of style.” And Taschen’s style – an edgy but inclusive aesthetic – has proven to be just as abiding.

“For me there is no conventional separation between high-brow and low-brow art,” Taschen says shortly before discovering he’s misplaced his Kölsch in the party crush. “Both are interesting, and as they say, variety is the spice of life.”

Taschen books are not just varied in subject, they are accessible. The “Basic Art” and “Basic Genre” series sell for €6.99 each. Most of the other photo books on design, travel, architecture, film, pop culture, photography and sex sell for well under €50.

“We can do this because each book includes several languages, which means they reach a greater public in more countries – even though it’s a niche market,” Taschen says.

In an interview with LA Weekly in 2002, Taschen said that shopping for art books in pretentious specialty stores as a youth had made him feel like a “dummy,” inspiring his egalitarian publishing vision.

But Taschen also makes audacious, extravagant special edition books, like the record-breaking €10,000, 75-pound, 700-page homage to boxing legend Muhammad Ali, “GOAT (Greatest of All Time)” – which German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier reportedly brought new US President Barack Obama on a recent visit.

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“I’ve had the good fortune to be around artists since I was a child, and later had friendships with creative people like Helmut Newton, who have always made a big impression on me,” Taschen says. “I developed my style through them.”

But not everyone can hobnob with international tastemakers to become a discerning aesthete.

“That’s why we make our books,” Taschen said.

Taschen's new Berlin store is on Friedrichstraße 180-184.

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Kristen Allen (kristen.allen@thelocal.de)

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