INDEPENDENT, INCLUSIVE AND INSPIRATIONAL. Marlene Taschen is the CEO of the international publishing house TASCHEN that was founded by her father Benedikt, who is also a collector of contemporary art. TASCHEN specialize in illustrated publications on a range of themes including art, architecture, design, film, photography, pop culture, and lifestyle.

Marlene Taschen, why did you follow in your father Benedikt’s steps and become a publisher? 

I was a very rebellious and independent child and teenager and travelled extensively, to Australia, to Panama, to the UK. After I studied psychology at the London School of Economics I was project manager in England for James Brett’s experimental The Museum of Everything, working with full heart and enthusiasm. After a couple of years I wondered, why not give this time and energy that I have to my own family company? I’ve always had a very good relationship with my parents. In my work life, my father and I have a very similar understanding and vision of how we would like things to be or what we want to do. He’s in LA, where my stepmom, my sister and two of my brothers are also, and I’m in Europe, but we are connected, we meet very regularly, and each one has their sphere. 

How would you describe your job?

My father appointed me CEO two years ago. It’s a challenge for sure because our company is a complex business and I manage the general structure. I look after the team of 240 people that work with us worldwide. TASCHEN is largely based on my father’s vision, but it has developed into something beyond that. There is certainly a TASCHEN spirit that I have tried to reflect, and I have worked a lot on putting the right people in the right position. I like the business side of things, but it’s not just business for me. I like the human and the creative side of things as well. I really looked into creating a good culture and I travel substantially because our headquarters are in Cologne, and we have offices in London, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Madrid.

How did you grow up?

I’m the oldest of seven children. My parents divorced when we first three children were still very young, and my mum has two more children. My father and his wife, Lauren, also have two children together. We are a very complex family, living all over the place. Despite the unconventional upbringing, everyone has been very loyal towards the family. My parents always put us children and the peace surrounding the family as a very important thing. That’s very beautiful, and really helped us all to find our place in the world.

“We want to engage with subjects that people feel inspired by. Our message is engaging in the beautiful things in life.”

Sebastião Salgado‘s photographs from the GENESIS project record landscapes and people unchanged in the devastating onslaught of modern society and development.

“This amazing book is Salgado’s love letter to the planet. I love the planet too. Look at the icebergs, at the mountains, at the forests, at the rivers: they take your breath away.” Renzo Piano

© Courtesy of TASCHEN.

Marlene Taschen, the headquarters of TASCHEN are in Cologne, Germany, yet you live in London and your father is now in LA. Why?

I also spend substantial time in Germany and Italy. My partner is Italian, my daughter is half Italian. My father started the TASCHEN company in Cologne in 1980 with a comic shop. He has an artistic sense and a business side to him, and he grew the business in Germany, but when he went to Los Angeles he really further developed TASCHEN by doing that move and by the new connections it created. My father found his real home in LA. A lot of our publishing program is influenced by that reality. Of course, I go to Cologne a lot and am in daily contact with our people there, but I decided not to live and work there completely, because I don’t see our function as the managers of a publishing house only as an operational one. We need to develop the business and work with the people that end up in our books. TASCHEN is a global business. Our publishing spectrum is very eclectic and varies from erotic photography books to high end art.

What is your father’s role and what is your role?

It’s a bit easier to do business when you don’t do it alone. In general, it’s a good combination if you don’t have to take all the decisions by yourself, it’s very helpful for business development. I’ve taken on quite a lot of the more managerial kind of work and it has been very good for my father who can now focus more on the actual book making part. He really loves to do the layouts and work page by page through the different books. We have organized things in a way that we have free space to develop new ideas, because there are a lot of new ideas about how we can develop our business. The company could quite naturally develop in many different directions. We are independent and we want to live that freedom, because basically we can do what we want. We aim to be independent, inclusive and inspirational. We want to engage with subjects that people feel inspired by. Our message is engaging in the beautiful things in life.

Most independent publishers are taken over by a bigger company. Will you be?

No. We are quite happy that we are independent. We have no intention of changing that. We are family. We do this because we like what we are doing. I include as family all our work colleagues in TASCHEN the company. The people that work with us are really committed and passionate in the way that they feel part of the group. 

How many books do you publish per year?

Around 40 titles that come out for the first time. We also redo in different ways and formats the fantastic books we have already published, such as on Rembrandt or Klimt or van Gogh, so about 100 per year in total including re-editions. 

TASCHEN did the SUMO project with Helmut Newton‘s pictures, the largest book published in the 20th century. Your book Goat was a tribute to Muhammad Ali. You published a very special book on Ferrari cars, another exceptional project. Then you also publish much less costly books?

We have a very broad range of prices, from our basic art series costing 10 Euro to the Ferrari book that was 25,000 Euro. The big Helmut Newton book was our first Sumo sized collector’s edition. It was revolutionary and changed the direction of our company. It opened a new segment of the market, because TASCHEN was democratizing art books and taking them out of their expensive and inaccessible circle. We offered a product that was in very high demand because my father had realized that if you do high print runs, you can make the price cheaper. This was not how the general market of art book publishing worked at the time. 

Do your books sell especially well at Christmas?

Yes, definitely. For the whole book market Christmas, starting from September, is the most important season because of gifting. To balance that in part we tend to release collector’s editions earlier on in the year and to create momentum in all seasons.

How would you describe TASCHEN?  

We are quite mainstream, but there are also some more eccentric topics. That’s why people appreciate the TASCHEN publishing house, there’s an unpredictable style to it. Art and photography is 50/60 percent of our business, then architecture, design, interiors, travel and lifestyle. Our so called sexy books, basically explicit erotic fantasy photography books, represent a small percent but made the company quite famous. Fun books like The Big Book of Breasts, The Big Book of Penis.

“2020 will be our 40th anniversary, and we will have a great series of affordable, well priced books.”

Marlene Taschen, how many books are in your catalogue? 

Around six hundred, and we also translate into a lot of core languages, and produce co-editions with a partner in other countries. Our biggest market is America. Germany, Italy France and the UK are strong, too. We have to reach quite a substantial turnover in order to break even.

Where do you print your books?

A lot of our production is in northern Italy and our collectors’ editions are done in the area from Milan to Venice because the best printing and binding is all close by. We have a partnership with a bindery, so we participate in the production as well and are not just a client. We have to ensure high print runs and we do that by being an international business. The same book will come out in German, French, English, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian.

What about your editorial staff?

We have a big editorial staff, and we have editors specialized in the different areas of what we do, photography, architecture and design. We work very closely with different archive collections and the artists and architects themselves. For every publication we also work externally and put together a team of fantastic writers, photographers and designers who really know their subject. 

How many stores do you have? 

13. We are going to open some new ones this year in New York – the most important place for us – and Madrid, and soon we will also have a new shop in Tokyo. Japan is picking up again and is potentially a very good market for us.

Is each shop designed for you by an architect?  

We put a lot of effort and time into making each shop as beautiful as possible. Many are designed by Philippe Starck. We’ve worked with Marc Newson, and more recently with two Italian architects, one of whom is the grandson of Gio Ponti.

How do you survive in a digital world where people buy fewer books, where bookstores close and everything is on Amazon?

We sell on Amazon but not our complete program, for example our limited editions. Having our own stores is very helpful because we can build a collectors’ network. We have both a substantial volume of sales and also a good base of collectors of limited editions.  2019 was a good growth year for us, and we have also prepared the path for future growth in the next years. We have worked a lot on our general distribution model. Technology and a more data driven approach can be very useful for the business if it’s done in the right way. It can be a positive thing.

Are your books also objects?  

We tried to turn our books into e-books and that certainly didn’t work. People like to have our books as objects to live with. It’s not just about the content, it’s also about form.

Benedikt Taschen and Helmut Newton © Alice Springs.

“Of all the thousands of iconic books produced by TASCHEN, their greatest accomplishment is photographer Helmut Newton’s Sumo. The sheer size and scale was an achievement in itself as it is the largest and most expensive book of the 20th century. In order to produce such a book, one needs vision and courage, not to mention the technical side of manufacturing and marketing.” Michael Chow

“The Ferrari book came out of a meeting with Piero Ferrari initially, and then we got to know more of the company and wanted to do a book about Ferrari because we think the elegance and the beauty of Ferrari can be really well captured in book form and there was the 70th anniversary coming up for them.” Marlene Taschen

The sculptural bookstand was designed by Marc Newsom.

Marlene Taschen talking with her guests at the opening of the TASCHEN store in Hong Kong.

Leonardo da Vinci is the overall all-time bestseller for TASCHEN. The Complete Paintings and Drawings 500 years anniversary edition provides a comprehensive survey of the life and work of the master painter, sculptor, architect, and inventor.

TASCHEN celebrates the legacy of the genius of Rembrandt in this 350 years anniversary edition XXL-sized monograph.

Ciao is an intimate new portrait of the Italy that Mario Testino knows and loves. The TASCHEN book gathers his personal, previously unpublished photographs in an ode to Italy’s people, art, food, and fashion.

“For every publication we also work externally and put together a team of fantastic writers, photographers and designers who really know their subject.”

Marlene Taschen, do you consider yourselves part of the luxury industry?

An important part of our clients are also clients in the luxury world, and some of our collectors’ editions are very much a part of the luxury/collector’s market, which is more art related. So I would say yes and no.

Do you make bespoke books for people? 

We never engage in this business. We receive a lot of proposals and a lot of people would like to do something like this, and we have always decided against it. We have worked with companies or we have done books about companies, but because we wanted to. You can’t buy us. We made a choice for that.

Some publishers have long time best sellers. Do you have iconic books in your collection?  

We have a good, strong backlist, that keeps selling and that’s very important for us as a publisher. Leonardo da Vinci is probably overall our all-time bestseller. Our Helmut Newton Sumo book, our New York Times 36 Hours series are strong, continuous sellers. Sebastião Salgado and his Genesis book has been very important for us, but also subjects like Gustav Klimt. These are some examples.

What about Sebastião Salgado?

Sebastião Salgado is a Brazilian photographer who won the 2019 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade for his life’s work. The Genesis project was his love letter to the planet. When we work with people like this, we really engage with them as partners. A lot of our new projects come from good, stable relationships. The architect Rem Koolhaas has done many different book projects with us, and has introduced new people to our company.

Are you also interested in publishing fiction?  

We are specialized, it is important that our books are illustrated, but we are also very much interested in the written side of it. We will see what other things we can do beyond the more art kind of books. 

After two years of being CEO are you pleased?

Yes, I am pleased with where we are. We have definitely improved the business substantially in terms of everything from profitability to margins to turnover. We have a very international workforce with a great balance between men and women. We have employees that have been with us for over 20 years, but also quite a few that have been there just for a couple of years, there are different ages and different nationalities. 

Which are the big projects you have for the coming months?  

2020 will be our 40th anniversary, and we will have a great series of affordable, well priced books. 20 Euro will be the price point, in a new format that we will bring out as a collection. It will be a reflection of our publishing house in terms of subjects and will show the great variety of different kinds of books we have done. We will release an anniversary edition of our Helmut Newton Sumo that will be much cheaper than the current second-hand value of the book.

Are you going to do some special events?

Yes, we will be celebrating with different TASCHEN exhibitions. We are right now confirming the date for an exhibition in Marseille and we are hoping to make it travel to other destinations, such as Tokyo. 

What are some new books that are coming out? 

Peter Lindbergh, Untold Stories, is coming out this month documenting the exhibition that he curated himself before he passed away. That’s a special project because it’s basically his legacy, his testament. We have a limited edition with the Japanese chef Yoshihiro Narisawa. And we are working on a monograph with Kengo Kuma, the architect of the 2020 Olympic Stadium in Japan. Rem Koolhaas’s Countryside? A Report is a companion for his forthcoming show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. We also have Mario Testino’s book, Ciao, his homage to Italy. We will publish a great book with Arnold Schwarzenegger on his various careers. And he has had quite a few! We are finalizing a great collaboration with Ai Weiwei, a set of bags and scarves but not books.

Is it true that you are going to publish a magazine?  

Yes, we are planning to make a magazine that would reflect our cultural world of the moment. A printed magazine integrating digital, podcasts and videos.


This interview is available as a podcast. Listen here.

All images © Courtesy of TASCHEN unless stated. Headshot of Marlene Taschen © Marco Glaviano