For bibliophiles and tastemakers alike, a library designed by Martine and Prosper Assouline is the ultimate in home improvements. Step inside the power couple’s world
Aside from the late Melvil Dewey perhaps, no one understands libraries quite like Prosper and Martine Assouline do. The husband and wife team have been publishing the smartest of tomes since 1994 (1,500 and counting), and after opening its first international flagship on Piccadilly, Assouline has spent the past two years formalising another aspect of its empire: interiors.
The idea behind Assouline’s ‘cultural lounge department’ was kindled by demand from those visiting the London bookshop asking for their own private library designed in the same impeccably stylish way.
Little wonder: huge armchairs are set beside low tables, tempting escape to another realm for those with even five minutes to sit and read, while bookcases are surrounded and topped by intriguing antiques, sculptures and memorabilia.
Upstairs, every object on display is for sale – from a miniature golden statue of a rhinoceros to tribal masks – each sourced by the couple themselves on their travels.
Prosper’s most beloved find was an embroidered Chinese chinoiserie chair made in England in 1852 that had been kept in a Japanese city of temples. “You can feel the quality of the English craftmaker,” he enthuses, lapsing in and out of French in his excitement. “It had been a donation from a pharmacy in Kyoto in the early 19th century.”
Other pieces at the Piccadilly bookshop-cum-library come from two furniture collections of the Assoulines’ own design, Allure and High Society (both from £585). Red or cream lacquered bookcases tower alongside coffee tables and sofas with plenty of hand-applied gold leaf, red leather and bronze detailing. Best of all is a three-panel wood screen (£9,685) wrapped in leather and embossed with Assouline’s signature Didot typeface – one side in gold and the other in silver – and similarly type-set carpets made from New Zealand wool (£42 per sq m).
Martine’s favourite is the X bookstand (£3,185). “It comes in lacquered beige and dark bronze and different type of woods,” she says. “It’s like a sculpture and is very elegant. “Prosper and I were visiting the oriental section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and discovered an old wooden bookstand carrying a 16th-century book. I fell in love and he designed a 21st-century version of it.”
The Assoulines’ London ‘Maison’ offers a taste of the cultural lounge that can be created for one’s own home. Under the couple’s personal guidance, each project is designed to capture the spirit of the existing house. “It’s not just about bringing in designer furniture, but mixing the furniture and objects [like] a contemporary cabinet of curiosities,” says Prosper.
“To create a book, an object or a piece of furniture is extremely different. The only common element is taste" – Martine Assouline
The essentials for every cultural lounge of course include “a good chair to sit on with a good book,” he says. “You also need a globe, because it makes you daydream about travelling.” Martine agrees: “a great table or high bookstand, and a very comfortable armchair or sofa bed with the most important thing – good light!”
“I want people to feel comfortable and calm,” says Prosper. “My first reference is a public library, where you don’t have a phone or television: it’s the most peaceful place in the world because you’re surrounded by culture.”
The pair have also developed a set of five scented candles – Paper, Culture Lounge, Leather, Wood and Havana (from £32) – to complement their interior designs. “We smelt something like 3,000 books and found just three that we felt were right,” says Prosper. These were then analysed to create the scents.
For those enamoured by the Assouline aesthetic and dreaming of an entire home designed by their hand, it may come as a disappointment that other residential rooms are not on the agenda at present. “To tell you the truth, I don’t want to move away from the library,” says Prosper. “The dining room is something that interests me a lot – but if I do one, I will design it like a library. To have dinner surrounded by books with a ladder and a chandelier would be amazing.”
Assouline also works with property developers and hoteliers. Its projects have included a three-floor apartment in Miami, as well as properties in Beijing, Dubai and Houston. The Patina hotel in Singapore will soon open featuring an Assouline-designed lobby, rooms and shop.
The pair recently worked on a big development at The Four Seasons in Miami. “The old part of the building dates back to the 1920s, and they asked us to design a private suite at the Surf Club,” describes Prosper. “I created it completely in the spirit of Hemingway, including a replica of his boat.”
It is a time-consuming endeavour and not every interior project is taken on, as Assouline’s primary focus remains on publishing. “We need to understand people’s interests – whether they are more art or fashion-led – because we put in a lot of our own books, as well as vintage ones,” Prosper continues. To wit, a house with 5,000 volumes has just been finished, each ready to be plucked from the shelves.
“To create a book, an object or a piece of furniture is extremely different,” says Martine. “The only common element is taste, and strangely enough, Prosper and I share exactly the same taste.”
A flawless sense of style seems intrinsic to the Assoulines. Cultivating it, Martine says, is not unlike training to be a runner or a dancer. “The more you practice, the stronger you are. Taste goes the same way.”