The first thing you notice upon entering Maison Assouline’s new Piccadilly flagship is the sheer volume and scale. Not just of the capacious open space with its mile-high ceilings, but the size of this French publishing house’s luxurious books.
These range from pocket size to weighty coffee-table tomes, covering subjects from art to fashion, cars to photography. But there is one, which is guaranteed to stop you in your tracks; South Pole: The British Antarctic Expedition 1910-1913. This particular read is limited to 150 copies and is personally signed by the Princess Royal. Measuring 24 inches tall the book needs a table of its own to display it. What’s more, you can’t help feeling slightly like you are Alice in Wonderland as you try to turn the huge pages.
To add to the store’s slightly off-kilter proportions a full-time bookbinder, Paolo Taddeo, is busy making private orders on archaic looking wrought iron paper presses. I’m told they date back to the 19th Century but they look as though they are sturdy enough to last another hundred years or more. Then there are the ‘Ariel Oxygen Cocktails’, served in Maison Assouline’s Swan Bar. Infused with ‘gemstone elixirs’, vitamins and minerals and whipped into a melted marshmallow consistency, they are served in enormous round glasses. Mine is absolutely delicious and I’m enjoying the hit of fresh oxygen as well as a tang of subtle rose petals.
That’s not the only thing to make you wonder if you have entered a Carroll-esque world. Prosper Assouline who founded the brand in Paris with his wife Martine twenty years ago, is flitting about the place rather like the Mad Hatter. He is busy inspecting its own-label of bags and small leather goods and worrying that the scent of musky wood from its own line of candles may be a tad strong for the lunchtime crowd. This consists of local art dealers and fashion types who, unlike me, are snacking on luxury delicacies such as foie gras and Spanish ham, at tables clustered in the centre of the floor.
All images © Ruth Ward
As for the building, which sits right in the heart of Piccadilly, it measures 5,400 square feet. Originally designed in 1922 by Sir Edwin Lutyens it has been a bank and more recently home to contemporary art gallery, Hauser & Wirth. It also features a mezzanine balcony, which looks down to the books below and upstairs rooms showcasing vintage books and antiques, as well as bespoke shelving and sofas to furnish your own bibliothèque.
“We wanted to find a boutique and I didn’t know where exactly, other than it had to be in Mayfair,” says the enigmatic Mr Assouline. “I live in New York, so when my colleague discovered this space, I jumped on a plane immediately and we signed for it!”
Assouline has great plans for the landmark building and adds: “What better place to celebrate culture in such a historic piece of architecture? It is also a great place to hold exhibitions with jewellers as well as launches and parties – all of which we will organise in the future.”
Talking of parties, Assouline marked its official opening with the launch of its latest offering; ‘At the Emperors Table’, by Valentino Garavani. The Italian designer was on hand to sign copies, while guests including Anne Hathaway and Hugh Grant enjoyed the Krug champagne.
Assouline is clearly delighted with his new home. “It wasn’t so important to be in the luxury distract as to have the space where you can say all that you want to say,” he remarks. “You can spend hours in here, you can find rare editions, make beautiful gifts, have coffee… just speaking about it all makes my heart beat with joy!”