Fit to print
Subversive contemporary art meets modernist furniture and Bismarck-era architecture at Taschen, a German publishing company in Cologne
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 1/1/2003 12:00:00 AM
In the clubby realm of publishing, Taschen's lushly illustrated books have skillfully captured contemporary art's more subversive, erotic preoccupations—and have done so with an unapologetic frankness that has, ironically, earned the 22-year-old German company respectability in the industry. That the mischievous and flamboyant new kid on the block has teased its way into the establishment is perhaps nowhere better expressed than at headquarters in Cologne, once West Germany's undisputed art capital and still a major center. Here, in 1990, Taschen leased an 1883 sandstone mansion on the Hohenzollernring—the boulevard that replaced the city's Roman walls—and renovated the interior with architect Alexander Fehr. More recently, Taschen annexed three floors of a postwar building adjacent to the three-story mansion, calling the architect back to join the two structures. "My main job was to differentiate between the historical and later parts," explains Fehr, now a partner of Fehr + Wahls Architekten.
The mansion is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the Taschen enterprise, and it is in this stately structure that the contemporary and provocative coexist effortlessly with the historical and understated. A sculpture of a boat by Martin Kippenberger is suspended above a formal foyer with pilasters, moldings, and a gilded wrought-iron balustrade. Arne Jacobsen chairs soften the rigid geometry of the parquet floor. There are more explicit moments as well. The office of Benedikt Taschen, for example, confronts visitors with a Jeff Koons self-portrait in which the nude artist more than suggestively busies himself with Italian porn star La Cicciolina, then his wife. Like the publishing company, the painting strikes one for its nonchalance as the subjects gaze—unashamedly and un-self-consciously—at the viewer. Says Angelika Taschen, an editor who joined the company in 1986 and later married the founder: "You could say we have a stimulating work environment."
That's been true since 1980, when an 18-year-old Benedikt Taschen began publishing comic books and opened a Cologne shop selling the same. In 1984, the company ventured into art publishing with a book of photographs by Annie Leibovitz. Picasso and Dalí came next, soon followed by countless books on architecture and interior design, film, and pop culture. Thanks to a formula of richly illustrated pages, broad distribution in multiple languages, and low price points, the company boomed as it irrevocably made its industry a much more competitive place. It was in the late '80s that Taschen broke new ground by introducing a larger audience to such self-explanatory titles as Eric Kroll's Fetish Girls, Motel Fetish, and Tom of Finland: The Art of Pleasure. "The erotic stuff is only a small part of our program," Angelika Taschen clarifies. "It just stands out a bit because it's unconventional."
The company had reached maturity by the time that the Taschens found the Hohenzollernring mansion, with its courtyard and carriage house. "It had been empty for many, many years and was completely run-down. Our hearts were bleeding, seeing such a beautiful building in such horrible shape," recalls Benedikt Taschen.
While some might have yielded to the irresistible temptation of constructing a funky postmodern statement within the historical shell, the Taschens pursued a more faithful restoration. Aided by old photos and plans, Fehr reconstructed the original paint work and color palette. "We kept the old wooden floors and the original brass door handles. We made the marble shiny again," Angelika Taschen says. The elegant restoration is not, however, without ironic twists. What might at first seem bourgeois gives way to a more playful sensibility when one notices a lone Donald Duck door handle from the defunct comic-book store and a Louis XIV bust and rococo mirror by Koons.
Work by Thomas Struth, Günther Förg, Helmut Newton, Mike Kelly, and Christopher Wool joins the Taschens' impressive collection of mid-century furniture. The Jacobsen chairs are reissued, but the office is replete with iconic vintage pieces, too. Verner Panton's globe lamps hang in the sales and production offices, and his chairs can be found in Angelika Taschen's office, among other spots. Her husband's desk chair is by Eames, and his desk is a table by Le Corbusier, with a glass top and a painted steel frame.
The staff cafeteria is furnished with a vintage Barcelona table by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and a sofa and lounge chair by Dieter Rams. For the floor, artist Albert Oehlen came up with the idea of designing a tiled composition that incorporates a collagelike image of the Hollywood Hills house where the Taschens have lived part-time since 1998. It's the Chemosphere, a flying saucer of a residence built by architect John Lautner in 1960.
The postwar Cologne building that houses Taschen's new annex boasts no such modernist pedigree. "After the Second World War, there was just no time for good architecture. Everything here was built very quickly, very cheaply, and very poorly. We had to start completely from scratch," Angelika Taschen explains. To open up the annex's three small floors and diffuse light better, she suggested curved walls of glass brick, a device she had fortuitously noticed in a doctor's waiting room. The new space now holds some of the offices for editorial, press, and German sales; the rest of the company's operations occupy the historic mansion.
Whether in the annex or the mansion, however, employees say that they are energized by the combination of art, architecture, and furniture. "In such an environment, they can give their best, so we can make the best books. And the people who buy them will feel the difference. I think we really have created a stimulating work environment," Angelika Taschen repeats. This time, she's referring to much more than just the nudes on the walls.
PROJECT TEAM: DENNIS WAHLS. GLASS WALL FABRICATION (ANNEX CONFERENCE ROOM): GLAS BLUMENBERG. CHAIRS (ANNEX CONFERENCE ROOM, MANSION CONFERENCE ROOM, CAFETERIA): BONACINA PIERANTONIO. STEELWORK (STAIRS): REHBACH UND KRINES. WOODWORK: ERICH BEIER; DIETER SALM; SCHEIDWEILER; WEINGARTEN INNENAUSBAU. PARQUETRY, WINDOW RESTORATION: THEO UND HEINZ ZIMMERMANN. PAINTING CONTRACTORS: HANS VON DER HEIDE MALERWERKSTATTE; JUERGEN OLTMANNS. ELECTRICAL CONTRACTORS: FRITZ SCHILLER; RAINER WILDEN.