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VM choice: Maison Assouline's house of culture

Publisher and book retailer Maison Assouline opened a Piccadilly store, its first stand-alone outlet, eighteen months ago. In that time the space, which contains a book store, a restaurant/bar and a private space, has evolved under the watchful eye of founders Prosper and Martine Assouline to become a house of culture, as befits the premium brand.

The store is housed in a former Midland bank, built in 1922 and now Grade II listed. The retained and enhanced paneled interior, plus the quality of the books on offer, conveys an impression as luxurious as Bernini’s Cornaro Chapel in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, in Rome.

The books, each a perfectly judged addition to a deeply interesting topic, are arranged in a mix of side-out and face-out to display the covers, on cabinets that totally cover two walls of the ground floor. The iconic images of De Stijl artist Piet Mondrian (1872 - 1944) were used as inspiration for the design of the shelves, and the ghost of his paintings remains in the black edge of the shelves.

The brand was created in 1974 with a book on La Colombe d’Or, the classic Saint Paul de Vence restaurant famed for its classic French cuisine and art collection. Fittingly, it continues in this beautiful space with its moulded ceilings, paneled walls, and oeil-de-boeuf windows. This one, on the staircase, is enhanced by a bespoke glass shade which was made for the space. Additional versions are retailed in the store and this has paved the way for expanding merchandise categories.

The members’ club atmosphere is combined with museum-style displays, as here where a hand-bound book of prints is displayed open with a pair of white lint-free fabric gloves, as worn by curators, on a red leather-topped table. A changing selection of African carvings, and books from fellow publishers Taschen and Rizzoli, creates a library-like impression. These too are now also retailed in the store. In addition, library accessories, book bags, stationery, fragranced candles and the restaurant’s distinctive teaspoons have been added to the retail offer.

The staircase to the upper floor displays a collection of curiosities. The notion of a ‘cabinet of curiousities’ or Wunderkammer originated in 16th century Germany, where a room or cabinet was filled with interesting natural history, geology, ethnography, archeology, and religious or historical relics to be contemplated by its owner and friends.

These cabinets, limited to those who could afford to create them, formed the nucleus of museum collections in later centuries and sometimes prompted genuine scientific research. A cabinet of curiosities has become a rather over-used element of many permanent and temporary exhibitions so it is refreshing to see the contents let out of the cabinet.

The print of the book-bags, also included left and right in the background, fills in the front of the display cabinet, displayed behind elaborately carved chairs and a vintage lantern, all setting the scene for a contemplative library.

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