The brainchild of Parisian’s Prosper & Martine Assouline, Maison Assouline off Piccadilly stands proud. This eclectic publishing house and lifestyle brand has been making a name for itself in recent years. The Cultural Aficionado swung by to sample its promise of fine literature infused with luxury, fashion and design. This is a unique experience in books, contemporary artefacts, drinks, and food, and one will leave feeling cultural horizons have been enriched.
A bit of context goes a long way……
I had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, when working for them in 2003. Looking back, I wonder if even he foresaw the seismic shift that has happened in the experience of buying books. Today, bricks & mortar bookshops have responded by metamorphosing into a new experience altogether: a leisure experience. Coffee’s and pastries are in abundance, but this once novel experience, like anything that becomes commonplace, has now itself become a commodity. The emphasis then turns to what you can bolt-on to that core offering. That’s how evolution starts. New brands emerge with a different value proposition; attempting to create an identity that uniquely sets them apart from the norm. Do you enjoy contemporary literature, fine drinks and food then? Where would such a place exist? For those who enjoy the aesthetics of a bookstore, but seek a more standout and vibrant boutique atmosphere, the dawn of the lifestyle boutique is here.
What to expect……
A few years ago, I came across a brief spotlight in the weekend FT recommending Maison Assouline. From the brief synopsis, it was difficult to identify exactly what to expect. Books seemed to be a central theme, but the whole premise was not exactly clear. My puzzlement was confirmed when, upon persuading my lovely wife that we should sample the venue one evening, she inquisitively asked what we were visiting: ‘Is it a bookstore, café, or restaurant?’ After an uncomfortable pause, and then mumbling something like “contemporary fusion”, I cast my eyes in the direction of my shoes. Recognising I did not possess a precise answer, and without another word exchanged, we trotted down Piccadilly towards this anonymous store.
As we entered the brightly lit interior, we were presented with an array of large hardbound glossy books, each of them screaming ‘pick me up’. I immediately gained a sense of the meticulous detail invested in choreographing the layout. Maison Assouline seemed to be a venue that needs to be gazed upon. It yearns for your attention. After a few moments, we were approached by the enthusiastic store manager who eagerly welcomed us in. She cheerily enquired whether we had been before, and upon learning this was our debut visit, took great delight in providing a whimsical overview of the brand and the store.
We were led to a wonderful 1920s-esque bar & seating area. With its mirrored backdrop and white-suited bartender, it reminded me of the bar scene in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; sans the imaginary descent into madness. We took our seats, and glanced through the modest yet fastidiously constructed menu. Deciding on our order of two virgin mojitos, we settled into our seats and in quiet reflection began to absorb the atmosphere. After a few opening sips, we were encouraged to take a wander around, and that we could take any books back to the table for browsing. Just splendid.
As I strolled around I did have a strong impression of a gallery: shelves upon shelves of publications and products that demand your viewing pleasure. Books, sculptures, luxury bags and literary accessories were all on parade. The many
publications covered a range of topics, from my own personal favourite ‘Italian Chic’, to others on architecture, fashion, cars, and gastronomy. We ventured up the winding stairs, and after passing a further small seating area, entered into another large room. This was filled with African sculptures, old English leather-bound books, a contemporary chocolate coloured sofa, and a rustic looking table. Surrounded by this large heterogeneous collection of cultural artefacts, the room was an optical treat.
As I took notes and digested the ambience, it occurred to me that Mason Assouline is based on the principal of complementarity: that is the notion that different items, juxtaposed together, result in a relationship which emphasise each
other’s qualities. This sensory experience works incredibly well. The store is the work of art. The more time I spent here though, the more I felt a sense of confusion. Did the store have an identity crisis? Was I in an exclusive book shop with a café attached to it, or some kind of artistic mutation? What was the main subject? Maybe that is the point though. Why compartmentalise? Why feel the need to reduce this to a single identity? This could be a total artistic experience; an amalgamation of individual components, fused together to provide a blissful state of relaxation. As I sat there savouring the last few sips of my drink, I realised how important it is to focus on the whole. Not to get lost in details; letting the lighting and décor work its atmospheric charm. Who knows what your personal experience could yield.
The essentials: prices and standards……
Maison Assouline is located halfway between Piccadilly and Green Park tube stations. There are no entry or dress restrictions, and a generous opening hours until 9pm is on offer. The food & drinks menu is squarely positioned as an informal fine dining experience. There is a splattering of patisserie options for breakfast, served alongside coffee and a generous selection of specialist teas. Furthermore, there is an all-day dining menu consisting of a wide range of seafood choices (salmon, oysters), to salads and foie gras. Wine and cocktails are perfectly at home here, becoming the foil to the Cuban-style jazz music flowing through the airways.
The prices reflect its location and product quality. These are high-priced fashion accessories (my favourite ‘Italian Chic’ book was £50). The books are coffee-table accessories that are ideal for a stately home, an opulent Parisian apartment, or a London riverside condo. This is a contemporary affair, but one which comes at a premium. So browse the many books with the abundance of wonderful photography, and enjoy an aperitif. There’s a patrician in all of us.