Benedikt Taschen is waving genially, having seemingly appeared from nowhere at the side of his house, a French bulldog by his side. He walks down a flight of steps built into the hillside beneath his home, has a word with a British contractor who is overseeing a team doing construction work on a guest house on the premises, then takes a glass-enclosed funicular back up. In his salmon-pink shirt, dark denim jeans and dress shoes, and with a studied expression on his face and a gravelly, accented voice, Taschen looks and sounds like the European new media tycoon that he is. It's another busy morning at the Taschen residence in the Hollywood Hills, a labyrinthine series of streets above Mulholland Drive that is or has been home to a host of celebrities, including Matthew Perry, Paris Hilton, Cuba Gooding Jnr and Ryan Seacrest. There are mansions, colonial-style estates and Spanish haciendas, but none of the A-lister homes is quite like this one. Despite its imposing and iconic stature (Los Angeles residents in-the-know often drive by the property with out-of-town guests, as if it were a stop on a tour bus), the house can be seen only on the approach and from a certain vantage point, and can be entered only through a vertically sliding gate controlled inside the main house. Taschen, founder and owner of the eponymous publishing empire, and his wife Lauren Weiner are the present occupants of Chemosphere, a home that looks like a cross between a spaceship and a radio control tower. The glass-walled octagonal pod is perched atop a tall, 1.5-metre-thick concrete and steel pole sunk deep into bedrock, a mode of construction necessitated by the fact the hillside on which the house is located shoots up 30 metres at an acute angle. The home was built by the late modernist architect John Lautner in 1960 for Leonard Malin, a then 27-year-old aerospace engineer who conceived of the house as his dream property and quit his job to help Lautner build it. Malin lived there until 1972 with his wife and four children. In the ensuing years, three other owners occupied it. But when Taschen bought it in 1997 for a reported US$1 million, it had lain empty for years. He spent the next two years restoring it, keeping the original structure intact. In the past few years he has received several expressions of interest from potential buyers but the house is not for sale. It's easy to see its appeal. Even on a smoggy day the 360-degree view is a treat, the streets down below a silent maze of traffic. Just outside is a sleek deck, jutting out like a promontory over the hillside, stylish outdoor furniture strategically placed on its surface. Inside, the 2,200 sq ft abode retains much of its retro 1960s and 70s touches, down to the low furniture in mod shades of white and magenta, the wooden beams, the brightly coloured plastic lighting fixtures. Pop music from the radio plays softly in the background, papers are stacked neatly on the dining table and Taschen's mobile phone rings frequently as he stands behind a kitchen counter, poised to prepare a late breakfast. Weiner - whom Taschen married a couple of years ago at the Villa d'Este on the shore of Italy's Lake Como - is out of town, so the publisher is minding Souci, the French bulldog. Even at first glance, it seems to be a suitable habitat for Taschen, who has turned the publishing world on its head by producing books that are provocative, gutsy and gorgeous. Some are slender, concise yet lavishly illustrated, such as the book about French neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, which, priced at less than US$10, is affordable to art students. Others are breathtaking in their ambition: Taschen cites as a special love the 2000 Helmut Newton hand-bound, signed, limited-edition SUMO, which weighs 30kg, is on record as the largest book in publishing history, comes with its own stand and is listed on www.amazon.com for US$6,500. The book is of such weight that Taschen tracked down a Bible binder in Vatican City to stitch its leather cover. When he went into business in the late 80s, Taschen wasn't certain what direction his company would take, although he did have a broad objective. 'From the beginning, what we wanted to do was to enrich people's lives in a way where they get access to artists and to ideas they have not seen,' he says. 'We have opened new doors and new horizons for them.' Taschen was born, the youngest of five children, in Cologne, Germany. His parents were both doctors, which afforded him a comfortable childhood. He was fascinated by Americana and comic books, operating a mail-order comics business before he hit his teens. He recalls browsing in bookshops when he was young and being intimidated by what he found there. 'When I was a young boy I liked to buy art books, but they were super-expensive and not accessible at all,' he says. 'They were behind closed doors and vitrines all the time. People felt intimidated by them, that they weren't a part of that world and were afraid of going to an art book store. That was something that I tried to change.' His mail-order business thrived, allowing him to become financially independent by the time he was 15. Three years later he opened Taschen Comics, a shop in his hometown, branching out into the comics-publishing business. His first offering, an illustrated publication called Sally Forth, featured a curvy blonde who happened to be naked. A bigger shop followed and, in 1984, he bought 40,000 unsold copies of a book on surreal Belgian artist Rene Magritte, selling them quickly at double the price. Now hooked on entrepreneurship, Taschen realised he would be wise to generate his own books, so began establishing contacts with artists, writers and agents in Cologne. The circle of connections began to spread, encompassing other cosmopolitan European cities such as Paris and London and leading to art books on Picasso and Dali and one by Annie Leibowitz. His mandate was the same from the beginning: low prices, big print runs, lots of colour and widespread availability. He moved to the US, initially to New York, before relocating himself and his staff to Los Angeles, where he runs his business out of offices in Hollywood. He maintains a home in Cologne and a place in Miami Beach, where his wife works as director of special events for Art Basel Miami Beach, the American sister event to the Art Basel in Switzerland. His company - which has a cluster of offices and/or showcase-style bookshops in Berlin, Cologne, London, Beverly Hills (where the store was designed by Philippe Starck), New York and Paris - publishes about 100 titles a year. Between those and books from his previous publishing programmes, he sells about 15 million tomes a year, generating some US$50 million in sales. The seasonal catalogues of Taschen's offerings are veritable collectables themselves, featuring titles as disparate as Life - A Journey Through Time from Dutch wildlife photographer Frans Lanting to current favourite The Big Book of Breasts, edited by California-based Dian Hanson, who has worked on other Taschen publications. 'It's a homage to natural breasts, with great interviews with the former big stars of the 50s,' says Taschen of the book, which is touted in the catalogue as 'Over 1,000 breasts! That is less than 4 cents a tit - do the math!' The 396-page book is, essentially, an ode to breasts in the pre-silicone era, where certain models and starlets were notorious for their naturally massive bosoms. Hanson is familiar with the subject: she spent 25 years in the men's magazine publishing industry and has edited Hooker and Juggs magazines. 'It's a really good read and a funny book at the same time,' says Taschen. 'At least it is if you're into breasts. If not, it's the wrong book for you.' He says he and his editors are deluged with submissions from artists, photographers and writers who see Taschen as a perfect fit for their ideas. In the increasingly corporate-run world of publishing, where conglomerates are the norm, Taschen's imprimatur is one of individuality and all that is esoteric. 'We publish a fraction of what's offered to us,' he says. 'The concepts and ideas come from our editors, and we see how it can be done and who can do it. We get a couple of thousand submissions every month, and we answer all of them, because people expose themselves to us by asking. Unfortunately, most of the time we can't do them and we always try to explain why. We have to keep some kind of identity.' He says about 99 per cent of ideas are rejected and the concepts that are taken on need to strike a chord, to be something Taschen or his team respond to instinctively and viscerally. That could be something entirely niche, such as a book on celestial atlases and globes, or an offering that has greater mainstream appeal, such as LaChapelle, Heaven to Hell, a compilation of work by photographer David LaChapelle. In between, there are travel guides on London and Paris, slim profiles of Hollywood icons such as Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin, Clint Eastwood and Audrey Hepburn and offerings such as From Tijuana to Tokyo: The Shooting of Babel, which goes behind the scenes of the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu movie. Erotica is represented in ways that are both kitsch (The History of Girly Magazines) and stylish (David Leddick's The Male Nude). But they are all colourful, glossy, pertinent and authoritative. Despite Taschen's success, he made a decision long ago never to succumb to crass commercialism that focuses solely on the bottom line. Indeed, there is an undertone of vanity to many of his company's offerings, reflecting as they do an editor's personal fetish or abiding interest. 'Although we love to sell as many books as possible and be as profitable as possible, if we have to decide between two subjects - a highly commercial one that would not fit into the line or a book which fits perfectly but is probably not too successful - we will choose the latter,' says Taschen. 'In the long run, it's far more important to have a brand identity than to have just a successful book.' He pays no heed to critics who decry some of his more sexual and outre offerings. 'You can't have love from everyone and you can't be everybody's darling. That would be boring. If people don't like what we do they don't have to buy it, but for others who are happy with it we should let them have their fun.' Indeed, there is something for everyone. There is Ali Rap, a black-covered book that contains about 300 rap rhythms, quips and blasphemes from Muhammad Ali. There are travelogues from Burton Holmes, who travelled the world between 1892 and 1952 and collected poignant images, now rendered into separate books on China, France and the US. The publisher's biggest market is Europe, particularly in countries such as his native Germany as well as France, Italy and Britain. But Taschen enthu-siastically brandishes a sheaf of papers: printouts of e-mails registered by his website's guest book. They are from fans as far afield as India, Romania and Greece who express their appreciation for the books on art, architecture, fashion and pop culture. Although the Taschen name is synonymous with works with an erotic edge, the publisher says that less than 5 per cent of his company's output has anything to do with sex. Instead of focusing on a particular subject, he says, he would rather make every book 'appealing and sexy', so they become desirable objects no matter what they are about. Although Taschen is a capitalist at heart, he refuses to be swayed by most normal business dictates. His company has grown in sales and stature over the years, but he says he in unfazed when growth occasionally stagnates. He doesn't subscribe to the notion that figures must increase every year, preferring to concentrate on maintaining standards. His satellite offices oversee quality control in printing facilities in Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe. Many of the books are produced in Singapore and India and he has been in negotiations with a company in mainland China to offer a selection of titles specifically for that market, at amenable prices. Even though many Taschen books carry a US$10 to US$20 price tag, he says that is still out of reach for many Chinese people. He is often surprised by which titles find a following. 'The books are always surprising in the end because we don't know if they will do well or not,' Taschen says. 'Every year, we either overestimate or underestimate a book, so there is always that moment of surprise. But in the end, the customer or the bookstore decides how well something will do, whether it costs US$10 or US$1,000.'