It’s the ultimate family album: an elegant book of photographs of your home, produced just for your family and friends. Or for some people’s family and friends, anyway.
The latest luxury for the fraction of the 1 percent who can afford their own planes, art collections and (multiple) homes is a personal keepsake that provides a lasting impression of those homes – one that requires putting down a serious amount of money. John Taylor, 64, a New York City photographer, and his wife, Dianne Dubler, 68, created Kubaba books four years ago to cater to this market.
Recent clients include Jane Stieren and her husband, Bill Lacy, a former president of the Cooper Union who served as the executive director of the Pritzker Architecture Prize for 17 years. Stieren and Lacy commissioned 200 copies of a book memorializing Dog Leg Ranch, their property in the Texas Hill Country; they plan to give it to close friends. Another client, Anne Sidamon-Eristoff, a former chairman of the American Museum of Natural History, ordered 175 copies of “Ananouri,” a book about the family’s sprawling property on the Hudson River in honor of her husband’s 80th birthday.
While retailers and designers will frequently commission monographs of their work to promote their brands, Taylor and Dubler’s business is unusual in that they serve a market where the product has no obvious commercial value. Instead, Taylor said, they produce highly personalized, creative works that provide a visual record of a residence and its ambience. An order of 200 books, Taylor said, costs about $200,000. With prices like that, you don’t need too many orders to stay afloat; so far they have had five.
“It is, in a way, like the books that the decorator William Haines did,” said Suzanne Slesin, publisher and editorial director of Pointed Leaf Press, an art and design book publishing company. “When he finished a house, he would make a book and present it to the homeowner. Like the wedding album – it is a clever extension of that.”
Still, she added, “It’s unbelievable that people can afford to do this.”
The couple arrived at this work in a way that feels almost inevitable, after collaborating on the photography for illustrated books like “Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry” (Simon & Schuster, 2002) and “Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box” (Melcher Media, 2009), the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s catalog of her collection of brooches. But it was a 2010 book, in particular, that inspired their current endeavor.
“Waddesdon Manor: The Heritage of a Rothschild House,” which they produced for Scala Art Publishers, documents Jacob Rothschild’s grand estate in England, and is perhaps the ultimate home book. To put it together, the couple spent weeks there, roaming the property and documenting every last detail, even taking aerial photographs.
Ulrich Leben, the associate curator of furniture at Waddesdon, recalled the effort they made to capture the essence of the place, creating “a coherent vision that showcased the objects in interesting ways,” he said, and “gave them a kind of sensuality.”
One of those objects was Ferdinand de Rothschild’s own privately published book produced in 1897 to document the house, which suggested to the couple that maybe they were on to something.
The timing was ideal, Taylor said. Not only is their current work more creatively fulfilling than producing books for other publishers, but they also had an economic incentive to become more independent.
“Museums used to hire freelance photographers like us to produce unified bodies of work for their publications,” he said. Today, he said, many museums have developed their own staffs.
Now they lavish the same kind of time and attention they gave to Waddesdon on other homes. Often, they spread their visits out over the course of a year, so they can document the property in different seasons and capture the effects of the changing light on the landscape, as they did at Ananouri and at Tiernen and Lacy’s home in Boerne, Texas.
As with any job, Dubler said, there are occasionally unexpected obstacles. Before their first visit to Texas, for instance, Tiernen warned her to bring “gator boots.” As Tiernen later explained, “We have snakes here, and I wanted them to be free to walk around the property.”
But spending extended periods of time on large estates also has its benefits. “We really like becoming immersed in a new world,” said Dubler, who is responsible for finding the revelatory details wherever they go.
For Tiernen and Lacy, whose home is unusual in Texas Hill Country because there are no wells on the property (instead, rainwater is collected in cisterns that hold nearly 28,000 gallons) that meant familiarizing herself with the extensive infrastructure as well as the landscape, the home’s interiors and all of the current residents, who are part of the book as well.
“Donkeys, rabbits, dogs, cats and Père David’s deer,” Stieren said.
Soon, the couple will be off to New Zealand, where they will spend several weeks getting acquainted with a new subject: an 18-acre property that belongs to Jane Casey, an art historian, and her husband, Bruce Miller, an antiques dealer. But some assignments are much less elaborate and closer to home.
For Gina Barnett, an executive communications consultant in Manhattan, they created just six copies of a book documenting the apartment her mother, Flory Barnett, founder of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, shared with the art collector and jewelry designer Noma Ratner Copley. Barnett’s mother died in 2011 and Copley in 2006, but letting go of the apartment wasn’t easy.
“If I had my way,” Barnett said, “I would have sealed up the house and preserved it.”
Instead, she opted for a book.