WSJ Magazine: Astier de Villatte Publishing

“IN MANY FIELDS today, there is certain knowledge that could potentially be lost forever,” says Ivan Pericoli, the co-founder of the Paris-based homewares brand Astier de Villatte. “To us, there is something so fragile and beautiful about that.”

Pericoli, 46, and his business partner, Benoît Astier de Villatte, 54, have built their company on the allure of that old-world savoir-faire. It’s a sensibility that defines all of their products, from notebooks and candles to the elegant milk-white ceramics for which they’re best known. Often mistaken for antiques, these ceramic pieces are handmade by artisans—many of them Tibetan and some even practicing monks—in the company’s 13th arrondissement workshop. “It’s not that we’re only interested in tradition,” explains Pericoli. “It’s just a certain taste we have. We like old things.”

That passion for the past was the motivation behind the duo’s latest venture, the 2015 acquisition of the Société des Ateliers et Imprimeries Graphiques, or SAIG, the Linotype printing firm in the Parisian suburbs that has produced their journals and diaries since 2000. “We absolutely didn’t want to be involved,” says Pericoli. “SAIG was doing well, but the investors were having personal problems. So we had to take it over, or it would have closed.” In the end, the purchase prompted their move into publishing. In January, the pair released their first book, Ma Vie à Paris, a city guide like no other. The English version comes out in July.

Once the industry standard in typesetting, the Linotype machine—deemed “the eighth wonder of the world” by Thomas Edison—fell out of fashion in the 1960s. SAIG is the last operation of its kind in France, and it’s run by François Huin, a charmingly cantankerous 77-year-old who has worked there for 52 years. “Nothing compares with what Monsieur Huin can do,” Astier de Villatte says. “He understands the layout, the spacing, how the letters should be mixed.”

SAIG’s hangarlike warehouse is clearly Huin’s domain, but his new employers are in their element here as well, among the musty smell of paper and fresh ink, the whir of the printing press and the click-clack of their beloved Linotype. “When we make our notebooks we spend the whole week out here touching every cover,” says Astier de Villatte.

The Linotype machine in current use at SAIG dates from the mid–20th century and resembles an enormous typewriter with a 90-character keyboard. Jacques Boisselier, a 24-year-old graphic designer whom Pericoli and Astier de Villatte installed as Huin’s apprentice, works on punching out the English version of Ma Vie à Paris. He types out one line of text at a time (thus the name Linotype), which the machine casts into a “slug,” or bar of lead. The slugs are then assembled to compose a page in preparation for printing on the equally ancient press.

It’s painstaking work. The original French version of the guide took Huin over a month to set, and the end result is a tribute to his prowess. Along with his masterful typography, the volume boasts museum-quality binding, 332 gold-edged pages, hand-drawn maps and black-and-white photos on almost every page. It’s reminiscent of a keepsake from a bygone era. “This is something Astier does so beautifully,” says painter (and widow of French artist Balthus) Setsuko Klossowska de Rola, who has a line of ceramics with the company. “Everything they do has that visible touch, a real warmth to it.”

The contents of the guide, which evolved from an addendum at the back of Astier de Villatte’s agendas, feature “the places we like and recommend to our friends,” says Astier de Villatte. The quirky list includes the usual subjects, such as antiques dealers, shops and restaurants, but there are also the unexpected addresses: an acupuncturist, DVD stores, a ribbon shop, an osteopath and a truffle seller, among others. Each entry is written in eccentric and entertaining prose.

“It really shows you how excited they get about things—they’re all about sharing,” says New York retailer and designer John Derian, another Astier de Villatte collaborator and close friend. “When I was staying in their building in Paris [Astier de Villatte and Pericoli have apartments in the same building], I locked myself out on a Sunday, and instead of being annoyed, they were excited because they managed to find a locksmith who worked on Sundays—they wanted to put him in the book.”

Among the other local contacts included is Duluc Détective, a private agency whose services the duo has not yet contracted. “We’ve tried almost everything except Duluc,” says Pericoli. “They do have a very good reputation, though.” But Ma Vie à Paris is equally populated by well-known names that have stood the test of time, including Poilâne bakery and Berthillon ice cream. “Many of the places are very famous,” says Astier de Villatte. “But, again, they also have that fragility, that thing we are drawn to. One day they could vanish.”

The French edition of Ma Vie à Paris ($92) is currently available at NYC’s John Derian Company; In July, the English edition will be available from Astier de Villatte’s retail partners worldwide;

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