Utopian, philosopher, maverick, professional dreamer and available at a store near you.
With Philippe Starck we have from the start of his career in the 1980s, the emergence of a new and exciting phenomenon: designer as superstar. His name reverberates around the world in a way that is more common for stars of pop or film. People have been able to relate to his maverick style which is in turns challenging, uncompromising, hilarious, oddly mystical and even sexy. It is rare to come across a creator whose output is such an honest reflection of his democratic, sustainable, and humanist philosophy. And what an output! From kitchen accessories, toothbrushes to chairs, lamps, televisions, a motorbike, superyachts and hotels, Philippe Starck is a creative machine. He spent his childhood under his aeronautical engineer father’s drawing boards, sewing, cutting and gluing and then graduated to dismantling bikes and other objects. Several years and prototypes later, he has had a palpable impact on our lives and yearns to change the way we live. We recently caught up with this dynamo who gave us an exclusive interview.
GDC interiors You are generally thought to be the father of the ‘design’ hotel. What is a ‘design’ hotel?
Philippe Starck For me a successful hotel boils down to the basics: the quality of the pillow; the quality of the fire in the fireplace and candle; then it is the power of the shower; and finally the service must be friendly. When you have a friendly service and a good pillow, you have a hotel. It is nothing more than that. I am not very interested in style aesthetics in a hotel. I never work like that.
In a hotel there are two parts: there is a public space and then there are guest rooms. In the guest rooms you should have lots of light, they should be simple, friendly, functional, comfortable and very sexy. But nothing too strong. For public areas you have a duty to make a stronger statement, because the average stay in a hotel is just three days. In three days you can bring an experience to people, you can bring them out of themselves. In fact you can make the experience feel like a movie for them. I create a stage for them where for three days they will be more handsome, more sexy, more smart and more in love. The public space of a well done hotel is new plazza: where people meet, which bustles with life, a real boiling pot. Every hotel is the hotel of the tribe, a community.
Finally you should create an environment where you upgrade people – so that they can come home and say to their wife: “You know darling, I was in New York in a hotel, I cannot tell you what was the style, I cannot even understand what I saw. But it was so exciting, so creative that it gave me a lot of energy and woke me up. I don’t want to be a spectator any more, I want to be an actor of my life and I want to invent my life. I’m inspired!”
I believe that this should be a hotel’s aim. Because anyone can shelter people from the rain. Anyone can create something elegant, but elegance is very subjective: what is elegant today is vulgar tomorrow. You cannot predict this because culture and aesthetics is part of the psychological trap of: “I love today / I shall hate tomorrow”. But if you give some personal and deep experience to people, you create some gratefulness. If you create this gratefulness then you will be successful.
That’s why I don’t work like a designer, an interior designer or an architect. I work first like a friend who says: ‘I have the know-how. I know how to do it well. Now how can I use this know-how to help my friend to have a better life? How to help my friend to be at his best.’ Finally I make a movie in my head.
That’s why 25 years ago with Shraeger we invented something different because the value was not about architecture and design, the value was about poetry, humour, sex and so on. That’s why we are so still different and now there are so many imitators, with people trying to copy the aesthetics of what we created. But what we created did not have an aesthetic. That’s why I cannot stay in what they call a ‘boutique hotel’ because it is absolutely unacceptable. I would rather stay in an old classic hotel. Because what I see is a sort of caricature or cartoon of all that which is absolutely ridiculous. Today people copy what we did some 20 years ago, that’s why it is 20 years too late.
Now we prefer to do more than just ‘design’, we prefer to work on the concept. Because today the hotel business is more concept then decoration.
GDC interiors As a designer you are remarkable for the huge range of your output from diverse products to ‘designer’ hotels. One could say that you are a ‘universal’ designer. What is the source of your impulse to design so broadly?
Philippe Starck It is very simple. If you work like a designer, you will only think of the product. Just thinking about the product is not enough.
If, designing a toothbrush, I thought of nothing but the toothbrush, I’d be dumb or venal. I try to be neither: that’s the duty I recognise. I have to think of the mouth this brush will enter; I have to acquaint myself with its owner. I need to know the kind of society that has giving rise to this life. I need to acquaint myself with the species of animal that created this civilisation.
The only thing that interests me is not the object but the direct profit for the human for whom this object is destined. If these objects do not upgrade people, do not give them a message, bring them poetry, humour, then I would not create it. I am maid with a broom, who tries to clean the life of his friends!
I work in a philosophical away with political weapons, in the field of human value with a knowledge of science. The mix of that creates products which are very new, very surprising, honest and always with a deepness and longevity. Even after 30 years my products are still bestsellers and my hotels are still popular. When you’re not interested in the object but with your tribe, your friend, daughter, your mother or by yourself, you can apply yourself to the essentials. That’s why I can design motorcycle, watch, boat, hotel and so on.
We are the priority, I design for us. I don’t work to prove that I am a talented designer. I’m not interested to demonstrate that I am on top of the trend. In fact I am never part of the trend and am frequently out of the trend. I can list you many designers who are more fashionable than me, but they may be out of fashion in another two years. I have been around for 30 years. They are concerned to show off themselves, whereas I’m concerned to show off mankind.
Moreover I am a complete outsider. I don’t read any design magazines or go to exhibitions. Even in my personal life I am out of everything. I live very far in a small island, with no cars, no running water, no electricity. I am just a professional dreamer… That’s all.
I suppose this is a great way to preserve freshness, uncorrupted by too much information or knowledge. I am totally uncorrupted. I don’t watch TV, I don’t go to movies. I am stupid, my daughter calls me ‘a modern autistic’. This protects my clients because I cannot be in the mainstream of thinking. I cannot be trendy because I am so far away… In fact I am not even sure where I am, but I am far!
GDC interiors Do you have a highly disciplined approach to understanding the needs of the consumer, or do you work from instinct?
Philippe Starck I work totally from instinct. I hate marketing and marketing people. I don’t understand those people who spend their time and energy trying to predict what will be a success and stealing the money from what they call ‘target consumers’. I work entirely intuitively thinking of the needs of my friends and myself. Because we are very professional and very rigorous and work with the best producers, we do it well and are a great success. In fact we are successful because we do what we want to do. Furthermore our success makes us totally free. This is a great advantage as we cannot be told what to do. We are rich, we don’t need money. We can do without commissions and I can pay our staff to go to the beach with 10 years if we want to. This freedom is palpable. You can feel this in the production. I don’t need to worry about the rent.
In fact we acquired a slim outfit: A small office of very talented people who worked with me for over 20 years. Our team is a miracle machine! I gave them the company a few years ago. I have nothing myself. I am very light.
This month I have only been in the office only one afternoon. I live in my plane and visit my 18 houses around the world with my girlfriend and one of my children. I sometimes spend all day in bed. Then I wake up late in the afternoon and design nine new models of lamps! It is a very avant-garde way of working.
GDC interiors Your ideas and creativity are effervescent!
Philippe Starck I am just a machine to wake up standards. Anyone can create. The forces in society today try to make you simply a consumer. But resist! Be a rebel and create! You have a duty to participate.
No one will be condemned for lacking genius, but we all have a duty of participation: We aren’t required to bring a mountain to our civilisation, but contributing a grain of sand is mandatory. Birth is a gift whose reciprocity requires this minimal tribute to civilisation. Each brings what she can.
GDC interiors You seem to be expounding a philosophy of civic involvement like the classic Greek city state.
Philippe Starck Definitely. Our model is in fact the Republic of Venice of the Renaissance. We are an ethical company. We don’t work for weapons, oil companies, hard alcohol, tobacco, gambling or religion. For example we have been walking on new product ranges – like baby bottles for $2 – for Target, the American chain offering affordable products.
GDC interiors You have spoken of the role of ‘mutation’ in the creative process. Could you explain what you mean by this?
Philippe Starck You cannot live without understanding who you are and where you came from. And we can only speculate about what we shall become!
Four billion years ago we started off as bacteria; we came ashore, and evolved into the super-monkeys we are today. But this is not the final state. It holds a fascination greater then any mysticism. Will we become a cloud? A vibration? A note of music? An aerosol? A wavelength? No doubt something else again.
This clearly shows that we are mutants, and this is a beautiful and poetic idea. We can look forward to the next mutation. You cannot be a producer without a deep understanding of this process. I apply this awareness into my creativity and involve this awareness in our strategy for the future.
The obligation to continue the story of our mutation is not merely a poetic duty, but a technical necessity. In another 4.2 billion years, the implosion of the sun will cause us to vitrify. We shall have to move on. The radical change of state is therefore necessary prior to that event. We can’t attain it without completely accepting and integrating our mutant state. If we don’t, if we prove unable to maintain our speed of evolution, our civilisation is doomed.
GDC interiors From designing a simple tools and painting on cave walls, soon we may be redesigning our species genetically. What is the future of design: Is man becoming god?
Philippe Starck No. Because there is no more designer. If you follow the path of our mutation, it clearly shows that design will disappear as all the products that we need will actually be in our body. So the next product is ourselves. Not made by designers but biologists. Therefore design has no future. The next design is our flesh.
GDC interiors You are often described as having a strong utopian vein that has grown stronger over time, for example with your recent democratic and ecologically sustainable design ideas and the implication seems to be that you aim to change the way we live.
Philippe Starck I accept that because they are no more utopians in society. No one speaks about the ideal life. So I consider this a great honour.