words Justin McGuirk
“Nowadays you fart and you are a designer,” says Philippe Starck.
And the man who made it possible for designers to be household names means it. He looks suitably disgusted. “More the design is trendy, less there is good designer,” he continues, transliterating from French.
“That’s the pervert effect of that. When design was nothing there was a lot of good designer because they was obliged to fight.” What he doesn’t say – although he will imply it later – is that the demise of the discipline, as he sees it, is all his fault.
For once, journalistic hyperbole can give way to fact: Philippe Starck is the most famous designer in the world. This is partly because he is the most prolific, having designed everything from yachts to toothpicks, but largely because he revolutionised the design market, forcing manufacturers to make good design affordable. Starck the brand is a global empire – Starck himself estimates that his enterprises “feed” 300,000 people. Yet, despite the celebrity, despite having his own plane, he lives like a hermit, professes to be ashamed of what he does and leads a life so superhumanly peripatetic that it is unlikely many designers would want to swap theirs for his.
Today, Starck is in Leeds. An irredeemably grey, drizzly Leeds in every way at odds with what one imagines Starck’s global merry-go-round to be like. He is sitting on one of his own Louis Ghost transparent plastic chairs in a sales suite on the 15th floor of a new apartment block, overlooking a city that is swapping its red-brick industrial heritage for a glass-and-terracotta yuppiedom. Across the road is the empty plot awaiting his latest venture: Lumiere, grandiosely (and vaguely) billed as “one of the tallest residential buildings in Europe”. It is one of more than 20 developments Starck has undertaken with Yoo, a “designer” development company with holdings in cities from New York, Miami, Dallas and Melbourne to, well, Leeds. Starck claims to have personally designed all the public spaces, tweaked the floorplans and handpicked the finishes, and yet this is far from the luxury end of the market, with apartments in Lumiere starting at £110,000. It’s design with a democratic price tag.
Starck describes the project as “a vertical village”, a sort of middle-class utopia built for his “tribe”, and his rhetoric is incandescently humane: “I think a building is made of vision, hope, tenderness, love, poetry, creativity, honesty, respect, humour, surrealism, and a lot of things like that … When people speak about materiality, we speak about immateriality. When people speak about architecture, we speak about happiness.” The difference between this spiel and that of some flamboyant PR is that there is a kind of innocence to it. Starck appears to genuinely believe in concepts such as goodness and humanity. Cynics will say that he has sold out, but throw cynicism at him and it doesn’t appear to stick.
The interior of Lumiere is conceived by Starck as an “Ali Baba’s cave” of other designers’ furniture, curated by him. “Everything must be of the best quality with the big Q, the best intelligence with the big E,” by which he means I. “Because I am a designer, I know who are the good designer – there is so few, it’s not complicated to know them.”
I ask him whose furniture he will be using in this development but he can’t remember (“I’m sorry, we work on a lot of projects”). So I ask him how he finds the designers he likes – is it in magazines or trade fairs? He looks horrified. “I don’t open ANY magazine of design and architecture, I never go to exhibition, I never speak to designer or architect. For me that is so boring.” He doesn’t know how he knows, he just does. I ask him to name some designers and he lists a few Italian maestri: Andrea Branzi, Enzo Mari, the recently deceased Vico Magistretti. Have any of these influenced him?
Now he recoils in shock, looking at first hurt and then as if he must have misheard me. “I’m sorry? Influenced? Me?” There must have been someone … in the early days? “Nobodeee! Nobodeee!” So I return to designers he admires – if that’s not too strong a word – and this time I want more contemporary names. He comes up with two: Marcel Wanders and “one English guy who is very good but I never remember his name … uh, shit. Taylor something?” Jasper Morrison? “Jasper Morrison. Very humble, very honest. I like this kind of person.”
Morrison wouldn’t say what he thought of Starck, but Wanders was unequivocal. “He’s really by far the number one. There’s no designer in the world who has influenced what design is like he has. Designers design products, he designs design.”
Philippe Patrick Starck, a youthful 57, studied at the École Nissim de Camondo in Paris. His father was an aeronautical engineer and Starck says he was “programmed to make rockets”, but when he set up his first design company as a 19 year old in 1968, it was to make inflatable objects. He made his name with two Paris nightclub interiors in the late 1970s, but really arrived in 1982 when he was asked to design French President François Mitterand’s apartments in the Elysée Palace.
He went on to help define the look of the “designer” decade, with postmodernist interiors such as the Café Costes in Paris and with eclectic furniture clearly influenced, despite his disavowals, by Jean Prouvé and Memphis.
But it was Starck’s ability to cross over into product design that distinguished him as a truly protean talent. He designed cutlery, toothbrushes, door handles, kitchen utensils and even clothes. Stylistically, he is a butterfly. His work has been characterised by unconventional combinations of materials, but it’s impossible to pin down a Starck look, veering between an almost art deco treatment of metal to an organic treatment of plastic. He has played the postmodernist game of updating historical forms with modern materials, as in the Bubble armchair (2000), but he has also invented new forms. He has flogged functionalism and affronted the tastefulness of the bourgeoisie with tables in the shape of garden gnomes.
He has designed buildings (embarrassingly fraught with figurative symbolism, such as his penknife-shaped factory for Laguiole) and yet his most recognisable object is a lemon squeezer. The Juicy Salif (1990) – a byword for over-design, the parvenu’s gewgaw – is more cultish totem than juicer.
Today, Starck is a caricature. Van den Puup, the made-up star of Ikea’s 2004 advertising campaign and the embodiment of snobbish arrogance, was obviously (despite the faux-Dutch name) modelled on him. Any number of quotations in this article live up to that image, and yet, like all caricatures, Starck is in some essential way unknowable. Ludicrous accent and posturing aside, Van den Puup is a travesty.
Starck’s name may be synonymous with the nouveau-riche aspirations of the Eighties, but his great achievement has been the democratisation of design. “My first chair, it cost one thousand dollar. It was a huge success. People were very happy, but not me. I said, one thousand dollar: you have a family with four children, that is six. Then there’s the table. Ten thousand dollar to eat with your family? What is that? It is a joke. It is absurdity!” Now you can buy a Starck chair from American chain store Target for nine dollars. This is an achievement that he is not unduly proud of – nor is he ashamed to recount it in the most portentous terms. “I killed design like it was by killing elitism. It took for me 20 years through the democratic design. But it’s almost done.”
Starck’s reputation – his apotheosis into the realm of the household name – gained a certain leverage for designers. Such autonomy as they enjoy today is owed largely to the influence Starck gained over his manufacturers. Whether you like his work or not, he is the apogee of the designer. John Hitchcox, his partner in Yoo, calls him “the don”. But despite the biblical sense of his own importance, the don is actually ashamed of what he does. “I design useless Christmas gift,” he confesses. “That’s why don’t ask me to be proud or to be interested in what I do. I am so ashamed of what I do, I try to do it the best that’s possible.”
This is not the first time in the interview Starck has mentioned his shame, and the comment either deserves to be ignored or it deserves the sincerest pity. Pity because Starck is a design machine – he describes it as a “sickness”, an “addiction”. He bangs out designs as second nature. “I’m surprised he didn’t draw one out while you were sitting here,” says Hitchcox, later adding, “He’s almost a nerd.”
This compulsion is certainly one reason why Starck is so prolific (he launched 30 products at Milan this year), but the other is the demands made on him by his brand: “I am no longer free to go to my bed and sleep. It is impossible. I am trapped!” Even though he says he only accepts ten per cent of the jobs offered to him, that ten per cent results in an extraordinary life. Starck has homes in London, Paris, Venice and on an oyster farm in the south of France, but he appears to spend most of his time on his plane – his one “necessity” – forever churning out drawings in between meetings, launches, pied à terres or while en route to wherever his girlfriend Jasmine is (today she is in Prague).
“I live a monk’s life,” he says. “I leave out everything. I don’t go to the movies, theatre, cocktails or anything like that. I wake up early in the morning. I design by myself with good music from my iPod. I have the same team – a very, very small team who I have been working with for 20 years. They are my friends. I send my drawings – very accurate – to them, and they repeat. Then I come and check them and everything you see is made strictly by me.”
Starck claims to have no ambition. He claims that his house on the oyster farm has no electricity or running water. He claims that his greatest critic is his neighbour, the oyster fisherman. He claims, in short, to be the Che Guevara of the design world – its man of the people. “I am always proud of the most humble product,” he says. “I design now a mega-yacht of two hundred million dollar, which is a revolution … I always prefer a toothpick.”