How Philippe Starck wants to improve people’s lives with his creations
BY ANJA FAHS
Philippe Starck is a phenomenon. As one of the most famous designers of our time, he masters the range of product design in an unbelievable bandwidth. There is hardly an area of our daily lives that has not been made more beautiful and friendly through a design by the Frenchman. Philippe Starck is a chameleon, shrill and omnipresent as well as subtle, elegant and quiet. He observes his environment with never-ending curiosity and almost inexhaustible energy. New experiences are food for his spirit and creativity. The result are works that are always original and full of surprises, and often they – like their inventor – transcend the traditional boundaries of design. In his work and in his designs, Philippe Starck is concerned with life, history and use. He likes to compare his work with archaeology, in which the core of a thing is also uncovered piece by piece. He spoke with us about his ideas, his life and why he compares himself to Goethe’s Faust.
Monsieur Starck, you are considered one of the most influential designers of our time. Have you always wanted to become a designer, or something completely different?
I didn’t choose design, design chose me. I realise now that it was a weakness, and I regret not having chosen a really useful profession that could save lives, such as a scientist, doctor or fireman, for instance. Basically, there is a fundamental binary choice to make between life-saving jobs and others, and I have foolishly chosen a useless job. So why design? Because invention was a family tradition. My father was a famous aircraft engineer and builder in the interwar years. Starck aircrafts were known to be the most elegant as well as the most inventive. I was raised with the belief that technology can solve everything and that there is a real elegance in French engineering. Having always seen my father working to design planes and new forms of cars too, it was natural for me to express myself through drawing and creativity. I certainly had things to say but I was, and still am, extremely unsocial, even slightly autistic, to the extent that I still have not understood the ins and outs of this society, that I voluntarily live very far away from. But during adolescence we all want to fit in, so I finally seized the tool I knew to try out in order to be part of this incomprehensible society: creation. It’s a very personal journey, without any desire for design at first, just the need to survive and a desire to express myself in the way that was accessible to me. I am almost totally self-taught, perhaps my DNA and my unconscious training with my dad brought me to a level far beyond what could be learned in schools. That’s why I always consider myself more of a professional dreamer, or an explorer.
When you look back at your early days of work, what was your first design you were really proud of?
I have no love for products, for materiality. Before anything, design is a political tool. I’ve always believed that when you are visited by a good idea, you need to share it with the maximum amount of people. Therefore, from my very early days on I created Democratic Design. That means to increase the quality while lowering the price in order to make it accessible to the largest number of people. This could only be achieved through high technology and industrialisation, and we can say the battle of Democratic Design has been won. Almost everybody can access a good quality product, well designed at the right price.
How has design evolved or changed over the last 30 years, and how have you personally changed?
Society has changed, and we are facing new challenges and emergencies. Design might have been amusing for a while, but today, in order to deserve to exist, you must be useful. My new great battles are Democratic Ecology and Democratic Architecture, because we don’t have any other choice than thinking in an ecological way, as we are in a very critical and urgent situation. This is not a trend, we have to do something as fast and seriously as we can. We have already passed the limit of a safety situation for the world. The right feeling we need to have now is panic. Everything is meant to evolve because in fact, we are not completely stupid. The only problem we have is that we always take action too late: we know how to find a solution, but when you solve the problem with 15 to 20 years of delay, the damage is unfortunately irreversible. In the future, all houses will be like P.A.T.H., high technological and high quality prefabricated houses to save energy, time and money and to produce energy, thus guaranteeing longevity at the right price. The house is made entirely out of glass, so it gives us the impression of living in nature, reminding us how important it is to protect it.
Do you have a special design philosophy?
Total freedom. Aesthetics do not interest me. Only the service to the final user counts. I tend to produce less because less matters. I hate materiality. I have tried all my life to transcend it, to make it the expression of a dream, a vision, a utopia. Fortunately, any project is primarily an abstract, a question that must be answered in order to help improve the life of my friends, my family, my community.
Please describe to us your normal workday. What is essential for you to make it a good day?
With my wife, our life is one never-ending trip. We do a world tour almost every week. Every Monday, we wake up very early, at four o’clock in the morning and leave home, only to come back at around three o’clock every Friday afternoon to pick up our daughter from school. Sadly, in a year, we travel more days than we are home. But when I’m home, I work between 6 in the morning until 8 in the evening because I cannot do anything else except create.
Do you see yourself as a methodical person or are you rather chaotic?
I am an ultra-organised machine. In my functioning, creation demands having a rich life and to try to understand things deeply. As a creator, all my life is dedicated to the understanding and storage of information in what I call magma. I’m a cultivator of magma. If I give it some peace, nourish it regularly, it will grow and, at some point, it will lay an egg. Then I will use my specialised skills to do something interesting with this egg, I will test it until I consider that it is worthy to show it to you. All that I am telling is my way of functioning, but it does not prove the quality of the egg, nor the quality of what I give you. After all, I am only a small designer of a toothbrush. But this is the process, in which organisation is key.
Some people say that being chaotic is a sign of creativity. What do you think?
It may be true for the universe and the Big Bang, but not when it comes to human creativity. The 18th century bourgeoisie sent us the wrong message: the damned artist. To invent and to create, you have to cut off your ear, you have to drink absinthe, you have to commit suicide, you have to kill someone in a duel, or you have to live in Francis Bacon’s workshop. It is a false idea. There has never been an interesting piece of work done by someone who smoked a joint or who took heroin or acid. Moreover, it is even inelegant, because the beauty of creativity is to find yourself. Every morning, sitting in front of my table, in front of my white clean sheet, I have to reboot. I have to prove to myself that I am still capable of doing it, that I fight against weakness, cowardice, venality, and dishonesty. Every morning, it is necessary to start all over from scratch. It is that which is magnificent, and if I succeed, in the evening I tell myself “I have done it. I deserve a small glass of champagne!”.
Digitisation has radically changed our daily lives. What impact did that have on you and your work?
We use the digital world because it is part of today’s voices of communication, and when I speak out, I need all the possible tones of voice to express my ideas and to try to communicate my vision to my sentimental and cultural tribe.
What is the task of design today?
The stake is not about today’s design, it is about future. And I think the future is about dematerialisation and bionism. That means learning from the body, and how it works to design objects has become vital today in order to create a natural harmony and continue the mutation. Bionism isn’t a question, it is the natural continuity of our evolution. People who believe it is abnormal don’t understand the meaning of our evolution, the meaning of our existence on earth that isn’t static but also in movement. Human beings don’t exist as such; human beings are a movement, a continuum. Each second, we mutate, we evolve. Today, we are at a bit of an end of the road. We hear experts and scientists stating that athletes can hardly be physically pushed any further, simply because biologically, the body cannot follow. However, our brain capacity is infinite. We will need to learn how to stimulate it, to organise it, to stimulate it differently. In this sense, our normal evolution shall integrate bionism, which is the symbiosis of biology and highly integrated technology.
What do you think are the most important things you can achieve in life?
Love is everything. It is everything, and yet it cannot be described, it is not understandable. It is the ultimate thing that puts us out of ourselves, out of all reasoning and all reason. That’s why love is splendid, it is the most beautiful vehicle.
If you could start your life all over again, would you do anything differently?
I would have gone to school. I bitterly reproach myself for only choosing the secondary trade. Design, at best, improves the lives of others, but it can’t save them. I wanted to save lives, not improve them. If I had studied, I would have had scientific knowledge that would have taught me to save lives, or at least to consider myself as being really useful to society. Today, a constant and diffuse feeling of imposture follows me, telling me that I have been given a social role that I do not deserve.
Is there anything in your life that you always wanted to experience at least once, and which you haven’t done yet?
I am like Faust. I have sold my soul to this mental sickness called creativity. As my wife always says, I do have thousands of ideas a minute. As long as I see new proposals that can be done to improve my tribe life, I will continue to propose. Today, for example, the only acceptable object would be something that bears a strong political representation, a new ecological reality or a new sexual identity. Nothing of that sort exists today. So there are still unexplored territories. And the funny thing is that with experience and age, my creations are getting even better, more precise, more to the bone, with less uselessness.
Philippe-Patrick Starck is a French designer and one of the most famous representatives of the “New Design”. He was born in Paris in 1949. Starck’s versatile designs can be found in almost every area from architecture to product design. In addition to spectacular interior design, he also designs simple utensils. He is considered one of the most influential designers of our time.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin, issue Q1 2018. Picture credit © James Bort