Having placed his signature touch on everything from the interiors of hotels like the Delano and the Mondrian to toothbrushes and motorcycles, Philippe Starck, France’s Zen master of the modern, diversifies into New York rental apartments, underwear and the first sightseeing shuttle into outer space.
Philippe Starck may be known for a very particular, lofty aesthetic that has defined an era of überchic luxury, but personally, he is not at all fussy. Built like a rugby player, dressed today in jeans, a T-shirt and a motorcycle jacket, he looks more like a rock legend or a fashion photographer than an interiors maven. He speaks volubly, passionately, heavily French-accented, his gray-green eyes earnest and curious. Meeting in a suite of Dwell95, a New York apartment building where he’s been hired to give the entire complex his signature surreal fantasy gloss of gallery-white walls, fine fixtures and Austrian crystal chandeliers, he stands to shake hands, then hastens to sit at the one clear plastic chair placed at the meeting table. “I always have to be on the seat I designed,” he says, a twinkle in his eyes.
You’ve said that when you design, you pay more attention to what isn’t there than what is. Does that mean you might look at a space and say, This needs more fun? I never think that intent of the design or the architecture of the design is important, if you consider design to be just steel, wood, concrete, metal, glass and plastic. The real intent is to create a scenario or a set where people will feel better, where they can upgrade their lives. For that, you don’t need to use architecture. You just make use of a vibration… it’s like a perfume in the air, a management of energy. It includes poetry, humor, surrealism, all of that in a very strong vision. And this vision is mainly about our mutation, because we evolve every minute. As a people, it is our duty to evolve, to work, to be aware, to think and to dream. That’s why if I continue to make a hotel, or an apartment building, it’s not because I love architecture. It’s because it’s the best place to move people, to shake people, to surprise them. For me, it’s purely a political weapon. Maybe it’s not the best one, because if you want to be political, it’s better to be a politician, to sing a song or to make a movie. I try to express political ideas through design. It’s a lot more complicated to do this. But it’s my cross.
Which of your projects do you feel are the more iconic ones? For me, it’s always about the next one. Because once a project is past, I see how I was lazy, weak, venal, cynical or stupid. I always hope that the next will be the best. And strangely, it is. So, why we are here today is very important, because Joe Moinian, developer of Dwell95, has commissioned, with the same quality and creativity, the same type of building with apartments that were once sold for millions of dollars, but now you can rent one. It fits perfectly with what we need today, because we don’t know the economy of tomorrow. When you don’t know these things, you must stay light in movement.
Of all that this building has — including a Delano-like roof deck, a state-of-the-art gym and concierge — what’s your favorite feature? Could it be the complimentary breakfast available to all tenants? I love this idea! Deeply, I love this idea. It’s always fun to have a free ready breakfast. But, for me, it’s a symbol that says, Hey, you are home. It’s your home. You’re there with your mum, who has prepared a breakfast. And that’s a strong statement to make for a building in the U.S., in New York, on Wall Street, which is so menial, so dry, so much about drive and stress. Here is someone saying, “Here, your breakfast is ready.” It’s a very strong icon.
Speaking of amenities, you’re the creative director of Virgin Galactic, which is preparing to launch brief flights into the stratosphere in 2009. What stylistic details will be enjoyed by people traveling in outer space? Oh, the rocket? I have spoken a lot about it with Richard Branson, and I was thinking at the beginning to give people a small bag with a lot of things in it, but then I realized that I won’t be doing that. Because you will be out of the earth, lost in the space, wearing a spacesuit we have designed, which is almost nothing. You will be naked in the middle of nowhere, with no gravity. You are just to see our world, to understand its dimension, and how it is so small. So when one person recently asked me, “Shall I bring my iPod?” I said, I love iPods. I have twelve iPods. But, if you are somewhere out in space, I think you can be alone with yourself.
Genius physicist and A Brief History of Time author Stephen Hawking is scheduled to be on this first shuttle flight into space with you. What sort of small talk do you think you’ll be making with him? I do have one question for him: I want to check if I understand that he did indeed write that before the big bang, there was God. I want to check if he really thinks that, if one of the most intelligent people alive in our world today continues to be a believer. I cannot accept this idea.
The big bang makes me think of your own creative explosion — over the years, you’ve designed baby bottles, glasses, sailboats, watches, lemon juicers, a line of underwear called Starck Naked and much more…you’ve described your creative process as making your mind the printer of your subconscious. It’s the only way to work. Today, the power of marketing is so strong. If you work with your consciousness, then you are in the mainstream of thinking. How can you have a fresh, original idea with this incredible weight on your shoulders? The subconscious speaks less, but never lies. Consciousness speaks a lot, but always lies. That’s why my wife and I lead a different kind of life. We live far from everything, in small cabanas, with no electricity, no water, no cars. We don’t watch TV, we don’t go to the movies. We just read literature. It gives us time and energy to have perhaps, I hope, a different creative vision. We make it our duty to bring fresh, new, useful ideas to our tribe.
According to what you’ve said in the past, the best way to feed your creativity is with sleep and with sex. Yes, yes, yes. To feed your subconscious, the best thing is to fill it with diversity, and this is not about knowing what is the new Porsche. It’s better to know what is the best orgasm of your wife. You must try to understand everything, and that’s why sex is very important, because everything is sex. It’s not the only one barometer.
With all that you’ve created, is there any stone left unturned? Do you wake up and look at things around you and say, This toothbrush could be better? This frying pan? Everything. Ev-ery-thing. Everything I’ve done, I’m ashamed of. I repeat. That’s why I continue to work, because I hope that it will be better. But I have no design dream. I have dreams for new concepts, for new action, new political action, new subversion, new rebellion. But it’s mainly more and more conceptual, and hopefully less and less material.
You’ve said that the BlackBerry was not well designed. How would you redesign it? Darling, I have no more telephone. I am not interested in having one. The BlackBerry is perfect. The iPhone is perfect. I don’t need either.
How do people get in touch with you? They are not in touch with me. Some people know the number of my wife. But the idea of people sending me e-mails all day, speaking all the day? Ah! No more telephone! It’s done. It’s out of my mind.
Since you’ve usually got three hundred projects going at once, I was going to ask how many e-mails you get a day. Me, zero, because I have no computer. Mine is a very strange company. It’s a sort of abstract miracle. And it’s because I work alone, naked, at the kitchen table, in front of the sea at my oyster farm in Bordeaux. I am five feet from the water, the mud, the oysters. Because of this, I can focus deeply on the work. My team is the same team I’ve had for 25 years. They know me, they are friends. I send the work out to them, and that’s all, it’s done.
Your method sounds like an incredible luxury. But it’s a life of work to organize this sort of abstraction, to live in a crystal bubble — a productive crystal bubble.
Photo by Victoria Will.