Iconic French designer Philippe Starck’s career kicked off in 1969 with a range of inflatable furniture. Fifty years and 10,000 designs later, Starck continues to create – tirelessly and, seemingly, effortlessly. But behind the world-renowned brand stands a man in contrast to his – at times – pretentious reputation. Behind the celebrity stands a lone wolf; behind the wealth, a self-proclaimed leftist and humanist; behind the products, a concealed dimension filled with meaning and poetry. Philippe Starck speaks less of clients and more of users. He believes design should be elegant, amusing and humorous, but ultimately aid the evolution of mankind. Essentially, behind the controversy stands an indisputable story of talent and vision combined with great diligence: the story of Philippe behind the Starck trademark.
Philippe Starck was born in Paris in 1949. As the son of an aeronautic engineer, for him “that made invention a duty”. From his father he learned the art of precision and the necessity of having control over the tiniest details at an early age. Although he dropped out of high school, he went on to study at the École Camondo, a private school of product design and architecture. Starck’s formal education was somewhat lost on him, as he learned the most through invention, encouraged by his father. “I never understand when somebody explains something to me. I haven’t got the brain for that. I can work on my idea from the beginning to the end. I have no diploma of anything because I cannot learn.”
In 1968, he set up his first company, which produced inflatable objects. A particular inflatable structure he designed, sparking his lifelong love affair with questions of materiality, marked his first success at the Salon de l’Enfance. It also got him noticed by Pierre Cardin, who, impressed by the contemplative design, hired him as an artistic director. Throughout the seventies, he paved a name for himself as an interior designer, furnishing Les Bains Douches and La Main Bleue – era-defining names of the Parisian nightclub scene. In 1979, he founded the “Starck Product” company for design.
Road to Stardom
Starck’s big break came in 1983, when he was commissioned to refurbish the private apartments of the Élysée Palace by President François Mitterrand. From there, his reputation soared. It was only further confirmed by the success of Café Costes and a number of other restaurant interiors worldwide. In 1988, he made history with the invention of the “boutique” hotel in collaboration with Ian Schrager. Intimate and stylish, the boutique hotel redefined the hospitality sector using design as the alpha and omega.
By the nineties, Starck was already a celebrity in his own right, with somewhat of a “bad boy” reputation. His total design concepts were in demand for their seductive and elegant character, but his person was his ultimate selling point. The eighties had brought a significant shift in the general perception of designers. From anonymous employees backing major corporations, they had become the magnates. And nobody better embraced this shift than Philippe Starck. Yet the spectacle that was the eighties came to a halt when his wife passed away in 1992. This marked a new decade for Starck – a revamped image and design philosophy.
From the nineties onward, Starck’s philosophy became more clearly oriented toward the democratization of design. This vision was best exemplified in his product designs often sold at affordable prices in hopes of injecting some class and humor to even the most mundane of objects. Take, for instance, the toothbrush he designed for Fluocaril, shaped like a quill with a tapered end. A thing of beauty, it remains one of his personal favorite designs. Jonathan Wingfield captures the essence of Starck’s mission, explaining how “the toothbrush metamorphoses into a friendly landmark in the bathroom, like a nod of encouragement, a work of sculpture all whilst being rigorously functional… Every object created is like a letter delivered to us by its creator.”
The same creativity went into designing the Juicy Salif, “the most controversial lemon squeezer of the century”. What started out as a series of sketches of calamari turned into a contraption more at home in a sci-fi movie than a kitchen. However, the design wasn’t a complete joke, but an exploration of the space between function and form – how far could the space be stretched before the correlation was lost.
The nineties were also the decade in which Starck’s fascination with dematerialization became a definitive part of his brand, underlining the spiritual qualities of his work. Starck considers glass the most fascinating and the closest to complete dematerialization, because “glass does not exist – it is invisible. But it is a very rich invisibility because of the reflection of its surroundings, the refraction, amplification, aberration”. However, plastic is his material of choice in his aim to create more with less materials and energy.
Likely his most famous chair design, the Louis Ghost chair for Kartell, exemplifies this approach. Using the limitless possibilities of transparent poly-carbonate, it brings a pared down rendition of the baroque Louis XVI chair to the twenty-first century. Created from a single mold, it is not only a classic design, but a feat of engineering. The Louis Ghost chair is a clever play on the conspicuousness of the invisible.
The Future According to Philippe Starck
The use of artificial materials is rooted in Starck’s mission to be as sustainable as possible. And as the world slowly distances itself from plastic in an effort to save the planet, Starck is leading this action on the design scene with significant progress in new materials and solutions. The promise of a post-plastic era fuels Starck’s technological endeavors. From his earliest efforts like the biodegradable Miss Sissi lamp for Flos, to the extremely affordable, entirely recycled Zartan chair, Starck has been shaping the future as he sees it.
His most recent venture: the “first chair in production created by artificial intelligence in collaboration with human beings” reported by Dezeen. The goal was once again, creating a functional object with minimum material and energy. Another testament to Starck’s thinking outside of the box, the chair foreshadows a future in which designers will collaborate with software to create innovative objects. A daunting prospect for some, but not for Starck, who embraces the idea of a design scene aided by AI. “Artificial intelligence managed to produce a more efficient chair than me, using less materials and giving me with more energy. In any human production, there is more good than bad, and I totally believe in the positive role of science.”
The Brain Behind the Brand
“I didn’t have the intelligence or the presumption or the ambition to try to create a brand. It’s just the sum of all my work—clear logic, clear ethics, clear creativity—that has created it. We are high-tech, rigorous, honest, avant-garde, always going in the same direction. And we have vision. Everything we said would happen 26 years ago has happened, and now it’s clear we’re absolutely not trendy. We are timeless.” – Philippe Starck
In contrast to his flamboyant public persona, Starck prefers to work from the comfort of his bedroom, maintaining a painstakingly rigorous schedule. “I am just a pure dreamer,” he adds. “I am just alone, with my vision, my obsession, my ethic, my… I don’t know what, but it is a very strange life, like a sort of luxurious modern monk.” It’s this seclusion which allows him to get things done and delegate very little. In the end, his fame comes as the by-product of the persevering quality of his designs, resulting from decades of dedication.
Sustainability, spirituality, humor and political subversiveness – a lot to put on one’s plate. But over the decades, Starck has proved he is able to deliver these big ideas to the general public, along with a sprinkle of elegance and sass. Re-imagining the everyday has become his hallmark. Starck has given a new lease of life to the “less is more” mantra and his advocacy for de-growth and contemplation of the future is perhaps the most vital proof of his humanist design cause. The profound care and emotion with which he creates is the lesson to be learned from the icon that is Philippe Starck – something often obscured by the attention garnered from his controversial statements and lifestyle.
Featured image: Philippe Starck, Designer holding a Kartell’s Chair by Jimmy Baikovicius, is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0