A giant of contemporary design
by Susan Gibson, JSJ Productions, Inc.
Philippe Starck, born January 18, 1949 in Paris, France, ranks at the top among the most famous designers in the world. With a career that has spanned four decades, Starck has literally placed his mark on almost everything man can create, from mineral water bottles to kitchen utensils, furniture, hip hotels, restaurants, motorbikes, mail order homes and mega yachts, just to name a few. He is a giant of contemporary design.
Influenced by his father, who worked as an aeronautical engineer, Starck studied at the École Nissim de camondo, paris, and in 1968 he set up his first company, which produced inflatable objects. In the 1970s Starck made a reputation for himself by creating interiors for clients such as the Paris nightclubs La main bleue (1976) and Les bains-Douches (1978). In 1980, he founded Starck products, and in 1985, a furniture-making firm, XO (with Gerard mialet). In fact, Starck made such a name for himself that in 1982 he was hired by then president of France, François Mitterand to redesign his private residence in the elysée palace. Starck then designed restaurant interiors for the café costes (1984) in Paris, manin (1985) in Tokyo, theatron (1985) in Mexico City, and teatriz (1990) in Madrid, among others. He was also responsible for the interior design of the royalton and paramount hotels (1988 and 1990) in New York city, work that subsequently inspired hotels throughout the world to seek his services.
Each subsequent decade has found Philippe Starck at the forefront of contemporary design, whether turning his hand to the humble lavatory brush, toothbrush or lemon squeezer, or to grander projects such as hotel chains, apartment blocks or the Virgin Galactic spaceport.
Starck also worked as an architect, with many commissions in Japan. Although not as well known as for his interiors and product design, Starck’s buildings also displayed the fluid lines and playful details for which his industrial designs were known. His best-known works are the Asahi beer Hall (1990) in Tokyo, an austere, block- like granite building topped with a bulbous orange shape resembling a flame and the Unhex Nani-Nani office building (1989), also in Tokyo, which has been described as a biomorphic shed. In 1997, Starck received the excellence in Design Award from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Starck’s Theory on Democratic Design
It has been through Philippe Starck’s sense of “democratic design” that he led the way to increasing the quality of objects at lower prices so that more people could enjoy the best. He was a lone voice at a time when design was aimed exclusively towards the elite.
Starck sees design as a poetic and political commitment. “Every object, every shape, every style must have a meaning, and it is this meaning that influences us every day,” he said. “What is humanity lacking? certainly not more objects…” because he is acutely aware of this and because he places the individual at the center of his work. Starck enjoys saying that the pencil is his only tool, his only weapon for changing the world. Everyone, as far as Starck is concerned, deserves the best, and therein lies his generosity and aspiration to satisfy a community sharing these values. He remembers having fought to improve quality, reduce prices and be available to all. “No one wanted me to, but every time I lowered the price, I also improved the quality, and the product sold better. So manufactures were forced to follow me… I never stopped campaigning to see perfect products emerge and quality products made to last,” he said.
An example of his approach to design democratization, aimed to give the best to the maximum number of people, is his work with 3 Suisses catalogue (since 1984) where he invented a line of furniture and later offered (since 1994) his historic “maison de Starck”, an individual mail order house made from wood. Another example was in 2002, for the American supermarket chain, Target, when Starck designed some sixty ultra creative objects, from a glass to a baby’s bottle. These were affordable pieces created to modestly light up the daily lives of American housewives.
As a protean designer, Philippe Starck re-thinks the most ordinary objects from our daily lives as well as the most astonishing, always to the point of drastic reinvention. He revels against acquired laziness in order to serve as well as possible while delivering his messages of humanity, love and poetry. His designs focus more on functionality than the object itself, aiming to provide the best possible service using a minimal line – almost a philosophy – and spreading curves that lean towards the disappearance of objects.
“PROVIDING A REAL WAY to deal with the urgent needs of environmental issues that are accessible to everyone is the new fight for the democratization of design.” – Philippe Starck
In 2002, Philippe Starck designed plastic furniture, the pinnacle of which is undoubtedly the iconic Louis Ghost chair (Kartell 2002), a veritable treaty of modernity with an inevitable dematerialization. Since its launch, no less than a million pieces have been sold. Most recently, philippe Starck, along with eugeni Quitllet of Kartell, designed outdoor furniture products manufactured with the rotational molding process. The magic Hole series includes a two-seater Sofa and two sizes of Armchairs with an uncluttered snappy silhouette and slim closed section legs. The straight linear surfaces terminate in well-rounded curves. The austerity of the lines is broken and enhanced by the originality of the stylistic details, a flared “pocket” of contrasting color on the interior hollow curve of the arms. Comfortable, light, shock resistant and weatherproof, the magic Hole Sofa and Armchair are perfect for outdoor use – ideal in the garden, on the terrace, veranda, pool side or for outside use in public spaces.
Phillipe Starck commented in a UK interview – “I am not a designer, I am not an architect. I am a creator of concepts.” He said he is “proud to call himself a modern autist”, a label his eldest daughter gave him several years ago. “She said this and in the end I discovered I have a passion for the autistic. It’s astonishing — the absolute beauty of autism, the most pure language, the most elegant style is within autistic literature, and really I am a little autistic myself,” he said.
Starck is himself a global brand and he boasts of working on more than 200 projects at any one time, but claims he had trouble learning anything in school. “I am a monster of intuition, but cannot do addition, multiplication or division. And, I don’t say that for fun – it is true,” he said. He recounted that his first sketches were when he was very young, five or six years of age, and they were of four machines to torture his teachers because school was horrible. Despite the macabre nature of his designs, his teachers were impressed, and he believes this is where he got his first taste of the commercial value of his designs. “It was my first project and my first business. It was how I bought the tranquility to dream,” he said. Starck said school didn’t work for him because he didn’t, and still doesn’t, understand the society in which we live.
Believing in “Green” long before ecology became fashionable, and out of respect for the planet’s future, Starck early on created the Good Goods catalogue of non-products for non-consumers in tomorrow’s moral market and set up his own organic food company. More recently, he developed the revolutionary concept of “democratic ecology” by creating affordable wind turbines for the home, soon to be followed by solar-powered boats and hydrogen cars.
“DESIGN WITHOUT HUMOR is not human. The word ‘beautiful’ does not mean anything. Only coherence counts. An object, design or not, is primarily an object that meets the parameters of human intelligence, which reconciles opposites.” – Philippe Starck
A Fundamental Vision
“Subversive, ethical, ecological, political, humorous…this is how I see my duty as a designer,” says Starck. With his thousands of projects, complete or forthcoming, his global fame and tireless protean inventiveness never distracts from Philippe Starck’s fundamental vision: “Creation, whatever form it takes, must improve the lives of as many people as possible. Starck vehemently believes this poetic and political duty, rebellious and benevolent, pragmatic and subversive, should be shared by everyone, and he sums it up with the humor that has set him apart from the very beginning: “No one has to be a genius, but everyone has to participate.”
Starck’s precocious awareness of ecological implications, his enthusiasm for imagining new lifestyles, his determination to change the world, his love of ideas, his concern with defending the intelligence of usefulness – and the usefulness of intelligence – has taken him from iconic creation to iconic creation. From the everyday products, furniture and lemon squeezers, to revolutionary mega yachts and hotels that stimulate the senses to individual wind turbines, he never stops pushing the limits and criteria of contemporary design. Starck’s dreams are solutions, solutions so vital that he was the first French man to be invited to the teD conferences (technology, entertainment & Design) alongside renowned participants including Bill Clinton and Richard Branson. He is an inventor, creator, architect, designer and artistic director, but more than anything else he is an honest man directly descended from the renaissance artists. “My father was an aeronautical engineer. For me it was a duty to invent,” he said.
I wish to acknowledge and thank the following references for material included in this article: Stark Network, Jasper-Eder (biographer) and the telegraph, U.K.
Susan Gibson is President & Publisher of JSJ Productions, Inc., a trade publication and association management company. Susan’s business experience spans 30 years engaged in publishing, advertising, political campaigns, lobby work and managing small to large sized trade associations. Susan is the founder and Publisher/Editor of an international plastics design and manufacturing magazine, RotoWorld®, for the global rotational molding industry that has been in publication for over 20 years. She is Executive Director for the Culligan Dealers Association of North America, Mid-America Bottled Water Association and the Southeastern Bottled Water Association. Susan has authored and co-authored a number of articles pertaining to the plastics design industry; served on various community boards including President of If I Could Speak, a non-profit fundraising organization for the benefit of children with autism. Susan was instrumental in founding the West Texas Teen Court, a program for juvenile adjudication, which later provided a model for similar programs across the country. She currently serves on the St. Stephens Episcopal School Board and the Forums and Programs Committee for ARM. Susan’s educational background is in Journalism and Mass Communications from the University of Texas, Austin.