A CONTINUUM OF CREATIVITY. Philippe Starck is a French creator known for his wide range of designs, including interior design, architecture, household objects, furniture, boats and other vehicles.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Philippe Starck, were you interested in design from an early age?
I was not interested in design, but I grew into industrial creativity. My father had a company that made aeroplanes and was famous for aeronautics. I grew up seeing my father creating and inventing technical things, so for me it was natural, in my DNA. I never saw anyone in the family do anything other than create.
How was your childhood?
I was very alone in my childhood. My mother, a beautiful woman, was very successful with men and would go on holiday with them. Before she left me every year she would order a ton of sand to be delivered into the garden of our house, and I would build a city with the sand. I was a normal boy, playing alone with toy cars, boats and planes, but I was never happy with my toys. I thought they were ugly, and I would retouch and redesign them in the garage.
Do you still have your toys?
No. People who keep their toys worry me.
Do you prefer to call yourself an inventor, a designer or an architect?
In order of priority, I would put adventurer first, because I love using my creativity to explore science and materials to see if there is another way to make things. That is why I have spent my whole life without friends. I am part of probably the last generation that is acclimated to transforming their ideas into materiality.
Did you first learn your craft at École Nissim de Camondo, the product design and interior architecture art school in Paris?
I was enrolled there to please my mother, because I’m a good boy, but I spent my youth hidden in the woods in the city of Paris, running away from any kind of societal authority. Nor was it experience that taught me. Creativity was a family gift of DNA. I was born to design. Not to make art, but to make a project.
“Ever since I was born I have absolutely no consciousness of life or death.”
VENUS YACHT © Feadship – Starck Network
Philippe Starck, when did you start work?
I have been designing for a living since I was five or six years old, because I refused to work at school. I only designed, and the teachers understood that it was impossible to teach me anything. They saw that my drawings were very interesting, and I paid for a quiet life with no work and no questions with my drawings, with my designs. I make very precise sketches, 3D images, and from them you can build a yacht and you can build a rocket.
How do you get your design ideas?
I am a bit autistic, and I live completely in autarky, far away from everything. I have absolutely no inspiration, but I do have a huge potential of intuition. My real work and my real creativity is at night. Every night when I go to bed I say to my wife, OK, I’m going to work, because in my dreams I build incredible things. I see unknown worlds. I listen to unknown music. I meet unknown people. I create very clever unknown theories. Sometimes when I am asleep I am amazed by my dreams and wake up saying, ‘Wow!’
Do you remember your dreams in the morning?
My night life is so strong that I don’t really know what my real life is, because my night life makes me fly in a universe so interesting and passionate. My day life is perhaps to support and feed the body so as to live my real life which is at night. This is a very strange idea, but ever since I was born I have absolutely no consciousness of life or death. Everybody is surprised because I am not afraid of anything, but you are not afraid of dying when you don’t know if you’re alive.
Is this why you live like a monk?
Yes, like a luxurious monk.
How do you work?
Absolutely alone. I move around the different houses we have in the world in order to find in each place I go to, the level of concentration that I need to reach for the project that I am doing. If I go to my oyster farm near Bordeaux, where I have many friends and a lot of small boats, it means there is no concentration. The same in Paris, in any city, but if I go to Venice, where we have a boat and a few friends, it’s a bit local and a medium low concentration. Our former house in Formentera was the highest level of concentration, because in 30 or 40 years nobody else went into that house. On the gate – one of the only gates on the island of Formentera – was written in big letters: no visit without appointment, all appointments cancelled. Right now I am at the top of the mountains of Sintra in Portugal, from where I can see trees and the sea around me, and at the weekend we will go to our organic farm, more in the south of Portugal.
Do you have mentors?
I am not intelligent, but I am incredibly intuitive. That is why I am passionate about human intelligence, and I consider scientists at the top of the list. I love science. I don’t understand everything, but I understand its music. I have had many major conversations with scientists. One of the fathers of the Big Bang theory said to me that I could understand everything. For me science is poetry. Science is music. If you just go with the flow, you finally do understand, and I am not bad at that. I can deeply understand super complicated things without any kind of intelligence.
Do you read books?
Yes, a lot. My wife and I read for two hours every night.
“Going to the essence is my speciality. I work until I find it, and that’s why I work alone.”
Philippe Starck, why did Jack Lang, the French Minister of Culture, ask you to redesign the Élysée Palace apartment of President François Mitterrand in 1982?
Mitterrand was an incredible person who was shocked to see how the French people were living with the furniture of their parents or grandparents. He wanted to show the French modernity, so he thought of me, even though I was 33 and living in Dallas, Texas at the time. I was not exactly a fit for the guy who was going to design the Élysée Palace, but finally it happened. Everything I did in the Élysée was very technically advanced.
Since then you have created many new hotels?
So many. In Paris, Brach at 16 rue de la Pompe is really amazing. If you go to the south-west of France, at Arcachon Ha(a)ïtza and La Co(o)rniche are on the biggest dune in Europe. If you go to the south-east of France, a 12 kilometre drive from St Tropez there is Lily of the Valley, on the sea. I really think it is one of the best hotels and the best place in the world. When I arrive there I’m always surprised, like every other guest.
What about the new chairs that you made for Alessi, on show for the first time at the 2023 Salone di Mobile in Milano?
Alberto Alessi and I are children who have been playing in the garden for 40 years. Alberto has a lot of poetry and I have a lot of humour, which along with “l’amour” are the three best things. Three years ago he said, Philippe why don’t we go back to our roots, why don’t you design a chair with the technicality that is used for a pan? The idea was so much fun I could not resist, but it was super complicated to do.
Why? Is it really so difficult to make a chair?
I am used to making what I want, and when I inject plastic it’s almost what I want because plastic is fluid, and follows your mind with almost no obstacle. To work in plywood is more complicated, but you can fight and you can win. You don’t have to fight with plastic, but to get everything correct to the smallest degree with wood and stamp steel you have to fight.
What kind of chair is this new one?
It’s a very humble kitchen chair made of polished stainless steel and wood. There are also stools and a hanger.
Alberto Alessi must be very happy with your iconic citrus press and kettle, essential products that are useful in everyday life?
I am not a designer, I am a semiologist. That means I use materials, shape, colour, to reflect what you want, to search, to explain, to speak with it. Culture or aesthetics doesn’t count for me, because I am not an artist. My products are for living with. That’s why functionality is number one. One of the rules of elegant functionality is to always try to find the centre of the project, the backbone, the minimum. When you have found the minimum, you can guarantee that it will be a timeless product.
Are you a specialist of finding the centre of the project?
Going to the essence is my speciality. I work until I find it, and that’s why I work alone. If you work by yourself, every morning from 6 or 7 o’clock, naked at your little table in front of the sea, then you are in a very good position to go to the essence. It’s great fun to go to dinner every night and meet people who repeat what they have heard from other people, but how can you have a fresh new idea, personal, original, in a world where everybody repeats everything? It’s impossible.
Is there a Philippe Starck style?
All my life I have tried to avoid having a style. I always break the rules. My fil rouge is logic, the process of thinking, and whether I work on a space station, a toothbrush, a medical instrument, a motorbike, on furniture or on hotels, it’s always the same process. I ask myself why I am doing it, what the legitimacy of this product is, how I can help my friends, through this project. I am super strict and I follow the rules. After this process of thinking I know my goal exactly and I am free to interpret in the best way, in a timeless, qualitative, whimsical way. What you can recognize is that it is always the same mental structure.
Philippe Starck and Alberto Alessi at the 2023 Milan Design Week
Alberto Alessi launches the Alessi Philippe Starck Poêle Collection which includes a chair, a high stool, a low stool and a coat stand.
ALESSI POÊLE CHAIR, DESIGN BY PHILIPPE STARCK.
Mirror Polished – Monoshell chair in 18/10 stainless steel mirror polished. Structure and armrests in brown dye beech wood.
ALESSI POÊLE HIGH STOOL, DESIGN BY PHILIPPE STARCK.
The panoramic view of the Eiffel Tower and Paris skyline from the restaurant of the TOO Hotel of which Philippe Starck is the artistic director and interior architect.
Philippe Starck’s design for the crew quarters of the AXIOM commercial space station.
“My main thing is to create. It’s a drug. It’s a pure addiction. It’s so much fun.”
Philippe Starck, do you like to mix the past with the contemporary?
I hate the past. One of the rules of my work is not to make something trendy. If you want to be timeless, you have to see the big picture, to understand from where we are to where we’re going. When you start to understand that you can start to have a legitimacy to speak today about today’s life, about all the beautiful stories, films, books about our mutation from bacteria to fish to frog to ape to the super ape we are today and what we will be in 1.2 billion years when the sun will implode. We are incredible and our story is incredible. We are the only ones we know of today, so far. I live on that scale and I just take what I want, like a writer who needs the letter E so he takes the letter E. It’s always where it is, perfect, without any problem. I am solving a problem, I use things and I write what I want to write with all the elements of our evolution. That’s all.
Has your work changed with the changing times?
I don’t live by a calendar. I am not capable of that. I am always the same. When you are young you want to be the best but you make a lot of hidden little mistakes. Now, when I see all the magazines talking about the value of my vintage stuff, I think it’s cuckoo, because when I see it, I think it’s shit. It was not stupid to do it, but the way of doing it was completely stupid. I do not live in a series of events. I live in a continuum. I have no relation to real life.
What was it like to work with a genius like Steve Jobs, a man of amazing intelligence?
Steve Jobs spent three or four years trying to find the right person, to build his boat. It was a great honour to be chosen by him. This man was very smart, and he chose me because we were in total harmony. He was much more intelligent than me, but we were one brain. In the seven years that we spent days together we never talked about the project. We never talked a lot, because he didn’t like it and neither do I, so it was perfect. With Steve it was osmosis. That explains how it was possible to work with a man who was so tough with everybody except me and my wife. We were very lucky.
Was he very involved with the project, or did you do what you wanted?
The whole project was designed before he gave me the programme. One day he called me when I was jumping on a motorbike to go to the airport with my helmet on my head. The receptionist in my company told me that there is someone called Mr Jobs who wanted to talk to me. I said, Jobs?! I took off my helmet, answered, and he told me; do you want to design a boat for me? I said yes, what size? He said 80 meters. And how many rooms? He said six. That was perfect. When I arrived in LA on this trip my wife was asleep but I could not sleep and I took my paper pad and my pencil as usual, as I always do, and in my bed I designed the yacht in three and a half hours. Completely. The following day I looked at the design and realized we didn’t sign a contract, but with Steve Jobs I am not taking a lot of risk so I sent it all to the office to make me a model. We arrived in Palo Alto on a Sunday morning, he told me we could start to work. I brought him the sketches and the 3D, he took the model and said, “It’s beyond my dreams”. I think he never says that to anyone. That was the first day and he never changed a thing; but we spent seven years knowing whether the reduction of the corner of the door is 07 mm or 06 mm. It was completely crazy, but it was very important to him. He suffered a lot. He told me that he was so happy to have this boat because he could think about it and survive. He almost never spoke, but after the very hard operation he said he had been thinking about his life and he said, “After my family I am very happy about my company, and then I have only one problem.” I asked which one and he answered, “My problem is you don’t live in my street”; because I only went to work with him one week a month. It’s always very nice to be loved by a difficult person. You feel very honoured.
Was he the most interesting client you ever had?
He was a marketing genius, but he had zero creativity. He could not imagine anything. Some time before he died, I made a book for him with all the wonderful computer 3D images, because he could not imagine, he could only look at the pictures and say, “I love this, I love that, or I hate that”. It was interesting but I have much more sophisticated and creative clients.
Do you like being with them?
I have a luxurious position. The more I work well, the more I succeed, the more I raise the quality of my partners. My only luxury is to choose who I agree to work with and sometimes I make mistakes, but not many because we are very selective. I never go on holiday or have dinner or breakfast with my partners, but when we work we really love each other. I have a love affair with all my partners.
Are you very happy?
I can’t be happy because the idea of happiness doesn’t interest me. I think it’s a stupid idea. I’m not happy because I don’t have a choice; (I only know how to do this). It’s like asking if a fish in the water is happy. We can say that I am happy just to make it easy, to produce, alone at my table, all the dreams, all the things in my head. It’s a great honour. My main thing is to create. It’s a drug. It’s a pure addiction. It’s so much fun. After creating I love my wife Jasmine who is my full-time job, and sailing alone is my favourite activity.
How long have you and Jasmine been married?
17 years. I have five children, one with Jasmine.
Do you see your children often?
Hardly ever, because I am a ghost and you don’t ask a ghost to see what happens in real life. I am not a bad father, but even if I am not a good father I am very happy when I look at all my five children. They all have the same very high human values. They are all noble, honest, creative, funny, faithful. That means that I have passed on these values, which is not so bad after all.
Thank you very much.
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