Conway Lloyd Morgan caught up with Philippe Starck in Paris, and found a subversive with an agenda for social change. And design will be the medium for the Frenchman’s message

Philippe Starck’s first furniture collection, back in the late Sixties, was called the Crisis Collection. Simple wood and canvas folding chairs, or plain storage units, made by hand, “badly, as I made them myself”, he points out. Today his involvement with a new project can raise several hundred thousand pounds in backing immediately, but his sense of crisis has, if anything, deepened.

Starck sits talking in his office, overlooking a sluggish arm of the Seine and some dilapidated barges. He’s here only odd days in the month, otherwise either travelling or working at homes in the countryside or beside the sea. There are now only four other people in his studio.

“To say that the way my work has moved from area to area over the years was planned would be pretentious, but I always had a certain intuition that I would develop and change. I’m an explorer, not a consolidator. If someone comes to me with a project or a problem, I get interested if I think there is a real challenge there, and so I can make an original contribution. And when I think the situation has had the attention it needs, I move on. Sometimes my role is to light a fire, sometimes to put one out.”

As an example, French electronics group Thomson approached Starck to do the interiors for a showroom it had rented on the Champs Elysées. “I went to see the head of Thomson and we understood each other from the start. I told him that a showroom with nothing worth showing in it was useless. He agreed, cancelled the lease on the showroom, and asked me to redesign their global range of consumer products instead. I spent two years on that, with a large team of collaborators, and now we’re moving on.

“As to interior design, at one point I felt I had said all I wanted to say, and was looking for a new area to explore. The semantics of interior design seemed to be well established, and I decided to move on. In fact, I let most of my interior design team go. But then I realised that I had become a key link in the whole process, particularly for hotelier Ian Schrager and his plans, and I couldn’t walk away from that duty. In retrospect, I’m glad I stayed, as I realise now that there was more to do. And I’m still enjoying that, and will maintain a role in interior decoration, while doing other things as well.

“But if there has been a process of development here, I think it’s best described as a rapprochement, a coming together. Until the age of 30, I spent all my time designing, busy, eager, happy and worried, like any young designer. Then I realised that I really knew very little about the world and how it works, about society, about business. So I spent some years travelling, to come out of my personal shell, and understand what was around me better. And my work now and in the future is about bringing me closer to people. Most of the objects I’ve created have been too distant from the body – apart from the Saba jacket, the Fluocaril toothbrush and, of course, the toilet brush for Alessi. That’s close to the body too, in a way!

“I felt people wanted me to come closer and I wanted that too. I believed the way in was through what has been called the moral market, the non-product for the consumer. That is, an object not just as decoration or display but as social, high technology equipment with a human function. Take the Mikli spectacles. There’s no particular design element about them: their inventiveness lies in the multiple joint on the arms, in the ergonomics of the shape. I like that approach. It takes me back to my roots, to my father’s work as an aeronautical engineer. So today we are taking out more patents than we are creating designs. That’s good.

“And there is a very important reason for this change being needed now. Now isn’t the time to be discussing architecture and design, now it’s time for action; political action, if you like. The rise of neo-fascism, the increase in racism, the loss of social coherence, these are much more serious issues which reflect the central problem of a society in crisis. That is the disappearance of compassion, of affection, of love. Today the idea of possessing is more important than that of loving – some people prefer having a car to a fiancé. Now compassion and concern are not inevitable attributes of society. They have to be maintained and nurtured. And materialism and envy risk stamping them out.”

There is real anger here. Like many people in France, Starck is horrified at the swing to the extreme right suggested by opinion polls, and by the vacillation of the current government. He has expressed these concerns before, but now they have more force, and he is concentrating on how to translate these concerns into action.

“My approach in the future is going to be about love, care and compassion. And I believe there are positive ways in which such principles can be invoked in design practice. The first way is to say no! To refuse projects which have no social value. Furthermore, there are rules to help this: no work dealing with arms, extremism, tobacco, religion, racism. No work that involves harming animals – I’ve just turned down a contract for luggage designs with Hermés because I don’t want to design in leather. I suggested they start a synthetic line. They thought about it for a while …”

He grins at the memory, and we try to imagine how Hermés might have reacted to a career move into plastics. Starck’s enjoyment of his ability to probe and provoke is evident.

“But a total policy of refusal would only be negative. There is a positive aspect also. What I try to do is to make everything I do sympathetic to the human condition – to make it positive. Take motorcycle design: a lot of product and marketing semantics are about aggression. We are trying to develop an alternative approach. We are moving towards the objet amoureux, the compassionate product, towards dematerialisation, towards clarity, towards expression. This isn’t going to be some dramatic, grand gesture, rather a series of small ones, which will have a stronger cumulative effect. I suppose I’m a subversive, patient and determined, not a street fighter, nor an instant revolutionary.”

Starck sets out this radical agenda with huge enthusiasm, grand gestures and occasional inflammatory comments on colleagues and rivals: “Architects? Aren’t they the people who abandoned duty in favour of status?” He accepts that he is able to offer himself the luxury of an independent view, and that his prestige also gives him a platform denied to others. But he is not trying to raise a revolution, merely to affirm his own ideas and push the evolution of design forward through an act of conscience.

“I have a biological drive towards designing: I’m happiest when working on a project, on my own, facing the sea, listening to good music. Now I’m going to take more time to do that. And the way to do it is lightly but seriously.”

Starck Facts

1968 Starck sets up his first company producing inflatable objects

1970s Starck invades the Paris nightclub scene with interiors for La Main Bleue (1976) and Les Bains-Douches (1978)

1979 The Starck Product company is formed

1982 President Mitterrand commissions Starck to refurbish his apartments at the Elysée Palace, Paris

1984 Café Costes provides Parisian café society with a trendy venue

1988 Starck mania hits New York with the opening of The Royalton Hotel, signalling the start of a successful relationship with hotelier Ian Schrager

1989 Starck stylises the humble toothbrush for Fluocaril

1990 With Juicy Salif, Starck invents a new way to squeeze lemons for Alessi

1994 Starck begins to stylise the electronics world with his designs for Thomson

1997 The latest Schrager-Starck collaboration, The Mondrian Hotel, opens in Los Angeles

1999 Starck retires, aged 50?

Latest articles