Starck Raving

The design whirlwind behind everything from Richard Branson's space suits to a new global condo empire, Philippe Starck weighs in on the importance of fantasy, energy, and bivalves.

By Manhattan party standards, the opening-night scene inside 344 Third Avenue last May was not unusual. A hot DJ. Fabulous cocktails. A trio of dominatrices in thigh-high, black patent-leather boots and top hats, wielding flyswatters. The only discordant notes were the hour—an unfashionable 7:30 p.m.—and the location itself: the sales office for a new condo development on East 23rd Street. Not exactly Moomba at midnight.

But this wasn't your ordinary Ethan Allen-inspired lobby. A stuffed rhinoceros head surveyed the revelers. The candelabra was of black crystal, the mirrors something out of Alice in Wonderland, the ottoman big enough for a hookah-puffing caterpillar. All were clues, even to those who hadn't bothered to read the invitations, of the iconic design sensibility behind the project.

And, sure enough, at 8 p.m., like a refugee from some other dream, Philippe Starck, dressed in a ratty black nylon Dainese jacket, a pair of tattered jeans, and running shoes without laces, entered the mosh pit. He made one circuit of the room, smiled, did a little jig for the cameras, then disappeared. Half an hour later, another quick tour and poof!—off, we presume, to bed. "I am not a socialite," Starck had told me earlier in the day. "I have nothing to say."

Speak he did. Still, Starck prefers to let his work carry the conversation. And that makes for an odd sort of discourse. This is the man, after all, who has created juicers shaped like spiders, toilet brushes, presidential drawing rooms, and motorcycles. Back in the 1990s, he virtually invented the boutique hotel when he and Ian Schrager did the Delano and the Royalton. Now he's producing lines of furniture for Italian design firms Kartell (including the famous Louis Ghost Chair) and Cassina, as well as for Vitra; lighting for Flos; and watches, glasses, and underwear for Puma (the Starck Naked line). On the side, he designs the odd private yacht and is working on the spaceport (and space suits and space luggage) for would-be patrons of Richard Branson's would-be orbital tourism concern. He even has a line of organic food: rice, olive oil, and Champagne.

But Starck hasn't left buildings behind. Recently, he formed a partnership with Sam Nazarian for a new chain of hotels and restaurants called SLS. The first hotel will open in L.A. in 2008. And then there's Yoo, a development company spearheaded by his partner, John Hitchcox, that has $10 billion in properties in the works in 20 countries, including condos in Buenos Aires, Moscow, Phuket, Sydney, and Tel Aviv. The East 23rd Street location—"Gramercy by Starck"—is Yoo's third building in the city.

"In all my life, I never speak about design and architecture," says Starck, 58, who somehow seems to combine asceticism with hyper-Romanticism. "I always speak about our life: our fight, our pain, our difficulties, our dreams, our vision, our utopia."

Conversation with Starck is like that. Simple questions somehow wind up prompting riffs on life, love, tribes, omega-3s, and, invariably, sex. It's all delivered with a weary charm: I must talk to you, he seems to say, but I'd rather be sketching a space suit, reading about astrophysics, or shucking oysters.

Listen in.

When I think of Starck interior design, I think of hotel lobbies: the Royalton, the Hudson. Why did you enter the residential market?
At the beginning, I didn't want to do it. I refuse, I refuse. In the end, I accepted when I found the concept. Yoo helps people discover themselves. I don't design apartments; I help people to design them. If you ask somebody else to do that, you will live in a prefab home, which means a prefab life. Yoo is unique because we bring a real friendly, human, honest, respectful service, but with humor, fantasy, tenderness, craziness. Now we have 40,000 apartments rising in the world.

Your design aesthetic is pretty recognizable. Do you worry that people will think it's too trendy for a home?
Oof! The media—sorry to say, that's you—and the marketers make people crazy. Today, pink is beautiful; in six months, it will be green. It's trendy, or out of trend. The style of tomorrow will be the freedom and recognition of difference. We must replace the name "beautiful" by the name "good." Beautiful means nothing.

So what, to you, constitutes "good"?
The most beautiful building is any room where you are with the person you love. That's all. After that, if you can have a good pillow, good for you. If you can have a good mattress, better for you. If you can have a good sunbeam on your bed on a Sunday morning when you make love, fantastic! You have everything.

Sounds lovely, but I can hear the developers: "We can't sell just pillows! We need wine cellars! Walk-in closets!"
Usually, the developer is just a greedy guy trying to make maximum money. And the architect is the guy who thinks his job is just to put people out of the cold and rain into steel, glass, and stone.

Your real-estate projects stretch from Bulgaria to Argentina. How would I know if I was in a Starck-designed building?
When you open the door and go through the lobby, you will go, "Oh, it's weird." Everything is too big, too small. But it will give you some energy. For me, I am just a producer of surprise.

Does that apply to the building's exterior?
No. Today, all buildings are very fancy, they are all narcissistic masturbation to the glory of the guys who design them. This was a little fun 25 years ago when architecture was sleeping. Now it's time to come back to quality. I want somebody walking by on the street to say, "Look, darling. It can be good to live here. I think we could be at peace." The building should just have a technical elegance.

Surely a Philippe Starck project would be more stylish than that.
If you see everything I do, there is not a style, there's a logic. There is a way of thinking, the same brain. There's a family look—depending on whether it's a hydrogen car, a plane, a mega-yacht, a toothpick, my organic rice, or my new hotel chain. There is the same ethic, same angle of view, the same poetry, the same humor. If people love it, perfect. If they hate it, so? Everybody love me too much. Everybody hate me too much. But nobody says, "Starck? I don't know what it is."

You've said you want to design community right into the building. How?
By now, we know very well the members of our tribe—they are smart, modern, rebels, aware. So in our buildings, everybody is potentially a friend, partner, lover. I work a lot on the energy of the place. In Montreal, I put a gym in the lobby so each day, when you leave for work, you make a race on the stationary bikes with your neighbor. Or there's a huuuge table, on which everybody can make a big banquet.

Are you a workaholic, or do you just not sleep?
I dream a lot. Everything is made in my head. For example, I must design a new boat for a very, very, very famous person. We met two days ago. Then, last night on the plane, while I am sleeping, I have a complete concept. This morning, I start from the front—clack, clack, clack, clack! I have designed half of the boat. When I shall have 30 minutes, I take my pen—pop, pop, pop, pop!—and design everything.

What inspires you? How do you feed your head?
I go nowhere. Movies, theater, exhibitions—nothing. My only inspiration is my life. I am old. I have made every mistake possible. I have paid for everything. I am not very good to lead the daily life, to speak frankly. But I am very interested in high-quality literature and very, very interested in science, mathematics, biology, astrophysics, and things like that. I love the poetry of these things.

In everything I do, there is not a style, there's a logic. There is a way of thinking, the same brain.

You design so well for a sophisticated, urban audience. Do you like cities?
I am not a city guy. I am not a fashion victim. I live mainly on my oyster farm in the southwest of France, on a small island with 12 houses and without cars, electricity, or water. It's a very rough life, a very basic life. The island is full of mud. I also have a house on a small island in Venice. If you are with the person you love, a good book, good music, and in front of you is the sea, the forest, the Venice bay, or 200 million oysters, that's enough.

Do you have a formula for creativity?
Every morning, take royal jelly and omega-3 oil, eat oysters, and have a good sexual life. Don't care about anything, and never listen to anybody. Be free.

Feedback: tischler@fastcompany.com

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