His designs have been described as eclectic. From a space rocket, to an iconic juicer, to the house he lives in – Philippe Starck has designed them all. Euronews’ correspondent Isabelle Kumar went to meet the influential creator at his home near Paris for The Global Conversation.
Isabelle Kumar, euronews: You’ve been designing for decades but it feels as though you still have loads of ideas, is that right?
Philippe Starck, designer: I think you have to think about it as a mix of several things, but fundamentally it’s a mental illness. A mental illness which comes from – from what we understand more and more because of electronic imagery of the brain – the various ways our synapses link up. So, it won’t stop, because the reasons for it would have changed, because when you are young, you want to express yourself, you want to prove yourself, I did, but i’m not young anymore, I’ve already proved myself and so that’s why I’m carrying on. I think that one of the main reasons to justify our existence is to serve others.
Isabelle Kumar: And who do you serve exactly?
Philippe Starck: I serve my community. You know everyone is part of a tribe, everyone represents their tribe. You should never try and think for someone else. You have to do it for yourself, for your wife, for your mother, for your friends, and that way you get to the truth, to honesty. It’s the opposite of marketing and that’s what works. And the tribe next door will have another designer. Don’t try to be the designer for someone else.
Isabelle Kumar: You’ve said before that your inspiration comes from your dreams. Is that right, and how does it work?
Philippe Starck: Well, I’m autistic, fortunately only at a low level, but clearly autistic.
Isabelle Kumar: How do you know?
Philippe Starck: You know this when you don’t talk to anyone, when you don’t see anyone, when you don’t watch TV, when you can’t understand when people explain things to you, when you prefer to be on your own rather than with other people, so you end up understanding how certain things work. And this autism enables me to live, as I just said, almost completely self-sufficiently. I don’t get any information from outside. What interests me…to answer your question, I think I have a deep curiosity and a deep love for us …for who we are.
Isabelle Kumar: But if you have distanced from the world, how can you know who WE are?
Philippe Starck: Because we are who we are. It’s very easy. Everyone – you – are able to understand certain things. Then I’m going to look at the sound engineer here, and I am going to understand other things. Afterwards there are lots of signs, subconscious nano-signs given out by society which you can understand. And what’s interesting in working like this is that you are never thinking in the same way. It stops you repeating over and over what people say in their society dinners and cocktail evenings.
Isabelle Kumar: I’d like to bring in some questions sent in by our online audience who want to know a bit more about you. This is a question from Yannick who asks: what are the obstacles you have come across during your career, and how did you overcome them to get to where you are now?
Philippe Starck: There are no obstacles. Things happen little by little, you begin drawing in a class, then your teacher sends you outside because you are never working. I’ve never taken an exam, because I’ve never been able to follow what we are learning. Then one day, the teacher sees that the drawing is interesting, and for the first time you do a trade: you give me your drawings and I’ll leave you in peace. I began earning from my drawings and my designs, I must have been five years old! And slowly, you do one for a friend, you do it for your village, and then you do it for your country.Then someone on the other side of the world says, ah the little French guy there, he’s not too bad and you build up your career…that’s why it’s so important to be honest, because if you do something here that’s not right, it will be known straight away over there. So what you need is honesty, to care about humanity and creativity, work on yourself, on others, build up your knowledge as much you can, so there are no obstacles.
Isabelle Kumar: Do you find that France, that Europe, does enough to help its young people who want to start a small design business?
Philippe Starck: Well first of all, design isn’t the issue, it doesn’t matter if you do design or not…
Isabelle Kumar: Let’s say young entrepreneurs then…
Philippe Starck: Let me tell you something: you can do anything, anywhere. There are people in the middle of concentration camps at Dachau and Treblinka who made radio sets with potatoes, who found ways to try and escape. Even if you’re at the bottom of a hole, or the bottom of a mine, and you’ve fallen on your head, there is still a way to survive. So in whatever situation, you can always do something. And that’s the beauty, that’s what’s exciting. If everything were easy, why would we do it? We would stay in bed, that would also be easy.
Isabelle Kumar: I would like to return to something you said earlier – that you’re not part of the mainstream. But you are seen as the biggest celebrity designer there is at the moment. Does this label annoy you, or can you live with it?
Philippe Starck: You shouldn’t confuse a public image with someone’s private life. The public image…well you, the media, need celebrities to talk about, to tell stories about… But that doesn’t mean to say that the people you talk about are really celebrities. If you look in the papers, you will hardly ever see my wife and I. You might see me on a TV programme and if, like your programme, it’s more serious, then we can talk about more serious things, but apart from that – we are not at all like celebrities. My wife and I live like hermits. That might sound a bit strange, but let’s say like hermits with luxuries who are very well organised, but definitely like hermits! You couldn’t really find people who are less like celebrities than we are.
Isabelle Kumar: Are you someone who divides opinion?
Philippe Starck: I think that I split opinion. Yes, there’s no question about it. It’s actually completely incredible to see how much some people seem to love me. There are people who think I’m God, which is obviously ridiculous. There are people who can’t look at me without crying, there are people who will only get married if I come and be their witness. It’s crazy, totally mad, it’s shocking. And then there are others who hate me – very clearly. Who would be ready to kill me for reasons which aren’t clear to me as you can’t say I’m doing anything to hurt them.
Isabelle Kumar: There are also some people who are less extreme and who say that you are quite a contradictory figure. On the one hand you talk a lot about the environment, but on the other one of the main materials you use is plastic. How do you explain this contradiction?
Philippe Starck: If there’s anyone that isn’t contradictory it’s me! Using plastic can be much more environmentally friendly than cutting down trees or killing cows. It’s the way in which you do it and who you do it with. Obviously I’ve always promoted the use of plastic, and now we are using bioplastics – and not just any old ones – so it’s totally consistent to work with synthetic materials and to care for nature. So, really, you need to be wary of snap judgements of fashionable analysis.
Isabelle Kumar: Linked to that, we have another question from Turgut Cîrpanli: Do you ever calculate the possible side effects of the products you design in environmental or social terms?
Philippe Starck: Obviously! We only think about that! That’s why a few years ago we tried to bring in renting furniture as a concept. But we found that that didn’t work. No-one did it, no-one brought back the furniture. That’s why for years I have worked on how we can have a post-plastic era. What will happen when petrol disappears and there’s no more plastic? 80% of the world are poor and desperately need plastic, for example buying a simple basin in a market in Africa. Massive pollution isn’t necessarily the issue, it’s what we buy! So, the first step we should take for the environment is to ask ourselves, do I really need this? And that applies to anyone. To me too obviously. But to everyone.
Isabelle Kumar: Let’s talk about the house where we are at the moment. It’s a beautiful house that you’ve just finished. It took a long time to get to this point – now that you look at it, and you can walk around inside it, are you happy with it?
Philippe Starck: Well, before knowing if you are happy, you want to know if you have achieved your goal. And this has been a goal that has been an obsession for at least thirty years. If you look at a typical house today, you don’t get much value for money. So, I have always tried to take away the risks, to produce a house with 35 different ways of constructing it, which produces more energy than it consumes, which is totally architecturally neutral so that people can make it their own. So, with lots of parameters like this house, it’s a service I really wanted to provide. I haven’t quite achieved everything yet because although it’s a reasonable price at the moment, I think if we can mass produce it we could do it for the cost of a car.
Isabelle Kumar: So what would be the price of this house, it has five bedrooms, a beautiful living room…
Philippe Starck: A house like this, it’s big because I have five children, and not everyone has five children… It’s probably around 300m2 and the price must be roughly 2000 euros per metre squared. So for a house of this quality here, it’s really very affordable.
Isabelle Kumar: So 600,000 euros
Philippe Starck: Because that’s a fair price. We’re not trying to make unachievable claims, we’re not advertising it saying that it’s the cheapest house in the world, that wouldn’t be true because it’s not possible, it’s not true. If we made the house any cheaper, it wouldn’t have longevity. And longevity, legacy, handing something on to the next generation, they’re not words you hear very often anymore – they’re words our grandparents used. I think the word legacy today is almost avant-garde.
Isabelle Kumar: Okay, just a quick question – because when I spoke to some of your people, they told me it was more like 4,500 euros a square metre.
Philippe Starck: No, it’s 4,500 euros a square metre if you have all the extras. I make sure there is a basic building of high quality which i guarantee. And after that if you want a swimming pool, you buy a swimming pool, if you want curtains and so on. Afterwards, you do what you want! But our next task is to put all of this in a catalogue.
Isabelle Kumar: Is that in keeping with your democratic principles? Because the house is described as democratic and ecological. At that price, can it really be democratic?
Philippe Starck: Yes obviously. For the reasons already said. Because the price is fair, it’s quite low, well – medium – so it’s completely fair.
Isabelle Kumar: Another question sent in online from Mr Green, and he asks: What feature is more important for you in a design? Functionality or Beauty?
Philippe Starck: Well how nice of this Mr Green to ask, I’m impressed he even has the internet and a computer because that question sounds like it’s from the 18th century.
Functionality is everything – in everything. Even a poem has functionality, a poem is beautiful because the rhythm of the poem is seductive. The words create images which give you ideas. And at the end of it, the young girl who you’re reciting the poem to is going to fall into your arms. And the functionality will have been completely respected. There is nothing beautiful that hasn’t already been structured beforehand to be functional.
Isabelle Kumar: So let’s continue with the word functionality – you collaborated with the Slovenian company Riko on this house but you do lots of other collaborations too, and one of the best known was with Steve Jobs. You worked on his boat. How did that come about and how did the work go?
Philippe Starck: I don’t really like to talk about it because it was a private project and Steve Jobs liked to keep things secret so it’s not for me to talk about it. But we can say he decided he wanted a boat. At the beginning he didn’t, but then he decided to treat himself, he deserved it because he had worked hard – and he searched everywhere to find someone who would really be on track with his philosophy and it seems there was only me. I was the one who designed the boat – although he said it was him – but that was his well-known distortion of reality. I drew it in an hour and a half, maybe two hours, then I gave him the model of the boat. He said it was beyond his wildest dreams, then for seven years we didn’t even touch the boat, we were just working through all the details. It was extremely hard work because Steve was incredibly demanding. You could say that Steve was the God of demands, of rigor and perfectionism, and I was the emperor – but that’s what it was like – it was a purely philosophical endeavour!
Isabelle Kumar: I’d like you to comment on a quote – something you said before which is: “there will never be another boat of this high quality because there will never be another two madmen getting together to work on a project like this.”
Philippe Starck: It’s true! It’s impossible! No-one will ever do that again because it was high level mental jousting between two people. For both of us it was a vision, an experiment, a search for something new. A sort of negation of materiality and despite this we managed to succeed. I don’t think there’s anyone else who would worry about the same details, or share the same philosophy, and definitely no-one else prepared to pay the price in mental energy and the time spent on it that we did. No, there will never be anything like this again.
Isabelle Kumar: You alluded to the fact that things didn’t finish well, that Jobs tried to reappropriate part of the design? Can you put this episode behind you without any bitterness?
Philippe Starck: I’m not going reply to that type of question. It’s just gossip and it doesn’t interest me.
Isabelle Kumar: Okay, well let’s move on to Virgin Galactic, another project you are working on. You’ve got your ticket to go into space on one of the first flights. How do you think this journey into the unknown is going to be?
Philippe Starck: I was mainly a sort of guardian of the temple for Virgin Galactic. A guardian of the temple in a philosophical way, sorry – repeating myself. Lots of people have said a space rocket is the ultimate gadget for the rich. After a Rolls Royce, and a yacht and a jet, the next thing to spend money on is space. Well yes…and no. It’s not the rich who are conquering and appropriating space today – it’s the army. And I don’t really fancy leaving my future, and the future of my descendants, in the hands of the military. So privatising space, then democratising it by bringing down costs is one step. It’s not the end of it, but it’s a good step in the right direction.
Isabelle Kumar: How do you feel about your own personal journey into space?
Philippe Starck: Well actually I’ve got a bit of a problem because since starting with Virgin and now, I’ve developed bad bouts of claustrophobia. And I also have a problem with going into the centrifuge. So I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do it because these things really don’t go together at all!
Isabelle Kumar: You were the artistic director on this project and you designed the spacesuits. But I’ve read that at the beginning you wanted people to go into space naked, is that right?
Philippe Starck: No it’s a joke! I think I must have said that one day, I don’t remember at all, but it is definitely my sense of humour to make a joke like that,…..oh yes I did say it, I did say it, in fact. I said I wanted people to have as little as possible on so they could really feel everything without any constraint. You know there’s a rule: the more material there is, the less human there is. And this is going to be such an extraordinary journey for some people. And while they’re on it, they need to not feel bothered by anything. They don’t want to be hampered by things around them, by feeling the belt on their jeans for example.They need to be in touch with their dream as much as possible. So yes I would have liked them to have been naked. Nonetheless, the spacesuit is very minimal and it won’t spoil their dream.
Isabelle Kumar: Which of your creations are you particularly proud of?
Philippe Starck: My life! My life and my work! It’s a paradox. At the same time, I’m not proud of myself as a person at all, I feel permanently ashamed because I’m never as good as I think I should be. But the fact remains that I am pretty old now. I probably have another 15 years ahead of me at the most, so in 15 years I could be cremated and I hope they can write with my ashes that I was an honest man.
Isabelle Kumar: So we’re going to finish with a question from Corinne Wenner: Philippe Starck – can you design me happiness?
Philippe Starck: You know, there is this sort of crazy obsession with happiness. People seem to think that life comes with a duty to be happy, as if happiness is the main goal in life
Isabelle Kumar: Well we do search for it…
Philippe Starck: Well, I don’t! And I find that a bit idiotic, to tell you the truth. I think you have to find your role. The way I see it is that together we are like a braided rope, and each person is one of the fibres. When we are born we get other fibres from this cord – our parents, civilisation, community. It’s then down to us to continue braiding this rope with our fibre. Our job is to make it better than the rope we were given, and to be able to say to our children, here you are, I did the best that I could. If you can do your work, and hand on your work with as much beauty as possible, and with poetry, rigour, honesty and lots of humour – that’s a job well done.