The design visionary shares what drives his creativity and ingenuity
Philippe Starck is a French inventor, creator, architect, designer, and artistic director with an acute awareness toward ecological implications, enthusiasm for imagining new lifestyles, love of ideas, and concern with defending the intelligence of usefulness. From everyday products like furniture and lemon squeezers to revolutionary mega-yachts, space module habitation, vibrant hotels, and the miraculous technologies of electric cars and bikes, he never stops pushing the limits and criteria of contemporary design. Starck is a true visionary who brings together the art of innovation, democratic design, and ecology to benefit both humans and nature.
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In a feature for our Social Spaces catalog, we interviewed Starck to understand what drives his creativity and innovation, which manifested into a rich career with over 10,000 designs. It begins with a vision: Creation, whatever form it takes, must improve the lives of as many people as possible.
Haworth: When and why did you decide to become a designer?
Starck: I was never interested in design; it is a job that chose me and, because I am a coward, I simply accepted it. It was my DNA.
My father was an aeronautical engineer, and I learned under his drawing table that for a plane to fly, first you have to create it, and for it to fly you have to be rigorous. There is a logic in my work, a rigor and a desire to talk about something else, to give objects a voice. I have this mental sickness called creativity and I work with intuitions that are verified and constructed. I always remain at the center, at the core of things.
Then I remember my mother, a very pretty woman, a woman of panache. She was very elegant, very funny, very imaginative, very inventive. It is the “panache,” the feminine beauty of being able to transform everything into a dream.
So, I try to bring my creativity, my rigor, and add a kind of general humor about life. In this useless world that design is—as it does not save lives—I do my best to suggest solutions to issues I have identified.
"Subversive, ethical, ecological, political, humorous…
this is how I see my duty as a creator.”
Haworth: Can you speak about your democratic design philosophy and how it influenced your creation of objects that are both attainable and well-designed?
Starck: A long time ago, I invented this concept of democratic design, that is increasing quality—through industrialization—while decreasing the price in order to make it accessible to the greatest number, because when I started, design was elitist. There were beautiful pieces, very costly, made for the very happy few. I hate elitism, and I could not accept that a family had to pay $10,000 to have dinner with their children. That is why I have fought all my life to take the “zeroes” off of everything.
Now, we can say that almost everybody can afford a high-quality design chair for $50. Democratic design is not a style. It is a humanism that aims to increase quality in every respect—cultural, qualitative, technological—to lower the price and to share it with as many people as possible. I would much rather make a million proposals at $1 each, than make one proposal at $1 million. But there are great people everywhere and why choose if you can work for all.
I have a strategy called “Robin Hood.” I do not steal, but I use these million-dollar projects as advanced research laboratories where I can develop and experiment new high technologies, new environmentally friendly materials, which are eventually used for mass market products.
Haworth: How has dematerialization influenced your design of objects?
Starck: I have been a pioneer of dematerialization for more than 50 years. Since always, I have had this idea to fight materiality and its vulgarity, which is a paradox because I have been producing materiality. Only the project is elegant, only the dream is elegant.
Dematerialization is the course of history and also the future. At birth, everybody signed a contract with their community. The contract can have different faces, but the base is that everybody has a duty to help their society, their civilization, their animal species.
“In the long-term design will join one of the most fundamental lines of our evolution, which is dematerialization.”
Designers cannot save lives, but they have a duty to answer questions and find solutions to make obligatory objects bearable. There is not a big future for design like it is today, because dematerialization will be almost completed in less than 20 years. Like the economy, ecology will necessarily remove the superfluous from us. There will not be the possibility of having objects for nothing, because spending energy and matter tomorrow for nothing will not be more acceptable and will be prohibited.
When everything will be dematerialized, there are no more reasons to make design. The smartest ones will understand that a designer is not obliged to produce materiality, they can produce pure service. That is the future of design.
Haworth: How has this approach influenced your work with Cassina and Emeco?
Starck: The idea is to produce less and have more. Cassina is the Italian aristocracy of design and Emeco is the Californian pragmatic intelligence. These companies embody the idea of longevity, timelessness, quality, and creativity, in a way that does not exist anywhere else.
All this can seem a little bit old, but it is not old; it is ultra-modern, because today, one of the most modern parameters is longevity. To build not for one year, not for five years, for a life, for two lives or five generations. Less matter, less energy for more service and durability. Sustainability is not a choice, it’s an urgency. I am completely involved in this.
Haworth: What’s been your greatest challenge as a designer?
Starck: Trying to provide opportunities for everyone to be at their best, everywhere at any time.
Haworth: What are you passionate about in life that influences your creativity and innovation?
Starck: I don’t have any influences because I don’t go out, I don’t watch TV, I don’t listen to anyone, and I don’t understand anything. What I love is us, our genius. We are extraordinary animals of intelligence. I love and admire the most beautiful specimens of human intelligence, such as the great scientists—especially from the beginning of science—like Eratosthenes and Plato. Those who, with a camel, a well, a 30-centimeter stick, were able to measure—with only a 4% error—the size of the Earth.
Then after the great masters are the great teachers, like Victor Hugo, who teach you everything about everything. I am crazy about our evolution. I watch it, I analyze it, I scrutinize it, I try to predict it, I try to understand it. It is the fertile soil on which I work, as creation is obviously something based on evolution.