Philippe Starck: 'I'd rather save lives than be a designer'

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The designer's latest project is a reinvention of the photo booth, but he says that to want to be a designer is "a stupid dream".


Philippe Starck has re-imagined many everyday objects in his decades as a designer. He reworked the toothbrush in 1989, creating a mini-sculpture that you could also brush your teeth with. He produced a juicer for Alessi, the Italian design company, in 1990, which evolved from a sketch of a squid and became so iconic it has been displayed in New York's Museum of Modern Art. Its primary purpose, according to Starck, was to “start conversations". He has now turned his hand to photo booths, in collaboration with the operating company Photo-Me. As with everything he designs, he has assessed the project and decided it is worthwhile.

“Photo booths make a picture of every important time of our life; your first bus card, your ID for school, your passport. After you get married - you take a picture." He explains in a slow, clear French accent. “The photo booth is very special because in the photo booth you are not in front of the camera of someone else. In front of someone else you will pull a face but behind the curtain, in the mirror, you are really you. There is no picture that is more you than that. So I want to give this object longevity."

The booths also fit well with Starck's philosophy of democratisation - all his designs should be affordable. “With all the economical problems we have, people will become very poor and for a lot of people it will become impossible to buy even the cheapest camera on the market but almost everyone will have a coin to put on the machine… and exist."

Existence is at the core of Starck's design philosophy. "We try to deserve to exist. If we can try to seriously help people it begins to interest me. I have a sadness that in my job we will never save life - that's the most important challenge today - people die for many reasons and I am impotent on front of that." He would never choose to be involved in design. “Absolutely not. No. I think that would be a stupid dream."

Designing is a compulsion for Starck. He says he would never have chosen to be a designer. “It's not normal to produce so many ideas like I do. It is non-stop. There's a relation with autism, I think, mild but there. As I get older the sickness grows. My father was a brilliant aircraft engineer and I was on a platform to make great rocket or something amazing and instead, sadly, I made a toothbrush."

He did not just make a toothbrush. He pioneered eco-design long before it became fashionable. He has created affordable but well made objects - available to the masses. His upcoming projects include an electric moped (“very affordable"), a hydrogen boat and prefabricated high-quality ecological houses costing just 1000 Euros per square metre. He works hard at deserving to exist.

The new booths - which will arrive in shopping centres from next Thursday, are much more modern than the old blue photo booths. The box itself is grey, with a screen on the outside which detects your face as you look at it and fits it into a passport or one of the booth's ‘fun' scenes - Warholesque prints and anime-style cartoons. The stool is wide and orange, with a pulsating light at its centre - like a heart. The stools in the old booths used to move up and down, now the camera adjusts to your height. It's sleek and modern and comfortable. Unfortunately the technology (not designed by Starck) failed when I tried to use it - six times. Hopefully the bugs will be fixed before they are rolled out across London this week. But technology is not the only problem for the booths, which are an easy target for vandals.

“You have an object that was designed in a civilised time and now you have to redesign in a barbarian time. Now you have to design everything to resist the wildest imagination. It is astonishing the energy and imagination people have to destroy."

Starck has encountered the problem before. Even if something is very beautiful, he says, people will still want to destroy it.

“Fifteen years ago, I redesigned the public toilets in Paris, it made me the president of the Japanese Association for the Amelioration of Public Toilets. I was proud. Before it was very dirty, everything was broken and I said to people, ‘you will see - if we do it well people will respect it.' We succeeded. Twenty years ago it was possible to design something pretty and people to respect it. Not now."

The new Photo-Me booths will be available in shopping centres in London from this week.

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