Starck naked: The King of Design bares his soul

He's made millions designing chairs, hotels, yachts – and even loo brushes. But Philippe Starck reckons he's been misunderstood all these years. Rob Sharp gets le lowdown

Monday 19 October 2009 00:00 BST

The lobby of the Sanderson Hotel, just off Oxford Street, is a vibrant relief from London's grey October sky. Sheer curtains shroud lamps illuminating a hotch-potch of furniture. There's a baroque chaise longue, a postmodern, winding bench, and a copy of Salvador Dali's red lips sofa greeting you as you walk through the door. It's not so much checking in, as being on the receiving end of a sloppy kiss.

And the man dishing out les bisoux today is Philippe Starck, who designed the Sanderson's interior in 2000 and is arguably the most famous designer dans le monde. He sprints into the lobby, the elegantly-garbed staff too cool to register his presence, even though the 60-year-old is sporting garish checked trousers, a futuristic nylon bomber jacket and signature stubble. He clearly wants to be recognised, and not just for his work, which he has reason to expect.

He made his name as an interior and product designer with his work on the Café Costes in Paris (1984), his Juicy Salif lemon squeezer for Alessi (1990) and his transparent Louis Ghost chair (2002). His subversive style, his outgoing personality and his increasingly ostentatious commissions made him the design world's biggest celebrity, so much so that he can now pick and choose his projects: the £200m super-yacht for Russian banking oligarch Andrey Melichenko which set sail last year, a New Mexico spaceport for Richard Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic, and Design for Life, the reality show he is currently fronting on BBC2. In the series, 12 young designers compete to win an apprenticeship at Starck's Paris headquarters. He is in London to promote his new clothing line, which launched earlier this month at Harrods.

Starck walks into the hotel's billiard room, its silver-leafed table barely lit through a stained-glass window. He is accompanied by his elegant fourth wife, Jasmine, director of communications for his firm, the Philippe Starck Network, and both seem rushed, almost panicked. The reality show is what he is concerned about. "I hate it," he says, gesturing wildly. Jasmine is similarly upset, and throws her arms up in agreement.

At this point it should be noted that Starck has the kind of French accent that is manna from heaven for desperate impressionists. Some of the early reviews of Design for Life delighted in pointing out Starck's similarities to a character in the BBC comedy series 'Allo 'Allo. To be fair, he does say things like "it is a sheet" instead of "it is shit", and "piss and lurve" instead of "peace and love". GQ columnist Simon Mills once asked Starck why design was crucial to our everyday lives. He apparently replied: "The most important thing in life is a penis. Without a penis, a man cannot do anything ... " He meant "happiness". (For the purposes of this article, Starck's quotes are anglicised; though if it helps, feel free to imagine each ending with "haw hee haw hee haw".)

Starck continues his tirade against Twofour, Design for Life's production company. "Television producers have been contacting me for 40 years to make a show but I always refused because I was suspicious of what they were up to," he says. "Then, one day, an English television producer arrived. They were very nice and I thought maybe they were the right people to do this, at last. I wanted it to be a testimony, for it to be a masterclass in design. I am old now, I will die soon and I wanted it to be emotional and deep, for it to touch on everything from quantum mechanics to biology."

Regular viewers of the show, which goes out on Tuesdays at 9pm, know it is anything but deep; it is essentially a carbon copy of The Apprentice, but transferred to the design world. Since it began in early September, viewers have seen cute 24-year-old Ana-Maria Stewart Pasescu, a product design graduate and former branding company employee, pitted against cocky 22-year-old Londoner Nebil Avas (who already has his own product design firm) as they try to complete various design-related tasks. Each week, Starck chooses to "evict" a number of his "students", depending on their performance – sound familiar? Missions so far have included running around a supermarket trying to find examples of ecologically good and bad products, say, or those which epitomise the male or female genders (one bright spark picked up a condom and a tampon). Those chopped so far include Avas, for interpreting one of Starck's briefs a bit too literally (more likely for being very arrogant) and the former sign-fitter Robert Richardson, from Leicester, for "not being ambitious [om-bee-shoose] enough".

But while the programme sees the designer waving his arms around a lot and talking in soundbites about his philosophy (which he later defines as "creativity, vision, vision, vision, honest, subversion, poetry, humour"), it is hardly the 60-hour Philippe Starck special he was hoping for.

Starck was born in Paris in 1949. His father was an aeronautical engineer. "He was an inventor," says Starck. "It is clearly in the DNA of the family. We both have the kind of job where in order to feed your family you must use your brain." His mother was a painter. He attended Paris's École Nissim de Camondo, a private product design school, between 1965 and 1967. Then, aged 19, came his inaugural venture: establishing his first company, making inflatable objects. He went on to design nightclub interiors, but his big break was in 1982: President Mitterrand asked him to redesign the private apartments of the Elysée Palace (the French president's official private residence). He followed it two years later with the Café Costes, the Royalton and Paramount hotels in New York, the Delano in Miami and the Mondrian in Los Angeles. And his fame just kept on growing.

During the Eighties and Nineties, Starck was prolific; his products defined by somewhat sensual, curvaceous forms. He designed loo brushes that looked like swords (Excalibur, 1993) and freestanding fly swatters (Dr Skud, 1998). He co-founded the design and development company YOO in 1999 with property mogul John Hitchcox, producing luxury apartments in Dallas, on Wall St and in Panama City.

Earlier this year he launched interiors for trendy Parisian restaurant Le Paradis du Fruit and Hollywood recording studio East West; this month alone, a line of kitchens with German kitchen firm Warendorf and a computer hard drive for LaCie have gone on the market. He claims to work on more than 200 projects at once, and to hate his days off. "Why not?" he asks. "My worst day is what we do today, which is interviews with the press. We have just arrived from one of our houses in the middle of nowhere [he travels between his 19 houses, including those in Burano, Italy, Paris, London and New York, in his private jet]. We had no electricity, no water, and Jasmine and I spent two months alone, naked, with no guests, working seven hours a day; it is a drug. I need to switch after a day of interviews, that much is true."

Starck has never believed that lack of experience in a field is a reason not to try it. Take his fashion range – designed in conjunction with Italian clothing firm Ballantyne – which today Jasmine is modelling. Starck describes how the hooded dress, a prototype, is a kind of all-in-one, stretched-fabric number; he says it is multipurpose. It's made of a specially-treated form of cashmere which renders it waterproof and intensely durable. Starck hopes, somewhat wistfully, that it will be handed down from generation to generation; it encompasses the philosophy he brings to all his design; a simple use of materials, an ability to mutate from one thing to another, what Starck terms the "elegance of intelligence". But while Jasmine looks elegant, it is hard to imagine who would wear it, not to mention have the kind of lifestyle where you would flit incessantly between coffee mornings and the back of a motorcycle (apparently the hood is there to protect your hairdo).

Indeed, while there is no doubting his talent in some areas, Starck has plenty of critics. Those who don't find his work garish ("The kettle he did for Alessi for me looked like something out of an Asterix comic book and burned people's hands, and I thought that was unforgiveable," says Dick Powell, founder of design consultancy Seymourpowell in Design for Life) – or useless ("The lobster-shaped lemon squeezer actually sprays lemon juice into your face," says design critic Alice Rawsthorn, also in the programme) think he is no longer the sole standard bearer for his art. "Back in the 1980s, design was all about styling, luxury, an elite proposition far removed from everyday life," says Wallpaper*'s design and arts editor, Henrietta Thompson. "It's amazing how much things have changed. You can't pick up a Sunday supplement without reading about design, and there are so many more design celebrities. Just look at Karim Rashid [born in Cairo to Egyptian and English parents, he has had over 2,500 products put into production], who seems just to be wearing pink this year, to Zaha Hadid, whose every product is recognisably Z-shaped." Then there is Jonathan Ive, who designed Apple's phenomenally successful iPod and iPhone, British designer Tom Dixon, and Yves Behar, who has created $100 laptops for developing countries; Thompson terms these people "quiet heroes", something Starck palpably eschews.

"Starck is a leader who naturally recognises this shift," she continues. "But people take a long time to change their perceptions of celebrity and still associate him with a space-ship lemon squeezer he designed 20 years ago." In the flesh, the overwhelming feeling you get from Starck is that he is conscious of his position as the class clown (worryingly for him, halfway through Design for Life's run he is filmed wearing a red nose).

He is almost desperate, both to be taken seriously, and to find meaning in what he does. He guest-edited the October issue of Wallpaper*, but in his editorial he intimated that he regretted becoming a designer and turned over several pages of editorial to the work of various pre-eminent scientists. He is quick to defend his designs for the ludicrously rich, pointing out the range of cheaper products (including children's scooter and potties) that he worked up in 2002 for US retailer Target, or the Mama Shelter, his boutique hotel in central Paris with room rates that start at £70. He says he won't work for dirty money: with firms specialising in weapons, tobacco, religion, gambling or oil. But somehow it doesn't wash.

"I regret to not be more useful," he explains. "I am at the end of my life. I see that finally. I am on the inside of the bubble of my job. And although I do it very well, it is a ridiculous bubble. Who cares about design. Especially now, we have so many urgencies and priorities, challenges, ecological, economical, it is astonishing. The weapon of design is not enough of a weapon. We need to invent a better weapon."

As Jasmine tells Starck that his taxi is waiting outside, he also, bizarrely, claims to have found higher meaning. "I am sort of religious, strangely," he continues. "Deeply, structurally, I am communist. I have a duty to share my ideas with as many people as possible. Communism didn't work in the 20th century because it was perverted by bad people. That gave a lot of space to capitalism which is a huge mistake. I am sorry, I cannot be selfish."

However, it is somewhat hard to see how such loftiness fits with Starck's image. As the interview concludes, and shortly before his photoshoot, Starck pulls on his trademark flat cap and leather gloves, which he has brought along especially for the camera. Those wandering into the Sanderson are greeted with the sight of Jasmine nervously applying foundation to her husband's face from her compact, while furiously trying to check messages on her iPhone. He doesn't break his pose to say goodbye, so anxious is he to please the photographer. As he leaves, perennially rushing, it all seems at odds with his mantra. Not exactly "piss and lurve".

Design directory: Starck's greatest creations

Juicy Salif lemon squeezer for Alessi, 1990

Easily his most famous design, Vicky Richardson, the editor of "Blueprint" magazine, calls this the best example of Starck's fusion of the functional and emotional within everyday objects. "It resembles a space rocket taking off from the kitchen worktop, and is a piece people own to display, rather than just use." Enjoli Liston

Alain Mikli Starck Eyes 1996

The collaboration between spectacle manufacturer Alain Mikli and Starck saw the creation of a new kind of hinge which makes glasses sturdier and less prome to snapping. Instead of the traditional screw hinge, the range features a "biomecanical articulation" designed like a human shoulder. Capable of being twisted without breaking, the mechanism can handle up to 187lb of resistance.

Eurostar, 2002

Inspired by the bygone times when rail travel was romantic, Starck revamped everything from the trains to the ticket offices. He famously derided those who travel in casual clothes like "purple jogging bottoms, green fluorescent sweaters and orange Nike trainers" – but no dress code was imposed.

Parrot Zukmi speakers, 2008

Starck's take on the iPod dock is characteristically unusual – rather than keeping the design compact, these speakers stand 2.5ft tall – and expensive, with a price tag of £1,200. According to their creator, "they feature the most extreme and formidable technology with the fewest possible materials to deliver maximum effect: that is the magic".

Louis Ghost chair for Kartell 2003

These colourful transparent armchairs invoke the style of Louis XV only to combine it with polycarbonate plastic, creating a striking blend of the elite and ordinary. More than 200,000 are sold every year, and there are numerous variations including a Barbie model.

Mixer, Axor for Hansgrohe 1994

Starck is famously cheeky in much and the Axor taps are inspired by tools often used in the bathroom – male genitalia. That'll make you look twice when you wash your hands.

Café Costes, Paris 1984

Already an experienced nightclub designer, Starck's vision of Café Costa gave rise to some of the most iconic pieces of the 1980s. One of the most well-known modern establishments in Paris, everything from the angled pastel blue staircase to the tableware attracted international acclaim.

Toothbrush 1989

In 2001, Starck described this piece of democratic design as: "A small sculpture. So, for two dollars, you have something in your bathroom that becomes something else. Because of this small, humble micro-sculpture, your bathroom becomes [a] small, humble micro-museum ... "

"Design for Life" concludes tonight at 9pm on BBC2

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