Philippe Starck in conversation with Maurice Lévy: ‘Design chose me – it is a small scale version of what I should have done’

His products punctuate the everyday lives of many, from plastic furniture to his iconic lemon squeezer. But what goes on inside the mind of Philippe Starck? He meets Maurice Lévy to talk design inspiration and evolution.

Maurice Lévy: You are one of the most famous designers in the world. What was it that made you choose design as a career?

Philippe Starck: Cowardice. My father was a top aeronautical engineer and designer. The planes he designed were really beautiful – the Ferraris of the air between the wars. Later, everything, including the factories, was wiped out by the war. I grew up in an atmosphere where my father had the idea to make a plane fly and the engineering expertise to make sure that it did not crash. So I was set to go into the aeronautical industry, which is a great career – scientific and empirical – and corresponds with a deep and human dream.

I was brought up with the habit of creating things, technical things – the gift of inventing, you could say. Through lack of confidence in myself, through cowardice, because I did not get on at school, an organisation that I did not understand – and still don’t – I never achieved the necessary studies to think of a high level career. So I came from a high-level platform and I did less than my father, but still, I have done the best I could.

ML: I don't for a minute believe in your cowardice...

PS: It’s true…

ML: …But rather that school was not a place where you flourished.

PS: You know, at school I didn’t understand anything – nothing at all. I didn’t understand the system or anything they said to me. As soon as I could walk, I ran away from school. First in the streets, then in the woods, particularly the little woods in the west of Paris in the Parc de St Cloud until I was 18.

The result is that today I have completely re-educated myself, but I have big gaps in my education. I don’t know my alphabet or the months of the year – I always have to start at January and I can’t do multiplication and division. On the other hand, I know how to build rockets, planes and motorbikes.

ML: I believe you.

PS: Design chose me. It is a small-scale version of what I should have done.

ML: You have always wanted design to have meaning. How do you define ‘meaning’ today, given the changes in the world of design?

PS: Since we first existed on the surface of the earth 4.2bn years ago, as amides, fish, frogs, and super-monkeys – which is what we are today – broadly speaking we exist for one thing only, and that is our evolution. We are the only known species that has taken control of the quality and speed of its own evolutionary path. And this path is clearly positive – without it we would all be dead.

So if you focus on one tiny point, on the question of design, you see that 20 or 30 years ago, when design first became well known, we were in an upward cycle. There was a moment in time that was quite peaceful, a moment when there was a degree of harmony – what you might call a ‘deluxe’ moment. It is at a moment like this, when there is a breathing space for civilisation, that you can interest yourself in things that are relatively useless, like design.

You can waste a few minutes, a few Euros, a few kilojoules, to talk about the significance of a table or a chair – there is nothing wrong with that. Except that since then, we have fallen dramatically to the bottom of the cycle. The darkness has to some extent returned. Barbarism has partially returned and the circumstances are not at all the same. What was an agreeable luxury yesterday becomes something that is totally useless, if not obscene, if indulged in as before.

Today, the problem is that it is no longer a question of improving life; it is a question of saving life. So, to answer your question, we go from the useless to the useful, from the aesthetical to the political.

ML: That’s fascinating. It’s the first time I’ve heard something that takes us back to Darwin, that positions design in that way. I did not expect to hear that we have arrived at a blockage. I thought, on the contrary, that we were at a point of take off. When you look at all the gadgets, watches and mobile phones, it seems more like a renewal of design. Whereas, if I understand you rightly, you are wondering about its relevance.

PS: Absolutely. But don’t forget that hi-tech production has little connection with design. All ‘intelligent’ products want to use as little material as possible. This is the opposite of design. The design of hi-tech objects is in the hands of engineers working towards miniaturisation and dematerialisation. A telephone is a screen. In reality the design is graphic – it’s the software. It’s not a designer, but a graphic designer, who designs the software. These sorts of dematerialised products are outside the scope of the designer.

ML: So tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we don’t know when, a mobile phone will be the grafting of some microchips into the body.

PS: Absolutely. It is already happening. More than 40 years ago I described what the bionics of today would be like. At the time I was accused of being Frankenstein.

ML: What is the significance of a brand for you today?

PS: The excessive use of brands is a denial of personal values and there is not a lot you can do about that. The positive side of the brand is recognition. It is a sort of flag, a symbol, an armband, which enables people to save time in recognising the cultural and emotional tribe to which they belong.

There are far too many products, so you need filters. Brands are filters. If I want to buy a car, a telephone or clothes, the messages given out by brands make me think that I belong to this cultural and sentimental tribe. A brand is a filter that enables quicker choices and, above all, perhaps avoids mistaken purchases.

ML: So on that level we are doing the same job?

PS: Yes that’s right. It’s about tribal recognition, which is essentially semantics.

ML: Which brands would you passionately like to work on?

PS: I do not have much desire or ambition. There are two brands that interest me quite a bit, Communism and Christianity, because they were launched in a way that was extremely intelligent and both had values that were far from foolish. They were also, by the way, quite similar because they were both based on sharing. They have both gone bankrupt as a result of bad management and it’s a pity. They are two brands to take in hand and sort out. You know, the hammer and sickle, which is often shown as gold on a red background, would make a very fine logo for a luxury brand.

ML: Can design improve people’s lives?

PS: Design should contribute to people’s lives if the designers remember that they are meant to provide a service, in every way possible. If we go back to the origin of any trade or skill and of design, every person who has the privilege of producing propositions or ideas around a project has to keep in mind that they are there to help, like a servant or office cleaner, to provide the most appropriate assistance.

To do this you have to be extremely open minded in the way you respond because the responses are as varied as the questions.

If someone comes to a designer and says they are cold, the traditional designer will design a radiator. And because it will be terrific, everybody will exclaim ‘what a beautiful radiator, it’s amazing’ and it will be in all the newspapers. But has the designer really answered the question? Ought he not reply to the client ‘are you suffering from internal or external cold?’ Is it his soul that is cold or is it the coldness of the climate? And if it is a coldness of the soul, which is often the case, all that has to be done is to give the client a hug and warm him or her with love. That is the right way to go because it has answered the client’s needs, has not used up any materials and it is strictly to the point – that is design.

ML: You work in areas not normally associated with design like hotels, where you cover more than just interiors. Is it because of this feeling of the end of an era for design?

PS: It’s a great place to experiment. If, for example, you in communications say this idea is good, bad, better or terrific, it remains just the spoken word. But we know that the spoken word lies all the time. A hotel enables the creation of a sort of immersion testing chamber where you can set up all sorts of experiments. There is no need to say what you are doing. People live it, or they don’t. They experience it and don’t like it, or they do. So it is a terrific laboratory.

To put it another way, when I create an object, however good it is, it is always on the outside of a person. When I create a hotel, people go inside it – there is a container/contained outside/inside aspect, which is quite different.

ML: Is there a particular designer, artist or painter that especially inspired you other than your father?

PS: Obviously Leonardo da Vinci, who is the great designer, but greater than him there was Eratosthenes, who in 205BC measured the circumference of the world with only a two per cent error using a camel, a well and a wooden stick 30 centimetres long. That is what design is. That is genius. People like that are the great role models. After that it’s just fiddling about, following in the footsteps.

ML:For someone who has gaps in his education you seem to manage alright. Is there any object that you would particularly like to have created?

PS: What object would I have liked to have made? Nothing, because the beauty of my work is the dream. That is what I do all day. Over 40 years, I have created around me the perfect system that I wanted – a glass ball – which has set me up as a pure spirit who lays eggs. I lay eggs all day. This is what I do: I dream and I lay eggs. There is no relationship with the real world, no connection with materials, no connection with anything. I live all the time in this crystal ball and that is the beauty of it, just being a spirit.

When the project becomes an object, it’s always nice to see one’s dreams becoming reality, but I am always ashamed and touched by the vulgarity of it, because matter is intrinsically vulgar. Matter is there to die, to wear out, it is there to smell, it is there to pollute, so every transformation into matter is a transformation into vulgarity. All work that is made with the mind offers infinite possibilities, and if you work well it can only get better and raise you and, if you are good enough, raise others as well.

Translation by Robert Harneis

Portraits of Starck by James Bort

This interview was first published in The Drum's Cannes issue, guest edited by Maurice Lévy.

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