There aren't many designers or artists whose work is displayed in museums whilst they're still alive, but Philippe Starck's designs can be found in galleries and museums across the world from The Musée National d'Art Modern in Paris, to MOMA in New York and the Design Museum in London. The range of his work is equally impressive as it crosses specialisms that usually occupy a designer for life; he's worked on interiors, architecture, product, packaging and furniture including household products such as his iconic juicer, many classic chairs and even Steve Job's yacht.
I've had the real pleasure of staying in one of his hotels, The Sanderson, which was converted from Sanderson Wallpaper's very dated 60's office block into an ultra-modern and, at one time, the ultimate chic place to stay in London. It's a reflection of Starck's highly creative and slightly bonkers mind featuring random statement pieces of furniture in reception, a huge long bar with stools all backed with eye-balls that stare at you, and dark lifts that feature a backlit universe so it feels like you're traveling through space when you press the 'up' button. The journey continues in your room (assuming you can find it as the corridors are also quite dark with the room numbers set in small panels into the floor) there's usually an eclectic mix of furniture, gilt framed paintings bolted to the ceiling above your bed and then the challenge of getting into the bathroom. You can see it, on the other side of floor to ceiling plate glass, but it's behind swathes of white chiffon which you have to swish about to find the opening. Obviously there's not much privacy as everything's plate glass, and then there's a table set at a jaunty angle on which stands a bowl style basin. This is mirrored by an offset hanging lamp which is not quite offset enough to avoid banging your forehead on with a loud 'ding'. You can almost hear his bellowing laughter when you do.
With his strong French accent - he sounds a bit like an 'Allo Allo' parody - Starck is also famously opinionated, in fact he was the first designer to give a TED talk. I recall a TV series 'Design for Life', based on a format like 'Bake Off', in which he always arrived on a Vespa with his muse hanging on the back. He set various tasks for some young designers and then critiqued the work before dismissing one a week to end up with a winner. I remember one of these designers presenting a piece of work and explaining his thinking to Starck who spent a long time contemplating the work and rubbing his chin deep in thought. Finally the great man spoke in his deep French accent: "It eeez...'ow you say... sheet." I don't think we saw the designer again, in fact I can't imagine he or she ever picked up a pencil again.
So when Starck speaks it's always worth listening and a recent interview with Philippe Branche for Forbes magazine caught my eye, specifically his reply when asked how does he see the future of design?
"I don't see one. Everything comes to life, lives and dies. The design does not deviate from this universal scheme. The modern design was created in the 1950s, with Loewy, and will end in twenty years. To give a simple definition, I would say that design is primarily a cosmetic DIY. And I believe that it will disappear because of a growing dematerialization of our way of life. Less matter simply means fewer objects to embellish. Design, whose primary purpose is to make the surrounding objects pleasant, should disappear within 20 years."
His reasoning centred on Ai: "Artificial intelligence will be everywhere. It is also the only tool that will restore the world. The earth is like a mad boat burning on one side and sinking on the other. It seems that AI is necessary to save our humanity. Regarding its impact on the design world, I already used AI in cooperation with Autodesk to design a chair. The issue was answering one simple question: How to help my body rest with a minimum of material and energy? For two and a half years, the AI did deep learning. The conceptualization of an object as simple as a chair is paradoxically very complicated. But finally, artificial intelligence managed to produce a more efficient chair than me, using less materials and giving me with more energy. In any human production, there is more good than bad, and I totally believe in the positive role of science."
In terms of the production process it is possible to accept that computers have helped optimise this product from an efficiency and performance perspective. However, as a creative thinker by nature it's hard to accept that machine learning can make those leaps of imagination and lateral thought that bring those 'light bulb' moments as they are often, by nature, counter intuitive or influenced by other factors.
Starck goes onto recognise this: "The future of design is not just about using new technologies. It also relies on new places of creation and original sources of inspiration. I recently became interested in the future of the future, namely space. I worked on the next international space station in collaboration with Axiom, which among others may succeed NASA for the development of space tourism. I can say with some pride that the commander of the space station with whom I worked explained to me that I had intuitively found many solutions to long-standing problems. Even if traditional design will change profoundly in the years to come, I still have numerous projects to realise."
Apparently he works on a mind-boggling 200 projects a year on average, although this must be through his studio and involve a team to deliver. Branche's interview finished by asking what of his current project's was most significant?
"Today, I am passionate about my perfume collection Starck Paris. I am a professional dreamer. With a drop, a milligram of perfumed liquid, one can create an ephemeral universe, a passing dream. For a time, a woman can be wrapped in a real crystal ball, which will protect her or give her more confidence. It’s something extraordinary. But I’m trying to create a better society for my friends, my family and my community."
Predictably the designs are instinctively beautiful, but it's interesting, given that he also designs spaces to live in, products that perform a practical function and even space stations, that he chose something that's emotive, evocative, a luxury and arguably superfluous. I wonder how Ai will compute those factors?
Read the full interview: https://www.forbes.com/sites/philippebranche/2019/11/04/philippe-starck-design-is-going-to-disappear/#265c1c916ae3