April 1, 2006
Remembering the Philippe Starck of 1984
His prodigious talent, outsize personality, and unparalleled ability to generate press revolutionized design.
Consider the emptiness in the world had there never been a Philippe Starck. Not just the extra counter space where all the Juicy Salifs have gone missing or the free spot in your garage where his Aprilia motorcycle should be parked. Consider not only the starving aisles in Target—where his Starck Reality collection includes everything from baby monitors to tape dispensers—but the vacant fun-spot interiors in cities from Tokyo to Los Angeles to Paris. Consider the boring hotels you would have been frequenting all these years had Starck and Ian Schrager not teamed up to renovate a pair in New York and their many eventual siblings with a sense of whimsy and an eye on the wallets of a new young, urbane clientele. Consider, finally, the thousands of empty magazine pages you would have had to flip past since the early 1980s, when Starck exploded onto the scene (with the help of his late wife, Brigitte Laurent), changing the design world forever.
Indeed, had the eccentric Frenchman slept through 1983 dreaming of aliens and Philip K. Dick (his favorite author) instead of securing the commission to design a private apartment for Francois Mitterand’s wife, had he never created an iconic Po-Mo interior for a Paris cafe a year later, had he never leveraged that success into a commercial dynamo that has built-out hundreds of spaces and brought to market thousands of products, sober and insane, the world would not only have missed an essential design transformation—Starck can count the new regard for fantasy, the importance of a palpable subconscious, as part of his legacy—but we would also have had to wait for another outsize personality to teach the press how to applaud en masse and the public to sit up, take notice, and buy, buy, buy. Emerging not only as a new talent but also a new type of accessible designer, Starck’s creative life—from the sensation of Café Costes in 1984 to his recent spate of condominium developments—has always been inseparable from his media juggernaut.
As a designer, Starck’s aims were always transformative. His earliest spaces—invariably devoted to nightlife—sought to bully inhabitants into a kind of noir luxury, the whole effect of the furnishings and elaborate son et lumière conspiring to bring to interior design a secretive yet overtly louche manner of luxury that it had not indulged in concertedly since the 1920s. To visit the Royalton Hotel when it was fresh was to enter a Freudian nightmare of bulbous lights and lounges, a stage set flush with opportunities for romance and betrayal. At the same time, objects like his ubiquitous juicer or his many chairs for Vitra and Kartell introduced that vibe into the home: absurdly playful, sometimes simply absurd.
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Later, around the time of the great design boom in the mid-1990s—an evolution that Starck participated in as an elder statesman, not an instigator—the designer had moved on to grand dreams of societal transformation through design. His enormous “Good Goods” campaign with the French catalog merchant La Redoute sought to market hundreds of “nonproducts” to the new galaxy of “nonconsumers” that Starck believed would embrace his ear swabs, bicycles, linens, clothes, and organic champagne. He could never quite explain what either of those “non” categories meant, though in his mind they were related to a concurrent dream of disembodied instrumentality: products like his idea for a subcutaneous wristwatch, which would simply disappear when not in use. Having flooded the world with his sig-nature amoebic forms, the retreat-loving and staunchly environmentalist designer was perhaps showing a little regret.
Appearing just prior to the millennium, such products were evidence of a kind of personal Y2K crisis chez Starck, marking a moment of high ambition and higher insanity from a designer well known for both. In an infamous appearance at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in 1998, Starck memorably traced his evolution from a time when he was a bacterium through stages as a fish and a frog to his final stage as a man—“Me, I am a hunter. I hunt whales. T. Rex. Enormous monsters and things like that”—all the while struggling, as he put it, to make a suitable box to protect his wife’s “caviar.”
That outburst and similar antics were not evidence of a literal insanity, which good taste and empathy would put beyond critical use, but were a kind of faux breakdown, an effort to reclaim some of the bad-boy street cred that his success—and that of the designers he inspired—had helped to sap from his image. In the years that followed, this new self-consciously Starckian Starck began to seem outmoded, not only through overfamiliarity —that curse with which all stars (except perhaps Madonna) must contend—but through the very real abuse of his talents. The “Good Goods” campaign, born with such millennial fervor and grand dreams, gave way in the United States to his opportunistic line for Target, full of decent products but no different, apart from details of styling, than similar efforts by Michael Graves or Martha Stewart, for Kmart. And the movement Starck launched in his hotels—the victory of that heavy-handed spatial imperative you will enjoy yourself now, darkly—is currently being eroded in self-parodic Starckesque developer condos in Manhattan and Miami. In his plans for a spaceport for Richard Branson in New Mexico, the old dreamer has approached his oldest dream—science fiction—with little of his old gusto. To see how far the great man has fallen, try this test: Is there anyone today more fascinated by Starck than, say, Karim Rashid, himself a few years out of mode?
For Starck the party may be over at last. But the impact of his work, so huge and irreproducible, will live on. There had been star designers before Starck happened—past tense: we are living in a post-Philippe world—but he was the first of the globe-striding rock star designers: working the press, nurturing the myth, and bringing his products to the people. Others, of course, too numerous to name, have since followed his lead, transforming the world of design (which is to say the world itself) in a protracted revolutionary moment that is now in its third decade. They have in their hands the creator’s legacy; if they fail, Starck does too.