Starck Raving Mad

The iconoclastic guru of design Philippe Starck, took the design world by storm last week by announcing “Design is Dead” in an article in the German newspaper Die Zeit. He even went so far as to apologize for the waste his career has caused. “I was a producer of materiality and I am ashamed of this fact. Everything I designed was unnecessary. I will definitely give up in two years’ time. I want to do something else, but I don’t know what yet. I want to find a new way of expressing myself …design is a dreadful form of expression…. In future there will be no more designers.”

WooHoo! The poor man is clearly having a mid-life meltdown! He went on to say, the only objects that he still felt “attached” to, were “a pillow perhaps and a good mattress.” The only thing we really need, he added, was the ability to love“. His comments have caused an uproar in circles who know who Philippe Starck is. For those of you who don’t, I applaud you. It means that you live a life disinterested in the material world.

felix.jpgStarck, is arguably the most famous designer in the world today. He has put his singular stamp on everything from mass produced consumer goods including toilet seats and toothbrushes, to furniture and spectacularly luxuriant interiors, including the residence of one time French President Francoise Mitterrand, The Felix at the Peninsular Hotel in Hong Kong and Le Lan a hot new restaurant in Beijing. Together with partner, Ian Schrager, they revolutionized the hotel industry with the introduction of hip, design oriented boutique hotels such as the Royalton in N.Y.  Starck has celebrity status in a celebrity infatuated world.

louis-ghost-chair.jpgI myself am the proud owner of 8 Philippe Starck, “Louis Ghost” clear acrylic dining chairs. I’m sure there are many who come into my home and wonder why I have “plastic pic-nic” chairs around my dining table!

There is obviously some deeper soul-searching going on with the King of Cool.  For “clarification” I went back to his TED talk of 2007. It was an entertaining rant but also highly illuminating.

He began his talk “In life, I think my job is absolutely useless. I mean, I feel useless. Now, after all the other (speakers), I feel like shit… I don’t know why I am here, but – you know the nightmare – like you are an impostor, you arrive at the opera, and, you must sing!”

He went on to “sing” about different types of design, “cynical” design – design to make things sell, “narcissistic” design – design to impress other designers and “after there is people like me, who try to deserve to exist, and who are ashamed to make this useless job, who try to do it in another way, and they try, I try, to not make the object for the object but for the result, for the profit for the human being.”

Starck points out that designing beautiful objects, luxurious objects has not “civilized” the world. “When barbaria is back, forget the beautiful chairs, forget the beautiful hotel, forget design, even, I’m sorry to say, forget art. Forget all that. There is priority, there is urgence. You must go back to politics, you must go back to radicalization, I’m sorry if that’s not very English, you must go back to fight, to battle.” So it’s time to change our focus from designing beautiful objects to the bigger issues that we collectively face.

I went back even further to an interview Starck gave in 2005.On the value of beauty? – “We have to replace beauty, which is a cultural concept, with goodness, which is a humanist concept.” Advice for the young? “Make a useful job”. Fear for the future? The loss of civilization”. It would seem he has been singing the same tune for some time now.

The criticism of his latest round of self-flagellation has been fast and furious. His detractors refer to his hypocrisy, his rock star arrogance. Some call him an appalling designer whose career is based on a cult of personality, that he is right; his designs have never helped anyone. They refer to the “cocktail party, luxury silliness” of Starck-branded objects. Some point to the millions he has already made as a designer. Their brushes paint a picture of a shallow, ego-centric, attention-seeking nit-wit.

I see an “imagineer” with a spectacular opportunity ahead of him. He is perfectly situated to “elp” humanity if he truly wants to – he has the ears of the world’s movers and shakers, he has the financial means and a brilliant gift – and he doesn’t have to move very far from his chosen profession.

I have traveled in third world countries, admired the quality of handcraft techniques handed down from generation to generation but often regretted there was nothing to buy other than touristy kitsch. The market for third world “handicrafts” remain small because villagers do not have the ability to interpret the tastes of the larger market in the west.  I have often wondered how a clever western designer could help local populations by showing them how to adapt their traditional crafts and techniques to make objects more desirable for “first world” markets.

jewel.jpgA perfect example is the work of celebrated Canadian jeweler, John Hardy who lives and works in Ubud, Bali. His designs, which utilize the traditional techniques of Balinese silversmiths, are sold for princely sums in luxury stores throughout the world in particular Neiman Marcus. His workshop In Bali now employs over 700 Balinese. Like Starck, Hardy is an extremely successful entrepreneur having built from scratch a $100 million-a-year design business and is the largest manufacturer of luxury goods in Bali. (

johncynth05.jpgIn 1998 I visited Bali and set out to try and find John Hardy’s studio in Ubud. My driver assured me he knew where it was. Turned out we landed on the doorstep of his stunning residence that was about to be photographed for Architectural Digest. He couldn’t have been more gracious and took me on a tour of the magnificent structure designed by the Malaysian architect Cheong Yew Kuan, situated in an idyllic three-acre, tropical paradise. After we discovered we had a mutual friend I was invited to “tea”, sitting cross-legged on a bamboo platform overlooking the Ayung River. WooHoo!

While designing luxury goods for the rich and famous and making a small fortune, Hardy has provided long-term employment for hundreds of Balinese, preserved and expanded ancient craft techniques, created a prototype of an environmentally sound “factory”, provides a daily meal of fresh organic food grown on his property for all 700 of his workers, has developed a scholarship program, brings in midwives to educate young mothers about breast feeding, provides better health care and is even starting yoga classes. Hardy, a passionate environmentalist and is pioneering the use of bamboo as an alternate building material.. He has founded a new company and school and is developing bamboo nurseries to provide bamboo timber for use in everything from furniture to complete buildings, from bamboo houses to bamboo spaces. Doesn’t sound “useless” to me. There are a lot of interesting videos of John Hardy’s work on YouTube.

So Philippe, pack up your mattress and pillow, even take your designer toothbrush if you have to and head for the third world where you could use your considerable gifts to conquer “babaria” and help make village industries viable and sustainable. Despite your detractors you still have an adoring public willing to buy into the cache of “Starckness”.For Starck the other half of man’s evolutionary tale has not yet been told. Perhaps the other half of his own evolutionary tale is yet to be told. In his Ted talk, he rightly points out that nobody is obliged to be a genius but everybody is obliged to participate. Starck is in a unique position to paticipate in a very meaningful way. I say to Philippe – “stop whining and get on with it!”

The idea to write about Starck was suggested to me by reader Nancy McKenzie “I can tell you why I emailed you about Philippe Stark.  Two years ago on January 1st, yes New Year’s Day, my house caught on fire.  In the 11 months it took to re-build, I didn’t miss any of my possessions.  In fact I was disappointed when everything came out of storage.  I just didn’t care about them any more.  I don’t mean this to sound smug, because I loved, loved, loved my house, and still do, iIt just made me think that they are just things.”Thanks Nancy

6 Responses

  1. Ruth Joes Says:

    Fabulous entry, Peg, kudos. I think that Starck’s comments reflect the occasional dark night of the soul of most creative careerists. In my opinion, the combination of post-seminal minimalism, man-made materials and factory-line production that he picked as his signature may have mentally boxed his muse into to a plexiglass corner. I love that you suggest that humanizing his means of production could provide the key to reviving his depressed and defeated view of design. So that, as Phillipe suggests, Art may speak to goodness as it speaks to beauty

  2. Colin Steley Says:

    Auntie Peg. Interesting to hear that such a prominent designer like Philippe Starck has reflected on his life’s work and said it was all a waste. I love your suggestion to be able to get people in less developed countries to work with western artists to bring markets together. This will all be done on a small scale. What about including more environmentally friendly deigns? I mean objects that use less resources to manufacture and use, and objects that use recycled or ‘waste’ products, or objects that have a great utilitarian purpose of high quality. The problem, of which there are many these days, is that objects have to be mass produced, to a certain degree, whether they are or not we should be conscious about where they come from, how they are made, and how much impact they have on communities and the environment. There does seem to be a global consciousness towards these ideas and concepts, that is why Philippe Starck has turned full circle on designers.
    Lets find solution, together.


  3. R. Massey Says:

    Starck’s conclusion about the point of his life’s work and his field resonates strongly for me. Long before he pumped objects into the world others were basing their work on the belief design had to follow function and now this is being coupled with the need for smaller footprints in all that we do.
    I am struggling with a need to justify the films I make and reconcile the slices of my soul that are carved off to support each one in a world with overflowing information and not enough time. Too many efforts feel like Starck’s superfluous works in retrospect, making it more and more difficult to muster the massive energy requisite for every future project.

  4. albarosa simonetti Says:

    Recently at Interior Design Show West I had the privilege of listening to Patty Johnson of North South Project; she is a canadian designer who puts together craft and mass production in her work.
    Intelligent design objects are produced in the Southern Hemisphere and sold in the Northern one.
    It made me think more about our responsibilities and gave me a different approach to the design world.
    Thanks Peg for bringing us new stimulating ideas every week.

  5. Jennifer Marshall Says:

    Mssr. Starck’s self admission to guilt is a brave step. As an architect I hope that the “starchitects” out there get the same virus. What is killing this planet is our first world addiction to consumption. Frivolous form making that has no bearing on need – divorced from function or meaning.

    We need to be doing much more with much less.

    The notion that beauty is a cultural construct (vanity) and goodness is human really strikes a cord as to the path we as creators might follow.

    Thanks Peg for the prod!


  6. Merran Morrison Says:

    I am a lover of good design and firmly believe that not enough people value the difference in both efficiency and basic aesthetics between a well designed object and a badly designed one. Look for example, at the design of telephones which have evolved over the past 70 years from something heavy and clunky in the 1940′s to an ergonomic masterpiece in the 1970′s. But time is no guarantee that a design will continue to evolve in the service of perfection – the definition of which includes serving the greatest good for the greatest number. What happened to phones was that designs got sillier – they fell out of your hand, challenged your eyesight, and became so technologically complex that you needed a manual to operate one. I still dont know how to operate our home phone properly. But dont get me started on moblile phones. (Where the hell did the word ‘cell” come from anyway??). My daughter reported today that many kids at her school here in Paris have commented on what a ‘bad’ mobile she has. Yet 18 months ago this model would have been regarded as top of the range. Newer, more expensive models continually competing to become the next teen accessory – the original core function of the design now less important than the multidude of superfluous added functions. What does it mean? Over designed, over consumed, immoral materialism! Need i go on.

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