The Role of Art & Design in Humanity’s Story.

In these exclusive interviews, we talk to two Philippe Starck and Olafur Eliasson, two of the world’s most prominent artists, designers and innovators. We explore the very fundamentals of why we design, why we make art and explore the relationship of art and design to our culture, economy, society and experience of the world.

In their book entitled “Philosophies of Art & Beauty“, Hugh Bredin and Liberato Santoro-Brienza ask us to, “Imagine a world without any animate life, apart from human beings: no birds or fish, no mammals, insects, no bees above the ground nor worms burrowing beneath it.  this strange and silent world would soon become even more silent, for the human race would in a short time come to a whimpering end in the midst of a universal desert.”

They continue this analogy asking us to imagine a world without art.  “Here we would have a different kind of desert, one without music, literature, cinema, theatre, painting, sculpture or architecture.  Everything even remotely artistic in character would disappear, anything whose ingenuity and skill might awaken in people the shock of the sensuous… None of our possessions would have anything about them of decoration or style.   there would be no pictures of any kind, nor any sort of visual patterns or structures… We can see at once that a species thus denuded of everything artistic in its culture would be, not just the human species deprived of its art, but a species that was no longer human.

As Bredin and Santoro-Brienza identify, “Our entire lives, even the poorest lives, are shot through with aesthetic judgements, even if we have never heard of the word ‘aesthetic’.  Every object, every action, every habit, every ritual that has emerged in the course of human history and culture has aspects of structure and content that are shaped and manipulated in ways that are characteristically artistic…. All artefacts are artistic to some degree, even a log of wood used as a garden seat.  When we choose a particular colour of paint for the kitchen, or a tie to go with a jacket, or a certain way of arranging furniture, these actions incorporate aesthetic judgements.  They aim to achieve a certain kind of ‘rightness’ which is neither utilitarian nor ethical, but which is a constant and inalienable feature of our everyday lives.  We are all, innately and necessarily, aesthetic animals.”

Given how deeply rooted this aesthetic is within or culture, it is unsurprising therefore that many of the ‘artefacts‘ we encounter in life (ranging from kitchen utensils, to tools, our cars, homes, workplaces, and so on) combine the ‘utilitarian‘ (their end purpose- for example a knife to cut) with the ‘aesthetic‘ (a knife need not be attractive to perform its function, but it often is).   We see this inextricable link mirrored through nature where one is faced with ‘artefacts’ such as the rose, which need not be beautiful to perform its primary function (reproduction) but almost universally is regarded as aesthetic.  Many would even argue that the beauty of many forms in nature (including the humble rose) do, in fact, create inefficiencies in their primary purpose- often inefficiencies which are not easily explained through our (as yet) elementary understanding of evolution and the story of nature.

As we observe these aesthetic patterns in nature, and within our own behaviours, we cannot help but ask the question, “Why do we design?“.

In these exclusive interviews, we talk to two Philippe Starck and Olafur Eliasson, two of the world’s most prominent artists, designers and innovators.  We explore the very fundamentals of why we design, why we make art and explore the relationship of art and design to our culture, economy, society and experience of the world.

[bios]“Subversive, ethical, ecological, political, humorous… this is how I see my duty as a designer.” – Philippe Starck

A career rich with 10,000 creations – completed or yet to come – global fame and tireless protean inventiveness should never overshadow the essential, Philippe Starck has a mission, a vision: that creation, whatever form it takes, must improve the lives of as many people as possible. Starck vehemently believes this poetic and political, rebellious and benevolent, pragmatic and subversive duty should be shared by everyone. He sums it up with the humour that’s set him apart from the very beginning: “No one has to be a genius, but everyone has to participate.

In the eyes of this accomplished citizen of the world, sharing his ethical and humanist vision of a more equal planet is a duty, if not a moral imperative, that results in unconventional projects, bearing fertile surprises. It’s easy to guess his course of action: an object must be useful before being beautiful.

His prophetic awareness of ecological implications, his deep understanding of contemporary mutations, his enthusiasm for imagining new lifestyles, his determination to change the world, his commitment to sustainable de-growth, his love of ideas, his concern with defending the intelligence of usefulness – and the usefulness of intelligence – have taken him from iconic creation to iconic creation… From everyday products like furniture and lemon squeezers to revolutionary mega-yachts, intensely vibrant, stimulating and phantasmagorical hotels and the miraculous technologies of individual wind turbines and the electric car, he never stops pushing the limits and criteria of contemporary design. It’s as a true visionary that he puts this art of innovation to the service of a design and democratic ecology, action-driven and respectful to both human and nature’s heritage, whether it’s with the Elise recycling bin or the Zartan, the first entirely recycled roto-moulded chair. The affordable and adjustable P.A.T.H. houses – high-tech pre-fab habitations – recently attested to the durability of an approach that he initiated in 1994 with the prefab house on sale in the 3 Suisses catalogue.

Heralding the phenomena of convergence and dematerialisation, Philippe Starck aims straight for the heart, highlighting the essential, extracting the structural minimum of every object, in order to offer creations and propositions closest to Man and Nature, best adapted to the future.

Just look at the mega-yacht A, symbol of minimalist elegance, or the Zik earphones for Parrot. He dreams of solutions so vital that he was the first French man to be invited to the TED conferences (Technology, Entertainment & Design) alongside renowned participants including Bill Clinton and Richard Branson.

Inventor, creator, architect, designer, artistic director, Philippe Starck is certainly all of the above, but more than anything he is an honest man directly descended from the Renaissance artists.

Olafur Eliasson’s art is driven by his interests in perception, movement, embodied experience, and feelings of self. Eliasson strives to make the concerns of art relevant to society at large. Art, for him, is a crucial means for turning thinking into doing in the world. Eliasson’s diverse works – in sculpture, painting, photography, film, and installations – have been exhibited widely throughout the world. Not limited to the confines of the museum and gallery, his practice engages the broader public sphere through architectural projects and interventions in civic space.

Eliasson was born in 1967. He grew up in Iceland and Denmark and studied, from 1989 to 1995, at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. In 1995, he moved to Berlin and founded Studio Olafur Eliasson, which today encompasses some ninety craftsmen, specialised technicians, architects, archivists, administrators, programmers, art historians, and cooks.

Since the mid-1990s, Eliasson has realised numerous major exhibitions and projects around the world. In 2003, Eliasson represented Denmark at the 50th Venice Biennale, with The blind pavilion, and, later that year, he installed The weather project in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, LondonTake your time: Olafur Eliasson, a survey exhibition organised by SFMOMA in 2007, travelled until 2010 to various venues, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Innen Stadt Aussen (Inner City Out), at Martin-Gropius-Bau in 2010, involved interventions across Berlin as well as in the museum. Similarly, in 2011, Seu corpo da obra (Your body of work) engaged with three institutions around São Paulo – SESC Pompeia, SESC Belenzinho, and Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo – and spread out into the city itself. In 2014, Riverbed filled an entire wing of Denmark’s Louisiana Museum of Modern Art with stones and water, emulating a river in a rocky landscape; later that year, Contact formed the inaugural exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris. Verklighetsmaskiner (Reality machines), at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 2015, became the museum’s most visited show by a living artist. In 2016 Eliasson created a series of interventions for the palace and gardens of Versailles, including an enormous artificial waterfall that cascaded into the Grand Canal.

Eliasson’s projects in public space include Green river, carried out in various cities between 1998 and 2001, and the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007, designed together with Kjetil Thorsen. The New York City Waterfalls, commissioned by Public Art Fund, were installed on Manhattan and Brooklyn shorelines during summer 2008. Ice Watch brought melting icebergs from Greenland to Copenhagen in 2014 and to Paris on the occasion of the COP21 Climate Conference in 2015. Your rainbow panorama, a 150-metre circular, coloured-glass walkway situated on top of ARoS Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, opened in 2011, and Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre, for which Eliasson created the facades in collaboration with Henning Larsen Architects was completed that same year.

As a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts, Eliasson led the Institut für Raumexperimente (Institute for Spatial Experiments; 2009–14), a five-year experimental programme in arts education located in the same building as his studio (

In 2012, Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen founded Little Sun. The social business and global project provides clean, affordable light to communities without access to electricity; encourages sustainable development through sales of the Little Sun solar-powered lamp, designed by Eliasson and Ottesen; and raises global awareness of the need for equal access to energy and light (

Eliasson and architect Sebastian Behmann founded Studio Other Spaces, an international office for art and architecture, in Berlin in 2014. As an architectural counterpart to Studio Olafur Eliasson, Studio Other Spaces focuses on interdisciplinary and experimental building projects and works in public space ([/bios]

Q: How did art come into your life?

[Olafur Eliasson] My father was an artist, and as a child I spent time in his studio; my grandparents also had their house filled with art – some of those paintings were done by family members.  They were not necessarily the greatest paintings, but they gave me confidence in the idea that art is actually something you make, it’s not necessarily just something you look at.

As a child, I spent a lot of time drawing because I was not very good at football; it was sort of my survival strategy.

I was encouraged (or at least not afraid of) doing abstract drawings… I would just do a lot of zig zags on paper and then fill in all the blank spots with colours. My parents and my school did not necessarily think that the drawings I did – which did not necessarily depict narratives – were any worse than the ones of a house and a car.  And in that sense, without necessarily thinking about it, I was learning that things that are highly abstract can still convey a narrative.

Q: Why do we design?

[Philippe Starck] For many reasons, depending on the time and the person.  First you must understand that design is just an application of the mental sickness called creativity.  It is exactly the same process whether you wish to make music, dance, or anything else.  Firstly, you create to have the feeling of existing.  For somebody like me, who had the fortune (and misfortune) to be born structurally in the era of Einstein’s relatively- for me, nothing exists- even me.  That means I have no feeling or conviction that the things I see exist.  For me, a table, a lamp, my wife, it’s the same combination of atoms and things like that, but made with a different architecture.  That may seem a little intellectual, but it really is not.  This is a real feeling- which means I have no consciousness of my life or death- I don’t know the limit- I don’t know if I live.  That’s why it’s sometimes very uncomfortable, and you can feel lost- especially when you are young. When you have this type of feeling, you become invisible for society- that means you don’t know if you exist- you are nowhere.  It’s more and more uncomfortable.  That’s why, if you don’t want to become crazier than I am, you try to find what can help you to survive- to not be a drone.  Finally, for somebody like me- the easiest way to do this was creativity- because I had that sickness.  It means first you create in order to have the feeling of existence and then to have the result, in our society, of being loved.   After that, when you become a little older, you start to have some ideas, visions, concept- and you wish to speak- and you have different ways to speak.  You can sing, you can write, you can design- and me, perhaps because my father designed his own planes and things like that- design became my tool.  Definitely I regret it was not the best tool to do what I want to do.  Even now, I have no big ambition, no big dreams, and perhaps this was not the right tool for meas design is a very weak tool.

When you start to express your ideas, after a time you realise that the final goal is to “try to deserve to exist“.  When your born, you sign a contract with your animal species, your civilisation, your society, your country, your village, your street, your friends, your family and yourself- and the purpose of your life is to stick to this contract, this ethic, which you have signed yourself up-to.

There are many ways for different people to deserve to exist.  For me, perhaps because I received very heavy religious education, it was evident- and still is now- that I must serve.  The question of my life is, “how can I serve?” and in a very humble way.  I regret today that I have not served more, but we will come back to that.  If I was not a creative person, I had strictly no problem to become a maid- to clean and make the beds of the people I love- because I love people.  Serving for me, is therefore enough.  Every level of society can help in many ways- nobody is obliged to be a genius- everybody is obliged to participate- everybody is obliged to serve and help.  That may sound a little ridiculous, but I would prefer to sound ridiculous than cynical.

Afterwards, though, I realised the only thing important was to participate to the “big image“.   The big image is our evolution- which is the most beautiful story- the most beautiful romantic poetry that I never heard or read.  How, one day, a creature (I don’t know what) was eating grass in a field, and suddenly looked at the sky and said, “I have an idea” and all his friends, eating grass, tell him “but what is an idea?” and he said to his friends, “I have no idea, but I shall find out“.  This was finally the answer of Einstein who said, when asked “what was your life?“- “I had intuition, and I spent my life to prove it.” – there is your beauty- why was there one animal somewhere, someday who decided to become intelligent.  Why did this guy, and his friends, make the crazy project of taking control of the speed and quality of their evolution?

Today, we are the only animal species we know of, who take control of the quality and speed of their evolution.  When I realised this, many years ago, I decided (because it looked evident) that there are two types of human action.  The useless- meaning the actions which are out of the frame, and don’t help evolution and the useful- which help evolution, and bring anything (even small things) together- consolidating and continuing this fantastic trip.  This is the backbone of my life, my spine.  This is why I continue- and why I am sad.  When I was younger, and it was time to go to school, I could not understand school, or society, and I was not able to learn- and I escaped to the woods- spending my youth, like I continue, hidden in the woods- and that means that I never received the level of education, perhaps, that I would need today to make something more interesting and useful than a toothbrush.  Today, it’s my biggest problem- because times are changing, which we will come back to, and we are now in a period of extreme urgency.  There has been the sudden, incredible, violent comeback of ‘barbaria‘.

I feel I have done my job well, but even if I feel I am the best at my job, I must realise that my job is nothing.  That means I have spent forty years of my life to make the best that I could, inside a useless bubble- during this interview, people are dying for a lot of reasons- and I have spent my energy, my life, my intelligence- for nothing which can avoid the deaths of these people- and that will only get worse and worse.  It is interesting to follow the “why” and “how” of life- but this is the beginning of the answer.

Q: What is the relationship between art and our structural reality?

[Olafur Eliasson] Art allows us to evaluate the way we see the world and what we see in the world.  Art and the cultural sector are actually spaces in which we challenge our ways of seeing the world… our perceptions of the world.

We often assume that the way we perceive the world is natural or non-relative, but the truth is, we can alter the way we see the world, and in doing so, we can increase our impact on the world… or, at the very least, we can give ourselves a sense of co-producing the world as we know it.  Art offers us an opportunity for inclusive ideas such as ‘well I actually can engage with my surroundings and I actually matter.  I have an impact’.

Q: Can art help us understand our life’s questions?

[Olafur Eliasson] Art can work in an everyday, informal way and does not necessarily have to be something high, deep or difficult to read.  It can be an everyday way of changing our lives, or of challenging our conceptions of our lives.

Art can also be profoundly deep, highly emotional, contemplative, spiritual and enlightening.  It can be so many different things, and we should be careful to always encourage people to understand that art is a kind of sublime moment.

Q: How does design relate to history and contemporary culture?

[Philippe Starck] We have to take care.  Design is- like everything today, ‘too trendy’. Before, there were fashion victims, now there are design victims, and people think a chair is more important than a human being.  We have to take care and remember that design is almost nothing.  I do think, though, a strong correlation between design and us, and society, and civilisation.  This is somewhat like a beautiful bad dream- which is very human.  It’s a very ‘human‘ thing, which means we can try to work to make a better world.  Everyone who has an opinion like that- thinks he can be good, can be useful- to make a better world.  If you start to have some powers, you can start to think about the best world.  Speaking about a better world is nice, normal, generous- but very fast, you start to think about the best world- and immediately it is a totalitarian state.  The frontier between a nice project to help people have a better life, which is what I try to do, and a totalitarian state- is very thin.  You are now sitting on the best-selling product in the whole history of design, “Louis Ghost“.  That means that everyone loves it! that means it is a good product! it is a perfect product when you look at price, comfort, everything.  It is very easy to tell me that everyone must have this chair, it is the best chair.

All these things, design, architecture, and other things- can become totalitarian.  That is why I am always very careful- and all my life I have always destroyed everything I have made.  I have always mixed everything to be sure that I give richness of choice for people, and never a final solution.

Q: How does art impact our embodied experience?

[Olafur Eliasson] In general, the media and news are driven by cognitive activities alone – reading, learning or thinking… using your head!

Art offers an opportunity to combine physical activity with thinking.  It’s a way of taking in the world driven by physical experience, but with enough space to think about it.  You could also say it’s a combination of data and action; it’s both thinking and doing.  And I think that is very important when we consider how to empower people to create change.

Knowing is not a bad thing, but knowledge alone does not have the same potential for creating change as embodied knowledge does.

I’m very interested in methods where we can take in knowledge (like data) while understanding the physical relationship between the brain and the body – learning with our bodies, not just our brains.

Q: What is the role of art as an intervention?

[Olafur Eliasson] Art is actually an opportunity that hosts spatial activity; obviously this also goes for a lot of other cultural areas, such as music, dance, and theatre, as well as architecture and design.

The spatial component of art is what allows us to develop a language with which we can negotiate reality.

In today’s world, we have a strong sense of disembodiment, especially through the Internet and social media (which I’m not against). This simultaneously means that everybody has access to knowledge.  So interestingly, we have an increase in awareness globally, but we somehow need to focus on how we can make this increased awareness into increased action.

The art and cultural sectors enjoy one thing that government and business do not – and that is trust.  Art, to a great extent, reflects people’s emotional needs.  The cultural sector, by nature of how it works in society, is about questioning ‘well, what does identity mean?’ ‘how do you feel?’.

A painting essentially reflects people’s fundamental emotional needs. This greater degree of civic trust in the cultural sector makes it a very strong agent for change with regards to making people turn thinking into doing.

Q: What is the relationship of design to our experience of the things we design?

[Philippe Starck] It depends on how you do it… There are a lot of different designs, and a lot of different designers!  You have the narcissists, who design for themselves- showing yourself, and other designers how good you are.  This can make beautiful products, but have no connection to real life- and are therefore useless.  On the other hand, you could be a venal designer.  The venal design was invented by the first designer of the world, Raymond Loewy who said, “ugliness makes a bad sale“.

When he said that- he killed design- and invented it- at the same time.  The reason? it meant that designers would only make beautiful products- so that people will like them more- sell them more- produce them more- and make more profit.  It is the exact contrary of what we need to day- we need less. We need just honesty, respect, and less!  You also have people like me, who are strangely very humble, and try to understand why we need at all, why we don’t need, and how we can show what is cynical, venal, and bad- and how we can show “the way“, maybe even the future.  I speak of democratic design- which means people should share ideas and products.

I speak on dematerialisation, which is also very important.  I speak on Bioism, which is vital, about sexuality- and many more topics which we have to consider with our ideas. That means- if you are a designer who likes ‘design‘ and who likes his products- you don’t do your job well- you are completely absurd.  If you, like me, as a designer, have no idea why you do this job- and try to be forgiven, and try to make the best possible by helping your friends and those you love- I think you can have influence, very small- but better than nothing.  That’s why we have to replace the design where we have to be at the right place, at the right time- with a new way of thinking.  This requires awareness of the final goal, which is not materiality, or product and we must always remember that the final goal is… us

Some people think design is just to make nice products.  Me? Before I take my pen- I take time.  Sometimes this can take forty years. First you have intuition, which brings vision, which builds an ethic, which will give birth to a concept, and finally, perhaps, which will make a product.  The product is at the absolute end of the process, and never in reverse.  That is why, perhaps, I make things which have a little more echo than others. 

Q: What is the impact of globalisation, climate change and technology on design?

[Philippe Starck] You can deal with everything in two ways…

Firstly, you can feel deeply impotent, powerless- and, like we’ve seen before, you could say my tool or my weapon, is not powerful to deal with the challenges we face today- and believe me, we have a lot of challenges.

Secondly, we can be more positive (like I am, although I live both positions) and understand that we think we are unlucky because we are the generation, in this accident, who will live through the end of occidental civilisation.  We know that everything has a birth, a life, and a death- and plants, cats, you, me, we shall die- civilisation is the same.

We have a lot of examples through history of this, Mayan, Egyptian, and so forth.  We know, it’s not a surprise, that all the energy of this world will move from our occident to Asia and South America.  It’s done- we were the masters of the world- we are no more in that position.  We can have a nervous breakdown, and get depressed- or we can say wow! fun! we have everything to re-invent! we shall be poor!.

Can you imagine? we were mainly fed-up of fat in our society- and we had a fantastic opportunity to become skinny, foolish, creative and a little lost.  We have, in front of us, an incredible wide new territory in which we can re-invent- and we have to invent.  This means- if we do nothing, if we stay depressed like old, fat European or occidental civilisation, we shall die, like the Aztecs, the Mayans, and never come back again.  If, instead, we ask “Ok, how can we invent our new aesthetic, our new style” what will be the style of our new poverty? what will be the rules of our next dignity? how will we re-invent our lives with completely new incomes.

If we take control of this very interesting and fun job, perhaps we shall come back in maybe twenty years- and we shall ride with new values, which will be so interesting for us- but so interesting for the new masters of the world- who will have the opportunity to make our cycle a lot faster, and who will be, in twenty years, in the position we are today- fat.  They will need us then, and we shall come back- not like masters of the world- we don’t need or want that- but as good, new, fresh, intelligent partners.  That’s why when I see people speaking and crying about crisis, I am sad for them, they are losers.  This crisis is just an extreme symptom of something which is a lot deeper, and a lot heavier.

The only thing I don’t understand is why politicians don’t speak about this? People in France, US, UK, everywhere- kill themselves in stupid small wars- almost civil wars- for stupidity! If Obama, Sarkozy, and all of them said, “it’s not your fault“, “it’s not the fault of your country- you don’t have to fight for the last year of your life for retirement- that’s not your fault- it’s just a regular civilisation cycle.” We have to be intelligent enough to see this cycle in front of us, clearly- and work on that.  I really wish more people would speak openly like this.

Today, everyone speaks of a sickness of society. I understand these people who are sad- they CAN be depressed, they don’t remember from where we come- they don’t remember the beautiful story of mutation- they don’t remember we were bacteria, fish, frog, monkey, and super-monkeys (as we are now).  They don’t know where we go- nobody seems to know that the sun will implode in four billion years and this world, as we know it- will be destroyed.  We have everything to invent between these events.  How can people understand, therefore, what they want unless they understand that? Of course! you will be depressed!

Q: Can art inform more than other media?

[Olafur Eliasson] People know what we need to know, for instance about climate change, and whilst there is a will to act – sometimes the simple pragmatic step, the tipping point where you say ‘right, now I’m going to see what I can actually do for myself’, sometimes needs a little trigger.  The kind of emotional convergence that cultural events or an artwork such as Ice Watch can offer makes explicit something that is profoundly emotional but also very theoretical.

Currently, our relationship to the climate challenge is highly theoretical.  It’s very much about data.  And it can be quite hard to turn this data into not just one demonstration a year, when there is a cough and you feel you really need to get out there and air your lungs, but how we live.  How do we make choices in our everyday life?  What type of food do we choose at the supermarket?  It’s down to these small things.

If I want to change, I must feel empowered. Art can help you feel a part of something, it also means you feel you are included in a system where your actions matter.

This is a very liberating feeling, because the worst feeling is when you feel that ‘oh it doesn’t matter what I do’.  When you feel disconnected, in my view you’re also more likely to be marginalised, because you start to lose the sense of the social grid in which you exist… you lose your sense of values, morals, ethics and so on… and you might even end up in a situation where you’re easily radicalised, where you feel alienated by the social network around you.

Art has long had an inclusive methodology, that makes people feel ‘I might not necessarily agree with the people I’m in the room with, but the fact that we actually share the room without having to agree is a strength’.

It’s a democratic premise of our society.  Inevitably, we will never all agree on everything.  But the success of us, as a species, is in how to be together without being the same.

Q: What is a ‘brand’ and how does that relate to design?

[Philippe Starck] We are in a society of too-much.  Too much of everything.  We are in a society of incredible richness of choice- which is good, and very bad.  Too many proposals kill the proposal! Too many products, kill the product.  At TED, a man spoke of how choice is a source of deep frustration and makes people unhappy when they buy something.  I feel it, I live it.  Now, you buy a car, a pair of jeans, an iPhone, a dress- whatever it is- you always have the feeling there was one better.

First, because there are so many to choose from, a better one the day after, or a better cheaper one two days later.  That is why buying is before everything now, a source of sadness. That’s why the brand- if it’s well done- if it’s not a big brand with strong power of manipulation- if it’s a brand with genuine thoughts- with fresh ideas- or a new idea- with a sort of ethic or different angle of view- you can refer to that to make you comfortable.  If I take example from my own world.  I become more of a brand, naturally, organically- not by activity.  We are very well balanced.  Half of the world hate us too much- half of the world love us too much.  This means, we will forget those who hate us- but for the people who love us, it is interesting.  If they need a chair, they read my interviews, seen my face on television.  They know me. Finally they think, I hate this guy- I shall never buy something from him- because he is not a believer- or I understand and love what he is, what his brand represents, and now if I have a choice between two chairs- same comfort, almost same look, and almost same price- I will go to this person, because I feel more comfortable.  That means a real brand (not a manipulation) is a sort of insurance, a comfort for when you buy things- and also allows you to comfortably live with the product- and in that sense, brands are not so bad.  When it is just the result of millions of dollars of advertising with huge technical manipulation- it means nothing.  But when you see a guy who has made some new shoes, a new brand- because he has made shoes from natural rubber- you can say, it’s stupid, or not, but you will love the brand.

During the years, I used to buy Sony products- because they had always made an effort in design.  Their products are always very smart.  I wouldn’t buy Sanyo- because Sanyo make business.  I shall choose Sony, because it has spirit.

Q: How does technology impact design?

[Philippe Starck] There are different ways to look at this.  One part will do, for design, what Napster did for music. Today, you have ‘superstar‘ designers, and then other professionals who make projects for important people- and then millions of people who stupidly want to make the same thing- but cannot.

Definitely today, with the internet there is the possibility (which should be encouraged) to give the opportunity for people to collaborate.  We have a young guy in Australia, who has designed a product for Alessi in Italy, or a young guy in China who designs the bedroom of an old woman in London, directly.  Like in Napster- where everyone can make their own album- everyone can now become a ‘Starck‘ which is fantastic.  But we shall see how it goes..

To develop the product itself, the computer mainly helps if you inject plastic.  Using a computer for metal or wood, and so forth is useless.  If you design today, a sophisticated plastic chair, you need a big computer and a lot of know-how.  When we made ‘Mr. Impossible’ I can tell you, without computer, it would have been very difficult.

This also brings me to one point about the future.  If we said the computer mainly helps win the battle of democratic design, insofar as it raises the quality and kills the price, and gives design to everyone- we have to know that in thirty or forty years, there will be no more oil, and while this is not a problem for energy for cars as we will have electricity, hydrogen, cold-fusion, and so on…  the reality is, no oil- no plastic.  We have to prepare, today, for the post-plastic era.

Nobody is thinking about this. Nobody is speaking about this! Nobody realises the incredible impact this will have on society- and the few people, like me, who are concerned- know there is no solution.  Eighty percent of the ‘first comforts‘ of people in the world are plastic basins.  They have built in Africa, for ten cents, shelter where- in the morning they wash their children, make their food at lunch, and at night- escape civil war.  Without plastic, they have no more comfort.

If we think that in thirty years there is no more oil for cars- in fifty years, there will be no more oil for plastic- maximum.  That means, only the rich will have access to the type of products which can be made only in plastic- this touches medicine, and a lot of other things.  That’s why there is a new type of ‘middle age’ which is coming- without plastic.  Some stupid people will say “no problem, we shall have bioplastic- we shall make corn, and make bioplastic.” No way!  All the scientists said the next famine will come around 2020/2022- that means today we kill the forests to make fields of corn, and other crops- to put gas in our cars and make a new Starck plastic chair? No way.  We are an ethical company since day one, and we refuse to use this technology.  Every day there is a new bio-plastic, and we have a question they cannot answer.  Can you eat the component which made this plastic? yes? or no? And mainly- it is yes.  And if you can eat it, we don’t do it.

Today, things are becoming more complicated.  There is a great company who makes plastic from oil a crop which cannot be eaten- but you have to make fields for this oil- and these fields could be corn, which could be eaten.  Today, there is strictly no solution for the post-plastic era.

Q: How can art inform social enterprise?

[Olafur Eliasson] As an artist, I have often worked with light, and for me, it’s interesting that light is both something everyday (I mean, I need it to get up early in the morning) and also something spiritual.  Light is so fundamental for everything and that is true for everyone in the world. Light is the reason why lettuce grows in my garden, so when I eat salad, I actually eat light.

At some point I realised that working as an artist, I was very much only working in the so-called Global North, in Western Society, and lately I’ve been lucky to be working more in the rest of the world.  So, I said to myself… I want to see if I can do something which is both a work of art and yet also practical, and that is my Little Sun project. It is about safety, about avoiding snakes in the field when you walk through it at night, and it’s also about fun and partying.  It’s about meeting friends.

And the idea of harvesting energy from the sun, holding a solar light in your hand, is, I think, a profoundly empowering feeling. You can go out during the day and, with your own little power station, harvest the light that you use to nourish your evening. 

Q: Do we need art to more inform our civic and product design? 

[Olafur Eliasson] Art has a long tradition of considering non-quantifiable criteria for judging its success.

Art alone is great, it can be great art… but I believe in reaching out to partners to work with, to have an impact.  I’m very interested in forming strategic alliances. We need to work with politicians.  We need them because they are actually important.  We also need the private sector, because that is important too.  There is no need to insist on art being alone.

As an artist, I believe I can contribute something unique to society, but I need the public sector and the private sector to succeed.

Q: Can everyone be an artist?

[Olafur Eliasson] If people concentrate and have focus, they can participate in the cultural sector in one way or another. I think we should avoid suggesting that making art or being an artist or part of the art world is about being inside or outside a certain in-group. I’m very much against the elitist idea that being an artist is in any way higher or more important or more giving to society than anything else.  I don’t think that’s the case.

Art is more like a language with which you can say things that are otherwise hard to say.  And in that way, it’s more about, what do you have to say?  What do you want to say?  And finding the best language to do so.  And sometimes the best language is art.  It’s dance, it’s beauty, it’s a book.  And so, if we say that everybody can be an artist, it’s more about the fact that everyone can learn or co-create this language.


It would seem that design has two intrinsic and entwined dimensions.

Firstly, design is the experienced (utilitarian) manifestation of human ingenuity and imagination in the continual process of improving our lives (be that through better tools, scientific, economic, social and technological  innovations, better furniture, cleaner vehicles, and so forth) and secondly, design is the aesthetic of humanity- the visual evidence that we exist.

This latter element, humanity’s aesthetic if you will, is the more profound and visceral.  Humanity has, since our pre-history, been fascinated with the ‘why’ of our existence.  Asking the question of whether we exist at all, Philosopher David Lund suggested, “I argue that I have direct awareness of myself – that ‘I’ is a referring expression and that when I use it to refer to myself, I refer to a subject known to me by acquaintance.  This is the ground of the unity if my experiences at a time, as well as across time… Their unity consists simply in the fact that all of them are mine…” meaning- we know we exist by virtue of the fact that we are aware of having experiences ourselves (as principals rather than observers).

Moving to the question of ‘why‘ we exist, we must change our perspective from ‘principal’ to ‘observer’. In Kantian metaphysics, this is described as the distinction between ‘things’ as they are in themselves (noumena) and as they appear in our experiences of them (phenomena).

To apply this to humanity, the sensation of existence, and our perception of our world is considered ‘phenomena‘ and the nature of humanity itself, and its place in nature and within ‘the grander scheme of things’ (whether you believe it to be mechanical, or spiritual) is ‘noumena‘.  Arthur Schopenhauer accepted and developed this thought process, “In my experience of myself” he argued, “I can observe myself externally- that is, as a material body subject to the laws of physics.  But to know myself as a subject is to know my very essence, and thus to know myself as noumenon rather than phenomenon.  Furthermore, my essential self, everyone’s essential self, the self as such, is Will- a will to live, a will to exist.  The appearance of the external body and its behaviour is simply the phenomenal appearance of my will.”

We could argue that humanity’s aesthetic, therefore, is the phenomenal appearance of a deeply intuitive will- that being our dichotomy; our need to both assert, and understand our existence.

If we refer back to Lund’s explanation of existence, we see his rationale to be highly intuitive- insofar as we, as beings, ‘know‘ we exist.  This answer is instant, conclusive, and requires no real thought to justify it.  This is the test of intuitive thinking- answers without questions.

We humans, though, have never been ones to settle for answers like that- and instead, prefer to ask deep questions of even the most intuitive parts of our existence.  This primal need to question is, paradoxically driven by intuition itself.  The intuitive sensation that we don’t know enough, that we must question- a sense which is perhaps just as important as sight, sound, touch, and hearing- as without it, we wouldn’t be human.

As Philippe Starck said, “First you have intuition, which brings vision, which builds an ethic, which will give birth to a concept, and finally, perhaps, which will make a product.  The product is at the absolute end of the process, and never in reverse.  That is why, perhaps, I make things which have a little more echo than others.

For us, as humans.  The ‘need to question’ is our intuition, our imagination is our vision.  Our culture becomes our ethic- our beliefs, values, desires, sensibilities, modes of expressions and behaviour? those are our concepts- which manifest in the ultimate product. Us.

That is why we design.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.