A Conversation with Philippe Starck, Creator, On Art, Design, Technology & Human Civilisation.

Philippe Starck, world famous creator with multifaceted inventiveness, is always focused on the essential, his vision: that creation, whatever form it takes, must improve the lives of as many people as possible. This philosophy has made him one of the pioneers and central figures of the concept of “democratic design”.

By employing his prolific work across all domains, from everyday products (furniture, a citrus squeezer, electric bikes, an individual wind turbine), to architecture (hotels, restaurants that aspire to be stimulating places) and naval and spatial engineering (mega yachts, habitation module for private space tourism), he continually pushes the boundaries and requirements of design, becoming one of the most visionary and renowned creators of the international contemporary scene. Philippe Starck and his wife, Jasmine, spend most of their time on airplanes or in “middles of nowhere“.

In this interview, I speak to Philippe Starck about art, design, the human body, technology, beauty, legacy and the very essence of human civilisation.

Q: Is the human body art?

[Philippe Starck]: We are not only art… we are bigger than that. Our body has a relationship with magic, there is so much we don’t understand. We are science – which is more interesting than art – but also, we are creation and that is the main thing. The essence of the human body is creation – art is not enough.

Q: What is the essence of human civilisation?

[Philippe Starck]: On top of civilisation, we are animals. We are the only species who have taken control of their evolution. We are animals who – one day – had an idea to become better. Billions of us have worked to make ourselves better – that’s why we created the concept of God, an entity that is everywhere, that is powerful, that is the master of everything, that gives us a unique model for our society. Now we know God doesn’t exist, and so we know we are better than that notion of God. We have become so intelligent, yet some people continue to believe in this old model, they need that carrot.

Civilisation is the organisation of evolution. It is the goal of evolution.

The evolution that took us from bacteria to monkey, to what we shall become, is a 4-billion-year story. It’s the most beautiful book you could read, the most beautiful movie you could see.

After civilisation, we go down – we see society, community, our family, ourselves. It is difficult to evaluate ourselves without civilisation, those are not the rules. We need to see ourselves as part of the highest and furthers context possible and not just look at our feet.

Q: Why do we decorate ourselves with colour and jewels?

[Philippe Starck]: We didn’t invent jewels to be seen by god; it is because there was no electricity. We can see it on paintings- the rich are covered with jewels, they have bright colours, but they have five candles in the room. With very little light, they needed jewels and bright clothes to be seen. The poor didn’t exist, you couldn’t see them. They were dressed in brown, even in the dark with candlelight they were invisible. It’s only the existence of electricity which gave us the possibility to be dressed by Rei Kawakobo or Yohji Yamamoto. We couldn’t wear black in the middle ages, it wasn’t possible.

Q: Do products serve us, or do we serve them?

[Philippe Starck]: The right product has to serve the human. The one that doesn’t serve the human being is not a good product – it doesn’t deserve to exist if it is only to make money. We work to make money and with this money we buy things in order to have a better life. That’s why- theoretically- honesty requires us to have useful products around us, if not – it’s our duty to not buy it, it’s useless.

The first thing to do for our ecology is not to use less electricity, it’s to cease buying things that are not useful.

Q: What does luxury mean to you?

[Philippe Starck]: Luxury doesn’t exist for any other reason than to show your money. Instead of luxury, let us speak of quality. If you make a product of quality, the wealthy person will see it is the right material, that it is well done, created to last and made with heritage and honesty. That is quality. We cannot confuse looks and quality. We need the intelligence to recognise the quality of things – there is shit everywhere, but there is also quality.

After quality let’s speak about aesthetic. I don’t care about aesthetic, it’s not reliable, it’s fashion. You will say today something is beautiful, you will say in a year that it is shit, and then a few years later that it is beautiful again. If you are a producer, you must avoid trendy things. Longevity is the most important parameter.

Instead of getting compliments about aesthetic, I prefer that people buy my creations with a qualitative purpose, because it is well-made and smart. It’s our duty to only buy things that we need, and more so to buy good products, not beautiful products. If a product is really good, time will give it the justice of beauty -that’s real beauty, intelligence beauty, honest beauty.

Q: How does technology relate to design?

[Philippe Starck]: Technology is a part of life, like electricity. We don’t say, ‘I have electricity! ‘I use electricity!’ – we use electricity like we breathe oxygen, it’s fundamental.

We are geniuses. We can create anything. We create the same amount of shit as we do intelligent things. The direction is ours to choose. We can choose the good in technology – or we can spend 12 hours behind a screen and have no more life. Or perhaps, we create a new type of life working with technology… we shall have to wait to see the result.

We must never confuse the pipe with the content. Today, we are fascinated by the pipe and nobody thinks of what is within. There is a pipe full of intelligence, and a pipe full of shit. You have to choose the good one, not the fascinating one.

Q: What is the duty of design?

[Philippe Starck]: We don’t design the world; we design for us and for our children. We almost don’t understand what we do, it’s an intuition. The people who will follow will not need to understand, they will be born with this life.

Life is just receiving a rope from your parents. A rope of a certain quality, with a certain diameter and of a certain material. Your only duty is to take the rope and try to make a better one. Your only duty is to make the best rope you can for your children, for the next generation. I don’t care what they will do with the rope- it’s not my job. Don’t listen to my opinion about the rope, just make what you want, make what you can, but make it better.

Q: What does legacy mean to you?

[Philippe Starck]: I don’t care about legacy, it’s an old idea because we don’t consume time like we did before. Time is now simultaneous – before, it was linear. Today it is a wall in front of us. When time is a wall, there is no place for legacy.

I just want to be seen as good for the people who live with my products and projects. When I die, all I want is that some people think that I was honest, that I worked hard, that I was a little cuckoo, maybe not nice sometimes, but that every day I woke up, tried to find something for our evolution, for our civilisation, for our society. I want people to see me as someone who did things, who was not lazy.

You know, I was very friendly with Steve Jobs. Steve was god. Two weeks after he died, people stopped talking about him – they consumed his life, and everything.

People who spend their time building legacy lose their time. They try to make themselves in the image of the Egyptian Pharos who built the pyramids. The pyramids were never made for legacy. The flow of the Nile changed every winter the land was underwater, and people fought. The Pharos, to stop people fighting, created these huge mausoleums – it kept the people occupied. Sometimes they lived a long time, and didn’t die, and in that case, they built another mausoleum. This was not legacy; this was about occupying people. It was smart, it was to avoid war.

When I think about death, I don’t even want to be cremated – all of that work, for nothing. My apartment in Paris overlooks a beautiful cemetery. Every morning when I brush my teeth, I see this cemetery and think perhaps there could be a sculpture of me, but a small ridiculous one. The best gift I could give to people is to avoid their admiration. There are some people who have admiration for me, but even they will need to accept that I was ridiculous by looking at this sculpture. It is, as they say, to kill the father. This is a fantasy though; I shall never do it.

I have a 23-years age gap with my wife. Perhaps we shall work with a company who can compress my ashes into a diamond, so she can have her husband on a ring. I love the idea that after I am gone, if she has lovers – which I hope she does -, she will have to take her husband off her hand and put me in a drawer.

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.