Bright Starck

13th January 2010 (Last Updated January 13th, 2010 18:30)

Internationally renowned for his refashioning of consumer gadgets and hi-tech furniture, design maestro Philippe Starck now has his sights set on the tectonic world of residential real estate. Laura Henderson quizzes the man with many plans.

Bright Starck

“It’s fun to take risks, to be alive. Without risk you don’t deserve to live.’ It’s a compelling philosophy that has served design supremo Philippe Starck well during his 40-year career, one that has spanned businesses as diverse as boutique hotels and haute-couture luggage, to motorcycles and organic foods. Impossible to typecast, the international press have embraced his controversial genius, ascribing generous column inches to his whacky ‘Starckisms’ such as: ‘I don’t believe in God. I believe more in humans and in synthetic materials,’’ and ‘‘I’m a modern autist.’’

Starck recently graced British TV screens as the frontman for BBC2 reality series Design for Life, where he shared his experience and wisdom with a hand-picked posse of aspiring, young hopefuls – one of whom secured a job as his apprentice in his Paris studio. As with all reality shows, it was a masterclass in self-promotion, although Starck would probably agree that designing his own celebrity has been one of his greatest achievements.

Born and raised in Paris, Starck’s creative calling has been lifelong. Much of his childhood was spent crouched beneath his father’s drafting table, cutting, sticking and pasting together all manner of household objects from toys to kitchen gadgets. Indeed, he credits his father, an aircraft designer, with giving him the ‘‘fire in his belly to invent’’.

“My job is like a film director. I have to tell a story and print the strongest memory of the place on everyone who visits.”

His foray into interior design in his twenties, notably his louche 70s Paris nightclub makeovers, were followed by a stint as an art director for Pierre Cardin. It wasn’t until 1982, however, when Starck was commissioned by the French President Francois Mitterand to bring his private chambers in the Élysées Palace back to life that his creative brilliance truly began to shine through. Two decades and numerous commissions later, big-name designers still set great store by his statement interiors and quirky gadgets, while his larger-than-life personality continues to draw public scrutiny. It’s this accessibility, coupled with his deftness at playing the press, that has kept him in the spotlight.

House proud

His foray into commercial interiors, working with top-name boutique hoteliers, has been a career highlight, with the Hudson in New York, St Martin’s Lane in London and the Peninsula in Hong Kong amongst others, heralding a new order in Starck-branded luxury lodgings. Now, with the fickle world of residential real estate beckoning, he is working his magic once again; this time on a portfolio of exclusive residences. Located on Wall Street in New York’s bustling Tribeca district, the sleek architectural lines of Morgan House, the one-time financial headquarters of American banking conglomerate JP Morgan Chase and Co, have been rehoned into ‘Downtown’, a futuristic paradise island of 326 individually designed homes.

Spread over 42-storeys, layout floor plans from studio units at $650,000 to sprawling three-bedroom penthouses for $4.5m upwards have been given the inimitable Starck treatment down to the Swarovski chandeliers, Venetian glass mirrors and matching glass sconces. ‘Standard’ essentials range from white quartz counters and stainless steel Jenn-Air and Bosch appliances to bespoke design faucets and fluted light fixtures, while bathrooms take centre stage with their refuge areas, Thassos marble floors and stainless steel vanities. Head to the roof and a 5,000ft² aerial front garden overlooks New York’s bustling Stock Exchange, the trees and teak decking surrounded by a topiary wall and pool-fed by a giant faucet.

Beneath the building, among a vast system of bank vaults, lies a giant bowling lane. As landmark projects go, Downtown is gamely serving its purpose, upping the desirability stakes in a new-look Lower Manhattan.

But for Starck, the project’s significance is more about ‘opportunity,’ than personal kudos, a core aspiration he sees as lacking in today’s society, one in which ‘‘nobody dreams’’ and where ‘‘scope is limited’’.

Much of his restless creativity, can, it seems, be explained by a longing to improve the human condition by reshaping living environments. While he readily admits that a lot of his earlier work in the 80s and 90s was influenced by ‘‘fashion and novelty’’, his design values now champion the core essentials of longevity and durability; a transition helped by seeking insight from scientists, physicists and cosmologists.

‘‘For me, designing a toothbrush or a property interior is the same thing – the key is that the object or space gives a bit of life to whoever uses or inhabits it. Everything I do must fit within the bigger picture of this human story. Everything outside that frame is absolutely useless. Of course I don’t always succeed. I can make mistakes and occasionally I can be stupid, but all of my life, I must use my tools as a designer to serve my fellow humans.’’

“Everything I do must fit within the bigger picture of this human story. Everything outside that frame is absolutely useless.”

Committed to equipping homeowners with the essentials to ‘‘define their living environment,’’ Starck is spearheading the crusade for democratic architecture, creating prototypes for newbuild homes – concepts for living, he explains, that will make it easier for people to avoid costly mistakes and create their own home and life.

‘‘As a designer of a restaurant or a hotel, my job is like a film director. I have to tell a story and print the strongest memory of the place on everyone who visits. For private spaces, it’s the opposite. I provide people with a space that has the best-quality plan, the best proportions, the best volumes and the best materials. In private space my role is to protect the energy and love of the young couple or family. Their job is to get on with their life.’’

A serial homeowner himself, securing ‘best-quality space’ is a philosophy he wholeheartedly embraces: his ‘multi-tasking’ abodes serving as both sacred family retreats from his ‘manic schedule’ and, as high-octane workstations.

Happiest, and, he adds ‘‘at his most productive’’ stretched out in bed with a pencil and pad in hand, his loyal entourage of personal assistants have grown accustomed to his irreverent work practices. For Starck, however, being comfortable means being ready to work, irrespective of location.

‘‘My real job is dreaming. I have the same drawing paper, the same drawing pad I have used for 25 years. I do everything entirely alone.’’

Idiosyncratic he may be. But it’s allowed – every genius has his edge.